Uncle Tom
From Martyr to Traitor
Adena Spingarn, Foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


Contents and Abstracts
1 A Manly Hero
chapter abstract

This chapter lays out the origins of the figure of Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. It suggests that Stowe characterizes Uncle Tom as a model of Christian political reform and universal masculine ideal who combines deep emotional sensitivity with a willingness to act selflessly. Situating the novel in its contemporaneous reception both by proponents of slavery and by abolitionists, this chapter goes on to show that, through the character of Uncle Tom, Uncle Tom's Cabin dramatizes a tension central to abolitionist debates of the time: between natural rights and religious obligations. Ultimately, Stowe's sentimental characterization advances the novel's most radical assertions of the possibility of racial equality and the natural human right to freedom.

2 Uncle Tom on the American Stage
chapter abstract

This chapter examines the political and cultural influence of the many popular Uncle Tom's Cabin dramas staged all over the nation in the decade after the publication of Stowe's novel, including important adaptations by George L. Aiken and H. J. Conway. Widely viewed as complementary to the anti-slavery message of Stowe's novel, these plays disrupted existing minstrel stereotypes by making Uncle Tom an unusually dignified and sympathetic character despite the use of blackface. Proponents of slavery objected to this character because his virtuous, dignified persona advanced a seemingly dangerous idea: that a slave could be equal and even superior to whites. As the responses of American audiences across social classes and regions demonstrate, this character played an enormous role in galvanizing the North against slavery.

3 Uncle Tom and Jim Crow
chapter abstract

This chapter examines the figure of Uncle Tom in post-Civil War culture, as Americans continued reading Stowe's novel and attending dramatic adaptations but also debated the political future of "Uncle Tom." Despite the formal variety of the adaptations, nineteenth-century Americans understood an assortment of the Uncle Tom's Cabin dramas as part of the same anti-slavery ideological tradition as the novel, and they consistently described the character of Uncle Tom as sympathetic, dignified, and manly. While white conservatives including Thomas Dixon insisted that there had never been a black man as virtuous and intelligent as Uncle Tom, black Americans both attended the Uncle Tom's Cabin plays and participated in them as jubilee singers. Describing Uncle Tom as a uniquely humanized black stage character, Bob Cole and James Weldon Johnson praised the plays for their role in ending slavery and asserted their relevancy to racial injustices such as lynching.

4 Writing the Old Negro
chapter abstract

This chapter explores the literary status of the Uncle Tom character after Reconstruction, as writers from a variety of political perspectives emulated Stowe's methods of characterization. While conservative white writers such as Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page rewrote Stowe's character as part of an increasingly glorified cultural mythology of the Old South, black writers including Charles Chesnutt and Mary Church Terrell saw Uncle Tom as a potential model of politically effective, emotionally powerful characterization that could be applied to representations of modern black life. This chapter also examines James Weldon Johnson's 1917 adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a defiant cry against the racial violence of the Jim Crow era, one that represents Uncle Tom as a testament to black resilience and strength.

5 Uncle Toms and New Negroes
chapter abstract

This chapter argues that Uncle Tom's pejorative meaning developed in the mainstream black political discourse of the 1910s, alongside the shifting rhetoric of the New Negro. At the turn of the twentieth century, Booker T. Washington and other prominent black leaders promoted a doctrine of self-help and civilization, asserting that hard work and cultivation were the manliest and most effective means of advancement. Yet the rise of Jim Crow as well as major educational, political, and geographical shifts in black communities produced disagreements about leadership and protest strategies. As a younger generation of leaders embraced a more assertive definition of masculinity and described the Washingtonian New Negroes as Old Negroes whose Southern slave mentality was an active threat to the race's progress, Uncle Tom, the perpetual Old Negro, transformed from an unthreatening old slave to an old-fashioned leader who reproduced the dynamics of slavery.

6 Writing Off Uncle Tom
chapter abstract

This chapter documents the 1930s emergence of condemnations of "Uncle Tom types" in popular culture. Despite Alain Locke's optimistic declaration of the passing of Uncle Tom, critique of the Uncle Tom character type first cropped up in the tensions between older and younger Harlem Renaissance writers with competing visions for black literature. However, censure of this character did not develop until the 1930s, when, informed by research showing the social and psychological influence of the movies, black Americans protested the continued proliferation of the Uncle Tom type in American culture, and especially in Hollywood. This critique of "Uncle Tom roles" and the new group of black celebrities who accepted them ultimately made African Americans reject Uncle Tom's Cabin and its eponymous character.