Dec 23rd 1999
ST CLARE has bought a new slave.
Carelessly putting the tip of his finger under Tom’s chin, he said good-humouredly, “Look up, Tom, and see how you like your new master.” Tom looked up. It was not in nature to look into that gay, young, handsome face, without a feeling of pleasure; and Tom felt the tears start in his eyes as he said heartily, “God bless you, Mas’r.”
Poor Uncle Tom. After a lifetime of faithful service, to sundry earthly masters, but also to one above, and, yes, to his race, he is dispatched by his creator, Harriet Beecher Stowe, cruelly beaten, to a better world. And today sees his name used as a sneering synonym for the N-word-without-attitude toadying to whitey, and Mrs Stowe derided as that worst sort of white, the liberal sort.
And what nonsense that is. In its day—the 1850s—“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, deeply felt, was a deeply moving and hugely influential statement. And a well-aimed one, hitting not just at southern slave-owners, cruel, careless or kind, but at the northerners who practised or tolerated slavery at one remove. For all her comic or subservient blacks, Mrs Stowe did not disrespect them. She did what she could against evil in the context of her time; which is more than most of us can say. Her only crime, a common one, was not to have the attitudes of 125 years later.
In this section
A nation of immigrants
The Second of July
FDR and the New Deal
He had a dream
Kosovo and commerce
The voice of the victorious Confederate States
In God we trust
Millennium issue: Black Americans: He had a dream
Dec 23rd 1999
And Uncle Tom? The passage cited here symbolises the world’s view of him. Read the book, not just a few lines of it, and you will see something else: a black man—in Tom’s context—of assurance, strength and dignity; the sort of man whom, albeit differently, leaders from W.E.B. Du Bois to Louis Farrakhan have hoped to create. His name deserves honour, not misuse.
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition