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

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Chapter 6

Writing Off Uncle Tom

Perhaps no one used the “Uncle Tom” slur more frequently than did the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who often railed against those who, he asserted, “allow[ed] themselves to be used [by whites] even as Uncle Tom and his bunch were used for hundreds of years.”1 When a group of black men and women warned the U.S. attorney general about Garvey’s threatening tactics against rivals, he published a pamphlet titled “Eight ‘Uncle Tom’ Negroes” (1923).2 Yet while he was serving time in prison for mail fraud in 1925, Garvey’s wife published a volume of his writings and advertised it as “A Second Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the appeal of Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress.”3 Revising Stowe’s call in Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Americans to “see to it that they feel right,” the advertisement heralded “A Book that will set you Thinking Right,” positing intellect, rather than emotion, as the most effective means of transforming American politics. Garvey was hardly the first writer, black or white, to hope that his book would achieve the popularity and influence of Stowe’s famous novel, but he was probably the first to use the Uncle Tom epithet so liberally while doing so.

By the 1920s, the political threat of the “Uncle Tom Negro” was clear to many black Americans. Yet the status of Uncle Tom in literature and popular culture was far less clear-cut. While James Weldon Johnson, as we have seen, found political, spiritual, and aesthetic value in the story of Uncle Tom, most black critics of his era saw nothing to gain from nineteenth-century literary aesthetics and topics. In the 1910s and 1920s, black critics called for American literature to forsake the old types and represent the Negro of the new day using the techniques of realism. Writing for The Dial in 1916, Benjamin Brawley reminded readers that “[t]he day of Uncle Remus as well as of Uncle Tom is over,” dismissing the postbellum and antebellum Old Negroes in one fell swoop.4 A decade later, Alain Locke’s triumphant introduction to his era-defining collection, The New Negro (1925), echoed Brawley by announcing that “[t]he days of ‘aunties,’ ‘uncles’ and ‘mammies’ is . . . gone. Uncle Tom and Sambo have passed on.”5 These optimistic declarations of the passing of Uncle Tom and the Old Negro celebrated a liberation that was both historical and aesthetic: not only were the days of slavery over but so, too, were the sentimental methods of characterization typically used in representing it. With the Old Negro safely ensconced in the literary past, the New Negro writer would replace the old-fashioned sentimentalism and outworn characters of the past with a modern realist aesthetic and proud racial expression.

How could Locke, the Howard University professor who would become the “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, so breezily dismiss Uncle Tom at the same time that many of his peers harshly derided “Uncle Tom Negroes” for impeding the race’s progress? As we have seen, anger at “Uncle Tom Negroes” in politics required a widening pool of race leaders and the emergence of a younger generation who, frustrated with social and political stagnation, blamed those who came before them. In literary culture, a forceful critique of the Uncle Tom character developed in much the same way, first cropping up in the tensions between older and younger Harlem Renaissance writers with competing visions for black literature. However, vigorous censure of the Uncle Tom character did not develop until the late 1930s and early 1940s, when black Americans, armed with social scientific research showing the influence of popular culture, protested the continued proliferation of the Uncle Tom type in American culture, and especially in American film. Uncle Tom images of subservience and inferiority in popular culture were now just as pernicious as Uncle Tom behavior and thinking in real life.

Characterizing Uncle Tom

With the triumphant debut of the New Negro, Alain Locke and other critics of his era believed that sentimental fiction’s Uncle Tom type was certain to retreat. Indeed, for the jubilant, forward-looking writers and thinkers of the 1920s, it was as if the “tortured past could be erased with rhetorical flourish and fiat, with the mere proclamation of ‘the new.’6 In Locke’s introduction to The New Negro, he casually dismissed this figure both aesthetically and historically. While Locke’s New Negro is vibrantly alive, exerting agency and power through his creative and critical efforts, his Old Negro is a set of abstractions: “more a myth than a man,” “more of a formula than a human being,” and “a stock figure perpetuated as an historical fiction.”7 The essay does not tell readers what this figure looked like, where and when he came from, how he behaved, or what he believed. It even displays skepticism about whether he ever existed. Locke’s account of the transition from old to new invoked several metaphors of slipping off an outer shell of old thinking—“slip[ping] from under,” “shaking off,” “shedding the old chrysalis”—and thereby revealing an inner sensibility that was previously “suppressed.”8 Envisioning a New Negro literature defined by contemporary racial expression, he suggested that one could throw off the vestiges of the Old Negro as easily as one could remove an ill-fitting jacket.

