Friday, July 1, 2011

Uncle Tom's Champion

The New York Times recently ran an appeal from a noted American Studies professor, CUNY's David S. Reynolds who wishes to rescue the term "Uncle Tom" from what he deems popular misuse. His quest strikes me as a foolhardy attempt to regulate popular meaning via academic authority. What makes this attempt more lamentable is that his premise appears to be a deliberate mischaracterization of the criticism of Stowe's novel. According to Reynolds, adaptations of Stowe's novel for the stage promulgated misinterpretation. These distortions, in Reynolds' view, left black militants of the 1960s with the misperception of Tom as "a spineless sellout, a black man who betrays his race." 

Reynolds' article could not have been better timed, appearing as it does in the wake of Grant Hill's lengthy insistence, in the pages of the same newspaper, that he was undeserving of the name of Uncle Tom bestowed on him by Jalen Rose. Were it not for the Rose/Hill affair and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (allegedly sparked by Stowe's novel), I find it hard to imagine the Times considering this op-ed timely. I do not begrudge Reynolds the press; this nod will surely increase his book sales, a very necessary thing in the book industry in general and in academic publishing more specifically.

However, I cannot say that I am looking forward to reading the book. In this op-ed, Reynolds tries to locate an original, pure and unsullied version of Uncle Tom--one independent of stage productions that supposedly bowdlerized the novel. Theater historian Loren Kruger notes that the first "anti-Stowe minstrel sketch" actually appeared before the serialized narrative was compiled in the book form we now know. Given this crossing--as well as the entanglement of Tom's illustrations with minstrel imagery on stage and in print--it seems inaccurate to posit an absolute distinction between the text and its stage iterations.

The distinction between the text (as Reynolds interprets it) and the stage history is crucial, because Reynolds imagines civil rights-era African-Americans' exceptions to the novel as rooted in a regrettable misunderstanding induced by the stage shows. Does Reynolds think himself the only person who ever decided to set aside popular representations of Tom to go back to Stowe's novel? He'd be sorely mistaken. From Richard Wright and James Baldwin to Hortense Spillers, many African-American intellectuals have carefully assessed the novel. Reynolds may disagree with their conclusions, but he may not use all of their work to make a straw man humming Yip Harburg's famous "If I Only Had a Brain." 

In vernacular usage since the Black Power movement, the accusation of Tomming certainly conjures an image of groveling and cowardice. Reynolds defense is that Tom was no coward, but a nonviolent resister in the tradition of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Louis Armstrong, and Jackie Robinson. After all, he rightly notes, Tom refused to tell the whereabouts of runaways. For Reynolds, this is proof that Tom did not collaborate with slaveholders. 

However, this defense does not answer the primary charge Black Power advocates would have levied against Tom. For them, non-cooperation was not sufficient, nonviolence itself was suspect. Based on whites' participation in or indifference to anti-black terrorism, Black Power advocates doubted that hearts would be softened if black people endured suffering without retaliation. Tactically, they considered nonviolence a losing strategy in the face of concentrated, armed police efforts in every region of the country to contain antiracist protests by means of beating, killing, and incarceration. Reynolds' invocation of Tom's Christian forbearance does not answer the likely charges of Black Power advocates who  considered a self-defensive posture the only viable one in a country so committed to preserving its racial hierarchy. Ironically, while the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party found themselves confronted with major opposition from law enforcement, specifically--and from white America (more broadly)--their stance on the intelligence of armed self-defense mirrored the stance taken by American Patriots against occupying British forces two centuries earlier. But you won't hear any Tea Partiers talking about the intelligence of armed black self-defense any time soon.

Stowe's rejection of slave rebellion in favor of faith in God's deliverance has been a longstanding thread in black critics' dislike of the novel. To frame it otherwise is either a result of poor research or deliberate stacking of the deck against his opponents.

This is, it seems to me, one of the great dangers of academic publishing (or publicity-seeking). On the one hand, academics are often so steeped in a particular period and genre that our attempts to speak across specialties are vexed by massive gaps in expertise. Worse is that, with waning of academic influence (especially in the humanities), some scholars have taken more and more strident but (dare I say) preposterous positions about the value of their work to contemporary life. 

Reynolds' admonishing black people to re-read the novel, to respect Tom for his valor and Stowe for her contribution to ending slavery in the US, could not be of less contemporary relevance. What does reading this novel--and agreeing with his sanguine interpretation of it--have to do with closing the gaps in education and health outcomes? Based on the op-ed and Andrew Delbanco's subsequent generous review, it would appear that Reynolds is advocating a return to Tom's stoic, nonviolent, Christian resistance. That may very well be his preferred model for the transformation of racial hierarchy. I think it is reasonable to say that this model is not responsible, solely, for halting the momentum of white supremacist social structure. That is, moral awakening was not the sole cause of legislative actions prohibiting slavery and segregation. A widespread fear among whites of having their heads cut off in the night also played a small part. 

In the end, Reynolds seems to want support for an author and a character that he admires. Certainly, that's acceptable. But is the job of the literary critic or the cultural historian to advocate for an author? Even if this partiality is desirable (or, at least, inescapable), it is not a vital intervention in contemporary social life. A young black person who reads Stowe, encounters our shared history, and emerges with her own well-considered ideas about her past, present, and future is in far better shape than one who merely accepts Reynolds' static version of the story. As the saying goes, the best instructors help students learn how to think not what to think.

I recall my own experience as a high school sophomore with Huckleberry Finn. On the first day, the teacher told us we weren't to say "the N word" and that the book isn't racist. The idea that it might be was simply not to be entertained. Reynolds seems to be taking a similar position toward Stowe, and I can't say (based on what I've read thus far) that I feel sufficiently respected to engage his book or to re-engage Stowe's.


  1. Hear, hear. It's one thing to say that some nationalists and militants who invoked Tom to criticize their nonviolent peers were incorrect about the genealogy of Tomming due to misreadings of the text via bad adaptations, but it's another thing entirely to say that, in light of its proven successes (however tenuous), they were off the mark in criticizing nonviolence qua nonviolence and therefore mistaken to denounce Tom as a prototype for the strategy. These are just different claims, and it doesn't sound like Reynolds makes a sufficient case for either, nor does his reading distinguish between these critiques as clearly as you do, here.

  2. Thank you. I found the tone of Reynolds' piece unseemly and you've helped me see why. I'd add, drawing from your analysis, that making "moral awakening" the source of gains against white supremacy simply maintains whiteness as the location of all historical agency.