It is very odd to hear a white person call a black person an Uncle Tom. This term seems to be cemented among the language of uneducated black people. The last time I was called this, I politely asked that person if he had ever read the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After he said no, I went on to give him a brief lecture on the work I read back in middle school. Essentially, a white woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe took it upon herself to research the treatment and condition of Southern blacks. While doing so, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was passed; it required northerners to return all runaway slaves to their masters. Keep in mind that blacks were nothing more than property, though the Constitution did not define blacks in this category until the 1857 Dread Scott case.
In her work, she wrote about a slave named Tom who was so trusted by his master, he was often sent on long independent trips to conduct business. Modern day black folks became very critical of Stowe’s character Tom. Why would a black man who was nothing more than a slave be so loyal to his white master? Some speculate that Tom desired to transform himself into a different person and to a better place; a white place where he was like those who abused other blacks. By 1960 the term Uncle Tom had a place among the vanguard of black intellectuals. With the civil rights movement underway, and a number of blacks graduating from historically black colleges, there was no longer a need to be like white people. Blacks proved that they were superior. Thus, it is here that we see the heightened sense of black on black racism. Though it had long existed. A caste was created among blacks. The lighter (often referenced as “high yellow”) you were, the more beautiful and elite you were. As is the case today among some, black folks are expected to serve their own communities. This is often predicated on those who see themselves as Garveyites. Keep in mind this is a pretty conservative embodiment. People such as myself are often questioned for working in places that do not serve the needs of the black community. Black people who hire white lawyers, white bankers, white dentists are seen as Uncle Toms. Dating back to the days of Booker T. Washington, he argued that if black people do not visit and help black professionals, who will. I will say, BTW was correct at that time. Also, keep in mind that BTW depended greatly on the financial investments of white people in the creation of his school: Tuskegee University.
With the black bourgeoisie emerging from the status of proletarian, you find more and more black people crossing the racial divide. This does not mean the end of racism. As we learned with the election of Obama, the the notion of heightened racism is clear on one hand, yet ambiguous on the other. Society continues to remove the veil of racial myths, only to confront the realities of a world in which race matters. The most recent example is that of Robert Griffin III (RG3), a well-versed and talented NFL player. He is thought to be and is a highly intelligent athlete. Graduating early from Baylor, he elected to apply and enroll in law school. Recently, a controversial sports columnist named Robert Parker made this statement about RG3:
Well, he’s black, he kind of does his thing. But he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one of us. Parker He’s kind of black. But he’s not really the guy you’d really want to hang out with because he’s off to do something else. Well, because I want to find out about him. I don’t know, because I keep hearing these things. We all know he has a white fiancee. There was all this talk about he’s a Republican, which, there’s no information at all. I’m just trying to dig deeper as to why he has an issue….[ when asked about his hair Parker stated]…Now that’s different. Wearing braids is … you’re a brother. You’re a brother if you have braids on.
I am sure this silly comment does not surprise anyone; as noted above, the notion of “Uncle Tom” in its modern usage is a construct created by black who felt that other blacks were rejecting the notion of being black. We have seen and heard this silly argument for decades. I find it interesting how popular culture has made attempts at burying this phrase — a phrase constructed by black folks themselves. Case in point: The popular 1990s TV sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air pointed out that transcending race does not make a black person any less black or any more white; it makes that person one who can communicate across racial lines without the stigma of being either of superior traits, or inferior traits. Carlton, who best epitomizes the grand notion of Uncle Tom, resembles many of the qualities columnist Robert Parker accused RG3 of having; I find this clip below to best illustrate how TV teaches us that Uncle Tom comments are silly, and are inherently racist.