Thursday 21 October 2010

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Uncle Tom)

I guess it's now time for the defense to have its turn in the case of Uncle Tom vs Famous Epithets That Might Be a Tad Bit Unfair. I am, of course, referring to the eponymous character of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and how over the years he has become a byword for obsequiousness and servility. In short, a sell-out.

I first came upon this term when I was still in university. It was a period during which I began to read so-called "black literature", mainly African-American authors (Walker, Morrison, Hughes). In addition to enriching my vocabulary in English, this type of reading gave me a cultural context that enabled me to understand many of the references to which I had been exposed until then, like for example in music.

I had to wait several years before I laid my hands on the book. However the first time I read it I remember having an uneasy and funny feeling, as if something wasn't quite right. It's taken me a second reading to realise that it's the use of "Uncle Tom" as a pejorative word that makes me squirm.

This is a complex situation. On the one hand I feel deep respect for the English language, for the people who speak it and for the authors who write in it, regardless of their country of origin. On the other hand, I just don't feel the use of "Uncle Tom" as a term of abuse. I felt awkward the first time I heard it and this second reading of the novel has convinced me that in fact Tom is a hero, if maybe not as prominent as George, the runaway slave, who flees to Canada with his wife Eliza and their child.

To explain further my sentiments, I'll share an anecdote with you. One day, many years ago, a black former colleague of mine, from Nigeria, said jocosely: Yo, (insert my name), man, my Cuban n****r! I immediately replied: Don't ever use that word when addressing me again, thanks. I kept calm, I didn't even raise my voice, but he knew he had vexed me. Dealing with the "n" word was easy (regardless of all the arguments and counterarguments made by the Reclaim Brigade over the years). However, dealing with the "Uncle Tom" concept is a totally different situation.

It is true that Tom is servile and obedient. It's also veritable that when faced with the opportunity to escape, he doesn't seize it. He is passive, way too passive and I can imagine how his docility might have played out against the backdrop of the civil rights movements in the 50s and 60s. But, let's dig deeper, shall we?

If you've read the book, you will probably remember the chapter where Tom is on a ship with Haley, a trader and Lucy, a female slave Haley buys en route to the south. Lucy's child is stolen, sold and taken away from her whilst the boat is docking in Louisville and she is leaning over the rail to see if her husband is amongst the crowd gathered at the wharf. Haley breaks the news to her calmly and coldly. Lucy doesn't cry, she doesn't make a scene. At night and whilst Tom is half-asleep, Lucy jumps off the ship to a certain death. Or maybe freedom, we don't know. But what we do know is that Tom doesn't wake Haley up and, when questioned the next morning on Lucy's disappearance, he just replies: "Well, Mas'r, towards morning something brushed by me, and I kinder half woke; and then I hearn a great splash, and then I clare woke up, and the gal was gone. That's all I know on 't." Tom could have thwarted Lucys plans by alerting Haley, but he doesn't do it. He just prays for Lucy's soul.

It's the same with Eliza's escape. When Mr Shelby, Tom's owner, sells some of his slaves to pay off his debts, Eliza takes his young child (who is to be sold to Haley) and escapes. Tom, on the other hand, doesn't. Cowardice? Hmm... no. I believe that what motivates Tom to stay behind is loyalty to all the other slaves because if he also elopes, Shelby will have "to break up the place and sell all."

There's another reason why I find the phrase "Uncle Tom" unfair. Tom is a product of a society whose foundation lay on Christian values. Both South and North used the Bible to pursue and justify their goals, even if sometimes they were marginally different (the conversation between St Clare and his cousin Ophelia in Volume II, Chapter XIX, throws up some very interesting issues). Tom, to put it bluntly, is drenched in religious doctrine. He is so brainwashed that he can no longer think for himself. When asked to explain his predicament, he can only talk in scriptural language. To use someone as naïve as he is as a whipping figure for all the wrongs visited on black people in the States and beyond is, in my humble, non-native opinion, misleading. A better example of selling-out would be St Clare's servants: Mr Adolph, Rosa and Jane. They look down on the rest of the slaves in the house, oocasionally using and abusing the "n" word when addressing them. They adopt the same language, airs and graces of their white masters. Unfortunately calling someone a "Mr Adolph" or a "Maid Rosa" doesn't sound as forceful as Uncle Tom.

As I mentioned before, self-censorship is not this column's central message. People have the right to say whatever they want in whichever way they see fit, as long as they don't use demeaning language. However, in Uncle Tom's case, and especially if you've read the novel, the defense has not closed its argument down yet.

© 2010

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on sunday 24th October at 10am (GMT)


  1. It’s been a very long time since I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin so I can’t comment on the particulars of the novel, only on the modern usage of the pejorative Uncle Tom. I suspect that like the Spanish word “c” is for you, which you find it offensive and others employ in common usage, one’s history with a word or term is highly relevant. The particulars of the novel are perhaps less important than the reason for the rise of the term Uncle Tom as a mark of servility when, especially during the civil rights movement, blacks were trying to throw off years of oppression by standing firm and proud. Uncle Tom was perhaps an easy, if flawed, shortcut to communicate disapproval of craven servile attitudes. In my opinion, the bigger issue is around the implication that if someone in Tom’s circumstances acts in an apparently servile fashion that person is unworthy. As you point out, Tom’s actions were more nuanced than apparent at first impression. Many a person who labeled someone with this epithet—often done by someone younger about someone older—failed to appreciate what it was like to walk in the other person’s shoes and the unbelievable dignity, forbearance, and strength of will it takes to walk a line between loss of freedom and loss of dignity. I don’t hear the term today nearly as frequently as I used to, but I understand its impulse even as I don’t appreciate its shortcomings.