At the same time that Locke and other critics heralded the future of “Negro literature,” a category that until at least the 1930s included literature both by and about black Americans, they also assessed American literary history.9 And they concluded that, as William Stanley Braithwaite observed, the Negro had for generations “been accorded as little artistic justice as social justice.”10 Deriding sentimentalism and melodrama as the regressive literary tools of white Southern conservatives, black critics championed realism as an inherently progressive literary mode. Although Locke believed that for the most part “literature has merely registered rather than moulded public sentiment” about the Negro, he was confident that realism would significantly expand the social power of literary characters, transforming them from evidence of social views to shapers of racial attitudes.11 In his introduction to The New Negro, Locke described sentimentality as a “social distemper” whose cure was realism; satire and irony were “good medicines for the common mind” and “necessary antidotes against social poison.”12 This faith in the power of realism extended into the 1930s, with Locke theorizing realism as a “saving grace” against Old Negro stereotypes and Sterling Brown describing social realism as a “sharper weapon” than melodrama for molding public opinion, a mode that gave “the greatest justice to Negro life and character.”13

Given the path-breaking prominence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in American literary and political history, it was no surprise that New Negroes used the figure of Uncle Tom to symbolize the sentimental Old Negro literature against which they defined themselves. But how could any champion of realism explain the extraordinary influence of a novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a work H. L. Mencken derided as the apotheosis of mid-nineteenth-century sentimental romanticism?14 And how could one easily dismiss Uncle Tom, a character who Braithwaite acknowledged was “unequalled in its hold upon the popular imagination to this day”?15 Ultimately, critics had to accept a paradox in which it was true both that realism was more politically powerful than sentimental romanticism and that the most influential novel in the nation’s history was, as they saw it, sentimental romanticism of the worst kind. Both Braithwaite and Locke censured Stowe’s novel for its melodrama and stereotypes but ascribed its historical effectiveness to precisely these aesthetic offenses. For Braithwaite, the problem with Stowe’s Uncle Tom was the form rather than the content of his character. Describing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “sentimentalized sympathy for a down-trodden race,” he suggested that “the moral gain and historical effect of Uncle Tom have been an artistic loss and setback. The treatment of Negro life and character, overlaid with these forceful stereotypes, could not develop into artistically satisfactory portraiture.”16 Locke soon echoed Braithwaite’s assertion by observing in his 1926 essay “American Literary Tradition and the Negro” that Stowe’s novel, with its “melodramatic stereotypes,” showed that “[t]he artistic costs of all revolutions and moral reforms is high.”17

Caught in this tension between realist aesthetics and the revolutionary power of Stowe’s novel, Locke and other Harlem Renaissance critics advanced a critique of the Uncle Tom character that was largely aesthetic. Locke suggested that the white South had “borrowed [Stowe’s Uncle Tom] back as counter-propaganda” in order to “glorify the lost tradition and balm [its] inferiority complex after the defeat.”18 In Locke’s view, realism gave power to the white South’s “refurbished” Uncle Tom character.19 He suggested that the postbellum “old Negro” character had ultimately usurped Stowe’s character in Northern public opinion because fiction writers such as Thomas Nelson Page and George Washington Cable had used the literary tools of realism to “paint . . . more convincingly human and real” characters.20 Page and Cable had used the right mode (realism) for the wrong subject (the devoted servant). Locke wanted these literary methods to be turned toward representing the New Negro.

New Negro critics who found proof in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance of a new aesthetic and an emancipatory mentality were confident that the days of Uncle Tom were over. But to writers who operated outside of Locke’s camp and still felt that their expression was shackled, the character seemed more relevant. Modernist writers and critics including Wallace Thurman and George Schuyler positioned their work not against previous portrayals of the race, as Locke did, but rather opposite the race’s ongoing demand for “respectable” literature, in which black characters “must always appear in public butter side up.”21 Thurman chose to open the first (and only) issue of Fire!! by thumbing his nose at readers who demanded such respectability, publishing a sketch in which the narrator casually recalls his unwitting role in turning a promiscuous young woman into a prostitute.22 Only at the very end of the issue did Thurman directly address the question of how the Negro should be represented in literature—and he argued that the question itself was a ridiculous one. Authors should concern themselves with whatever catches their interest, he maintained. Limiting literary characters to the race’s “well bred, well behaved church-going majorities” meant pigeon-holing the race anew, creating characters that were “as ridiculous and false to type as the older school of pseudo-humorous, sentimental writers made their Uncle Toms, the[ir] Topsys, and their Mammies, or as the Octavus Roy Cohen school now make their more modern ‘cullud’ folk.”23 Such limits would get no closer to the serious and realistic portrayals that both Thurman and Locke advocated.

In using a comparison with Uncle Tom and his ilk to criticize other black writers, Thurman began a tradition of invoking Uncle Tom for intraracial literary critique, one that would fade during the Depression era, when the Harlem Renaissance was no longer in vogue, and resume in the late 1930s. Just as the figure of Uncle Tom allowed black political leaders to denounce their contemporaries, alluding to Stowe’s novel and its characters enabled writers to charge their literary rivals with being exactly the “Old Negroes” against whom those rivals had positioned themselves. Often, this critique worked through an accusation of old-fashioned sentimentalism. In a 1927 New Republic essay, “Negro Artists and the Negro,” Thurman extended the critique he had initiated in Fire!! by equating the “respectable” literature often demanded by black readers and “sentimental whites” with the sentimental fiction of the past.24 Connecting submissiveness, the feminine mode of sentimentalism, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Thurman’s critique of Walter White’s Fire in the Flint (1924) as “a direct descendant of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” anticipates James Baldwin’s takedown of Richard Wright in “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949).25 According to Thurman, White’s novel, with its suffering black martyrs and evil Southern whites, is a typical romantic propaganda, “follow[ing] the conventional theme in the conventional manner.”26 Using Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a tool of intraracial critique, Thurman differentiated himself from the writers and works to which he objected by suggesting that they not only used the same literary conventions as white-authored texts but also produced the same responses in readers: head-shaking protest for sympathetic whites, outrage for blacks. These works, Thurman concluded, produced little more than feelings. Like the Uncle Tom leaders who counseled moderation, writers of the 1920s did not produce the transformative change they claimed.

The figure of Uncle Tom also proved useful for questioning the New Negro’s account of American history. In “The New Negro Hokum” (1928), Gustavus Adolphus Stewart disparaged the political and artistic manifestations of the New Negro movement as nothing more than publicity stunts. Building on the skepticism of George Schuyler’s “The Negro-Art Hokum” (1926), Stewart’s essay challenges the typical 1920s account of a racial transformation from the old Uncle Tom type to the New Negro, in which before the Great Migration and World War I “only ‘old’ Negroes peopled the land, ‘old’ Negroes being the wooly headed Uncle Toms, bland and obsequious, spineless and grinning, tale bearing and treacherous, accepting obloquy with one hand and old clothes with the other from their adored white patrons.”27 This image, a conflation of the Old Negro and a traitorous Uncle Tom, allowed the purported New Negroes to claim for themselves resisting attitudes and behavior that in fact had always been in evidence in the black community. In lieu of this popular account of sudden racial transformation, Stewart insisted that much of the race’s past and present progress in politics, education, and popular culture relied on precisely the “old” Negro that the New Negroes were so quick to dismiss. What none of these critics realized, however, is that the Old Negro would resurge on the silver screen with greater cultural power than ever.

