Are You an Uncle Tom?

My big Christmas present this year was a Kindle. Since I love to read it was the perfect present. One unexpected benefit of my Kindle has been all the free books I can download. Very cool. I downloaded a load of classics. During my recent trip to Thailand I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.  I know I was probably supposed to read it in Junior High but I must have been daydreaming because I didn’t remember it at all.

It is a fictional account of composite true stories. She follows several story lines with one of them being the character referred to as Uncle Tom.

Two of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brothers were rather famous preachers (Henry Ward Beecher and Charles Beecher). She weaves Christianity throughout the book. Predictably there is some terrible Christianity represented by slave owners. Then there is some fearless and pure Christianity practiced by the Quakers who are abolitionists willing to die for the runaway slave but not willing to kill. Then, most surprisingly of all is the Christianity reflected in the lives of some of the slaves particularly of Uncle Tom.

I don’t know how being an “Uncle Tom” became a negative thing but it makes me mad. In the story, Uncle Tom displays love and grace and strength that is breathtaking. His faith is tested at every turn and instead of becoming bitter and hateful he becomes stronger and purer. Maybe it was because I just finished the series on I Peter where Peter encourages Christians who are going through the fire of injustice. Maybe it was because I was on my way to check out a ministry right smack dab in the middle of modern slavery. But whatever the reason, I found myself loving this man who throughout the whole book never even had a last name. Such was the plight of the American Negro slave.

When preaching about suffering these past few months I have used many illustrations. I recognized many of us are hurting for one reason or another. No one gets out of here alive let alone unscathed. But all the suffering I used pales in significance to what the American slave endured. I crumple when the temperature rises just a few degrees in my otherwise comfortable life. Uncle Tom stood in the furnace like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and came out pure as gold. It made me look forward to the time I will sit with men like him in heaven and hear what it was like to be in the midst of the fire with the One who is like unto a Son of God.

When Abraham Lincoln finally met Harriet Beecher Stowe he allegedly said, “So, you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War.” God used this book to awaken the conscience of a nation. Read it, and let it awaken your conscience and give you strength for whatever God is taking you through.

Lord help me to be an Uncle Tom.

 

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  • Daveyork25

    The term “Uncle Tom” is used as a derogatory epithet for an excessively subservient person, particularly when that person perceives their own lower-class status based on race. It is similarly used to negatively describe a person who betrays their own group by participating in its oppression, whether or not they do so willingly.[12][13]

    The popular negative connotation of “Uncle Tom” has largely been attributed to numerous derivative works inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the decade after its release, rather than the original novel itself, whose title character is a more positive figure.[3] These works lampooned and distorted the portrayal of Uncle Tom with politically loaded overtones.[5]

    History

    American copyright law before 1856 did not give novel authors any control over derivative stage adaptations, so Stowe neither approved the adaptations nor profited from them.[14]Minstrel show retellings in particular, usually performed by white men in blackface, tended to be derisive and pro-slavery, transforming Uncle Tom from Christian martyr to a fool or an apologist for slavery.[5]

    Adapted theatrical performances of the novel remained in continual production in the United States for at least eighty years.[14] These representations had a lasting cultural impact and influenced the pejorative nature of the term Uncle Tom in later popular use.[5]

    Although not all minstrel depictions of Uncle Tom were negative, the dominant version developed into a stock character very different from Stowe’s hero.[5][15] Stowe’s Uncle Tom was a muscular and virile man who refused to obey when ordered to beat other slaves; the stock character of minstrel shows became a shuffling asexual individual with a receding hairline and graying hair.[15] To Jo-Ann Morgan, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Visual Culture, these shifting representations undermined the subversive layers of Stowe’s original characterization by redefining Uncle Tom until he fit within prevailing racist norms.[14] Particularly after the Civil War, as the political thrust of the novel which had arguably helped to precipitate that war became obsolete to actual political discourse, popular depictions of the title character recast him within the apologetics of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy.[14] The virile father of the abolitionist serial and first book edition degenerated into a decrepit old man, and with that transformation the character lost the capacity for resistance that had originally given meaning to his choices.[14][15] Stowe never meant Uncle Tom to be a derided name, but the term as a pejorative has developed based on how later versions of the character, stripped of his strength, were depicted on stage.[16]

    Claire Parfait, author of The Publishing History of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852-2002, opines that “the many alterations in retellings of the Uncle Tom story demonstrate an impulse to correct the retellers’ perceptions of its flaws and “the capacity of the novel to irritate and rankle, even a century and a half after its first publication.”[4]

    • Joe Coffey

      thanks. that clears up how Uncle Tom became a derogatory term. it makes me sad because the character in the book is so solid. i would love to be part of reclaiming the truth of the character as portrayed by Stowe

  • Rynieman

    Joe, You have such an amazing mind and heart. Thanks for being in so many of our lives, even when we are not close.

    Blessings to you and the family. It is my sincere hope that Charles and I will soon you soon.

    Our 40th will stay in our hearts forever, thanks to Lynn and YOU.

    Rita

    • Joe Coffey

      thanks rita. would love to see you and charles again. it has been good to see chris and lynn in worship. i know it is a long drive for them. i loved being a part of your 40th. you guys are special people.

  • Paula

    Had to read that book last year in my American Lit English class.  I go to a small Christian college so it was cool we could bring the aspect of living like Jesus into our conversations.  I have read several other slave narratives as well.  I love the fact that the narratives we read talked about the strong, spiritual men and women who never lost their faith in the one, true God. 

    • Joe Coffey

      that’s what surprised me. i did  not remember the spiritual strength of the oppressed. it shouldn’t have surprised me but it did. 

  • Andrew Paisley

    Makes me want to read that book. 

  • Bayousaint58

    Great post. We ought to print some teeshirts, “i am an Uncle Tom.” Reading biography of Wilberforce now. Stories of suffering in slave ships are unfathomable.

    • Joe Coffey

      agree. the stories in uncle tom’s cabin are almost too hard to read.  but i love the stories that end in freedom. there is nothing quite like a slave set free.