“Uncle Tom was no Uncle Tom”

Steve Simms has had a revelation:

I Actually Read, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

When I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin … I was shocked to learn that Uncle Tom was no Uncle Tom. He was not weak or servile. He was not a wimp. He didn’t cooperate with his owners for selfish reasons or for personal advantage.

Uncle Tom was strong and he stood his ground. He frequently sacrificed his personal needs for the benefit of other slaves. He absolutely refused to disobey his conscience no matter what it cost him. He was so deeply principled that he refused to tell what he knew about two runaways even when he knew it meant he would be beaten to death.

This is one of the most frequent “ah ha” moments for people who make the effort to go beyond the modern myth, to the original reality, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Again and again people are amazed to discover how the stereotype is virtually the opposite of its origin.

This no small matter. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most consequential stories ever told in American history.

Simms goes on to note on his blog that:

Most of all, Uncle Tom was a Christian. He prayed, preached, and lived the Gospel. He was a true saint. Uncle Tom reminded me of Martin Luther King, Jr. He refused to cooperate with evil and he refused to do violence to others. He gave his life rather than compromise his faith or his principles. He was a martyr for Christ.

Simms is right to note the Christian connection. Stowe was deeply religious, and both the daughter and wife of famous preachers of her day. In fact, the deeply religious nature of her story played an important part in its wide acceptance and impact and that, too, is an important aspect of American history to study and understand.

Simms’ comment connecting Uncle Tom and Martin Luther King is ironic, though not meant to be. Its irony lies in the fact that some in the “Black Power” movement in the 1960s made the same connection, but as an insult rather than as a compliment. In the sourcebook PDF on our DVD, noted Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., cites that very thing as a major reason behind why he chose to edit and annotate a new edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

It’s about resurrecting Martin Luther King. I’ve written before about Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power people using Uncle Tom as metaphor for race betrayal. I’ve said it’s a low point in our people’s history . . . Much of my work, quite frankly, has been about trying to put a balm on that wound.

Simms also observes that racial prejudice, in overt form, continued well into the 20th century, long after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation – and that it continues on in various forms today. But ironically, some of the most enduring and damaging racist stereotypes also have their roots in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: in the well-intentioned, naive, racism of Stowe’s own 19th century text, and even more so in the distortions of her story and characters created by the sensationalistic “Tom Shows” that swept the nation.

To study the origins and history of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is to study not only an incredibly important aspect of American history from the 1800s, but also the origins of issues that continue to confront us in private and public life, even today in 2011.