Notes

1. “Mr. Garvey’s Speech,” Negro World, September 17, 1921, in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and American Culture, ed. Stephen Railton, accessed July 25, 2010, http://utc.iath.virginia.edu.

2. Judith Stein, The World of Marcus Garvey: Race and Class in Modern Society (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), 166–169.

3. Advertisement, Washington Post, December 20, 1925. The same language appeared in full-page advertisements published in the Worker’s Herald (March 27, 1926, at 5) and the Gold Coast Leader (March 27, 1926, at 3). Robert A. Hill, ed., The Marcus Garvey and Universal Negro Improvement Association Papers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 10: 368.

4. Brawley, The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States (New York: Duffield, 1918), 157; originally printed as “The Negro in American Fiction,” The Dial, May 11, 1916, 445–450.

5. Alain Locke, “The New Negro,” in The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 3.

6. Deborah E. McDowell, “Telling Slavery in ‘Freedom’s’ Time: Post-Reconstruction and the Harlem Renaissance,” in The Cambridge Companion to the African American Slave Narrative, ed. Audrey Fisch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 163.

7. Locke, “The New Negro,” 3.

8. Ibid., 4.

9. In a 1929 speech to Oberlin students, Charles Chesnutt observed that the contemporary category of “Negro literature” included “books by colored writers and books about the Negro.” Chesnutt, “The Negro in Present Day Fiction,” in Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches, ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., Robert C. Leitz III, and Jesse S. Crisler (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 518.

10. William Stanley Braithwaite, “The Negro in American Literature,” in Locke, The New Negro, 29. On the relationship between realism and American racial politics, see Kenneth W. Warren, Black and White Strangers: Race and American Literary Realism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

11. Alain Locke, “American Literary Tradition and the Negro,” in Interracialism: Black-White Intermarriage in American History, Literature, and Law, ed. Werner Sollors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 272. Sollors identifies a 1916 Modern Quarterly as the essay’s source, but this appears to be a typo; in fact, Modern Quarterly did not begin publication until 1923, and the essay appeared in 1926.

12. Alain Locke, “Negro Youth Speaks,” in The New Negro, 52.

13. Alain Locke, “The Saving Grace of Realism: Retrospective Review of the Negro Literature of 1933,” Opportunity 13 (January 1934); Sterling Brown, Negro Poetry and Drama and the Negro in American Fiction (New York: Atheneum, 1969), 4, 82. Characteristic of Brown’s faith in realism are the discussion questions he attached to his account; one asks, “Why would realism improve poetry about Negro life?” (102).

14. Henry Louis Mencken, A Book of Prefaces (New York: Knopf, 1917), 214. Along with Dickens’ David Copperfield and Alexandre Dumas’ La dame aux camélias, H. L. Mencken placed Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which he dismissed as a “crude politico-puritan tract,” in a group of three texts that exemplified mid-nineteenth-century sentimental romanticism. Lea Jacobs, The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 16. On the challenges Uncle Tom’s Cabin posed to literary realists, see Warren, Black and White Strangers, 72–108.

15. William Stanley Braithwaite, “The Negro in American Literature,” in Locke, The New Negro, 30.

16. Ibid., 30–31.

17. Locke, “American Literary Tradition,” 272.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Wallace Thurman, “Negro Artists and the Negro,” New Republic, August 31, 1927, 198.

22. See Wallace Thurman, “Cordelia the Crude,” Fire!! 1.1 (November 1926), 5–6.

23. Wallace Thurman, “Fire Burns: A Department of Comment,” Fire!! 1.1 (November 1926), 47, 48. Note: in the original essay, Octavus is misspelled as “Octavius.”

24. Thurman, “Negro Artists and the Negro,” 199.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Gustavus Adolphus Stewart, “The New Negro Hokum,” Social Forces 6.3 (March 1928): 439.