  2. If it was another Cuban, who said "mi negrito" in Spanish would it have made a difference? I see loads of differences when it comes to WHAT langauge (English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, etc.) is used. I will cite two examples I see here in Brazil: PINGA. To me and you and my mother it means one thing. Here in Brazil it is a common day to day word. It means drip. The faucet esta pingando. It is dripping. There is drizzle. Esta pingando. If someone says they like pinga, it means they like cachaça, sugar cane alcohol. My dog is named Pingón (I took advantage of the play on words, the family was non the wiser).
    On the other hand. CARAJO. To me and you, it's like saying darn or hell (ok albeit a bit stronger). It actually means that tall look out post over the mast on the old sailing ships. But here, the equivalent CARALHO is the grand daddy of all swear words, much like pinga is to me and you in Spanish.

  3. What a blast from the past-both me, and Uncle Tom. It's been some time since I've revisited the book as well. I don't hear the term used too often, although recent events surrounding the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas "affair" have brought upon a resurgence.

    I agree with your assessment. I also find too often with the English language we use words and phrases with deep, and often painful histories with a sort of laziness or disregrad for their true history or meaning.

    I'm going to re-read this book when I free up some personal reading time (I'm in grad school, hence my absence). Thanks for sharing-I hope you've been well.

  4. I haven't actually read this book (and I'm scratching my head about why that is) but you've made me seriously consider putting it on my immediate agenda.

    What you're describing sounds like a way of 'blaming the victim' although I'll probably have a deeper explanation of what I think once I've read the book.

    Thanks for this post, Cuban.


  5. His behavior may have been understandable for the times he lived in, but it's far more difficult to respect someone who behaves that way now. That's way they are called "Uncle Toms" and it is not a compliment.

  6. Cuban, I've heard of the book, of course, but confess that I've never read it. That makes me unqualified to hold an opinion on the appropriateness of the expression, but I will comment on your piece.
    One of the things I like about you is your straightforwardness. You write, often enough, about sensitive issues but tackle them head on. While you're reasonable and elegantly diplomatic, you don't toe the political correctness line. It's a fine balance, and you do it well.

    I learned enough here to want to read the book, although by the time I get to the bookstore, it will probably have slipped well down the list. No matter. I enjoyed the evidence, once again, of your critically thinking mind.

  7. I haven't read the book, but I think this is a nicely balanced piece as always. Like Deborah, I enjoy your critical thinking as it is such a rarity these days, especially about such subjects.

  8. Many thanks to you all for your kind words.

    Just one small disagreement. Daniel, there's now ay that the 'n' word can be compared with the Spanish 'negrito'. The former is an insult, whichever way you put it and shouldn't be used, especially by people who should know better. The latter usually translates as 'blackie' or pickanniny', uncomfortable terms, too, but in a Spanish-speaking context and especially in Cuba they don't carry the same strength. In Spanish we haven't got an equivalent to the 'n' word. You always have to append a word to it like 'negro de...', that's probbaly why many racial prejudices still lie latent in our subconscious mind.

    I enjoyed your comments. It's true that I think and re-think before pressing 'publish' because this is a cold medium, blogland, and words don't, unfortunately, carry feelings with them. Still, I'm one of those lucky bloggers who can count on a very intelligent readership and camaraderie to discuss highly sensitive subjects.

    Many thanks. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

    Greetings from London.

  9. Excellent point, taken. In Brazil, you can say "neginho" or "negão" which translates literally to "little blackie" (inho) or "big blackie" (gão) and it is affectionate. But with the de mei.. (here they add an i between the e and the r) it is the same as in Spanish.

    There is a Que Pasa USA episode where Joe, the son has a fight with a black kid at school and it all gets played out on race. When Angelito, a black Cuban comes over, the black kid wants to know why joe is friends with Angelito, but won't be friends with him. To which Joe replies "Angelito's not black, he's Cuban". I think that is a sentiment that many Cubans can relate to, and perhaps to this day may even still subscribe to. I'm not saying we have a racial Shangri-La attitude, just saying it may not be as overt as in other cultures.

    BTW I think you can find Que Pasa USA episodes on Facebook or You Tube.

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  11. I got my Spanish and Portuguese mixed up. Remove the I between the E and the R for the Portuguese version

  12. I have not read it, but I probably will soon.
    But based on your post here, it does sound like Uncle Tom was a hero, not a sell-out or naive or coward but a survivor and one with a silent compassion for his fellow sufferers.

  13. Fascinating arguement. I can't think about Uncle's Tom's characters without thinking about the searing art that artist Kara Walker did to address antebellum stereotypes. Her work is brutal but it dig below the buried surface of American racism and sterotypes, of which the book Uncle Tom's Cabin helped to create. I agree, Uncle Tom is a product of his conditioning and is brain-washed on many levels,which is what an Uncle Tom is, basically. It's supposed to represent a black person who has stopped thinking independently and has absorbed the viewpoints and concerns of the opressive mainstream. Lot's of people fall into that category but I think the term is only used to attack someone's identity and make them feel defensive. The deeper issues or the accuracy of the label are rarely examined



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