BOB GARFIELD: While America grapples with its image problem abroad, there are plenty of battles here at home, and race is a constant combat zone. Epithets like "Uncle Tom" are fired like bullets, most often by African-Americans accusing each other of not being "black enough." But the Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel is not the shuffling, submissive character most people picture when they hear that name. As the 150th anniversary of that landmark book draws to a close, WNYC's Allison Keyes offers this look at the fluctuating image of Uncle Tom.
ALLISON KEYES: Seventeen year old Anthony Jones, walking the halls of New York's Historical Society on a class tour, has never read the book Uncle Tom's Cabin, but he knows he'd be angry if someone called him an "Uncle Tom."
ANTHONY JONES: If I don't know a person and they call me that, maybe, yeah, I would get upset about it. Yeah.
ALLISON KEYES: How come?
ANTHONY JONES: Cause I know it's like if someone called me that, that's like a insult; so I wouldn't like it.
ALLISON KEYES: Jones is walking through an exhibit called Reading Uncle Tom's Image: A Reconsideration of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 150 year old character and his legacy. The book Uncle Tom's Cabin is a story of a faithful slave who remains loyal to his master, despite repeated betrayals. Stowe herself called it "a series of sketches depicting the cruelty of slavery." The walls and display cases at the museum hold some of the 25 different early editions of the book and some editions from Germany and France -- pictures of Uncle Tom himself are seen on everything from playing cards to garishly-decorated gold leaf vases. Sometimes he's a bent elderly man in his 60s, and sometimes he's a strong, virile man in his early 20s. There are also posters from Vaudeville plays with Uncle Tom portrayed as a shuffling buffoon by Whites in blackface makeup. Kathleen Hulser curated this exhibit and says the Uncle Tom seen on stage was definitely not the Uncle Tom in Stowe's book.
KATHLEEN HULSER: The Uncle Tom in the book, for one, is not described as old. He's described as strong and manly and noble. He has young children. He's not bent and gray. Harriet Beecher Stowe writes Uncle Tom as a Jesus kind of figure. The novel is set in a religious framework and he's very, very clearly seen as someone who suffers, has many tribulations and is ennobled by his death at the end.
ALLISON KEYES: But most people are more familiar with the cowardly Uncle Tom from the minstrel shows than they are with Stowe's book, says University of California at Davis African Studies professor Patricia Turner. She says the stage version was popular from 1852 until well into the 20th Century.
PATRICIA TURNER: The producers of the stage shows which were called "Tom Shows" didn't share Stowe's passion against slavery. So they took the basic novel and they turned it into a musical; they turned it into a comedy; they took that robust black, strapping male and turned him into an older man. They eliminated all of the references to the horrors of slavery and replaced them with images of dancing "darkies" in the plantation.
ALLISON KEYES: Turner says those who think Uncle Tom is a coward are unaware of the sacrifice he makes at the end of the book.
PATRICIA TURNER: He dies because he is unwilling to tell Simon Legree where some runaway female slaves are hiding -- women that he knows Legree intends to sexually exploit.
KATHLEEN HULSER: And that's very different from what happened on stage where Uncle Tom is detached from the whole rhetoric of anti-slavery, and his death is made to see as an example of his wishy-washiness and his unwillingness to fight back, instead of as an example of his incredible Christian heroism.
ALLISON KEYES: Not only was the novel one of the earliest best sellers; the merchandising surrounding the book was extraordinary for the time period. There were toys and statues and songs -- even a Topsy Turvy Doll with the black slave Topsy on one side; then when its skirts were flipped, Little Eva on the other side. Professor Turner, author of Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Their Influence on Culture says the book so invaded the black psyche that it sparked a flurry of responses from writers of color ranging from Frederick Douglass in the 19th Century to the present.
PATRICIA TURNER: We've got Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children; Ralph Ellison even makes reference to Uncle Tom's Cabin in terms of talking about the publication and what inspired him to write Invisible Man. Even more recently in the 1990s Robert Alexander, a black playwright wrote a play called I Ain't Yo Uncle, the New Jack Revisionist Uncle Tom's Cabin.
ALLISON KEYES: The image of Uncle Tom was depicted in comic books, movies and even a 1947 MGM cartoon by Tex Avery called Uncle Tom's Cabana. In this cartoon which once was seen in movie theaters by audiences of all ages, Uncle Tom tries to save his popular nightclub from the evil Simon Legree. In this version, Uncle Tom wins. [SOUNDBITE FROM UNCLE TOM'S CABANA]
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Then all of a sudden, he chased me up that Umpire State Building and pushed me right off the top. [MUSIC FROM DIXIELAND] I fall down 14 miles and hit on the pavement. [MUSICAL EFFECT OF HITTING THE PAVEMENT] And right there is where I gets mad. I grab up that Umpire State Building with Legree up there on top, and I throws him clean over the moon! [LEGREE THROWN OVER THE MOON MUSICAL EFFECT] That was the end of Mr. Legree.
ALLISON KEYES: Standing in front of a huge poster from the movie Superfly which hangs across the hall from a poster from Muhammad Ali's movie The Greatest and a large picture of Black Panther Party head Huey Newton, Hulser talks about how viscerally the image of Uncle Tom has affected Blacks.
KATHLEEN HULSER: By the 1970s, there was beginning to be an answer to that old screen movie image of the bent, meek, obsequious man and the movie answer to that was really movies like Superfly -- these blaxploitation pictures which had wonderful strong, young, virile African-American heroes in them doing active, thrilling things. So there's a sense in which this genre of movies is really an answer to that old stage and movie image of an old, de-sexualized and powerless man.
ALLISON KEYES: Professor Turner says as more people actually read the book, there are select audiences that are getting a more complete view of who Uncle Tom actually was, as written by Stowe. But Professor Turner says there may come a day when Blacks take being called an Uncle Tom as a compliment -- not an insult.
PATRICIA TURNER: I've been waiting for someone to say when they've been accused of being an Uncle Tom, well you know, that's -- that may not be the worst thing to be accused of. I would like to be associated with someone who would give their life rather than see members of my race sexually exploited.
ALLISON KEYES: For On the Media, I'm Allison Keyes.