Demythologizing the Uncle Tom myth and the N-word
EDITOR’S NOTE: In honor of Black History Month, Jarvis J. Williams, associate professor of New Testament interpretation at Southern Seminary and author of several books, including One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology, writes about the ongoing problem of racist speech in America.
Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated much of his life to fighting for freedom and equal rights for black Americans and for people of color. His fight was part of the struggle to ensure equality for black Americans and people of color from the white majority. King and his followers achieved many victories by helping institute laws (such as the Civil Rights Act) that make racial discrimination illegal. However, decades after King’s assassination, black Americans continue to receive an increasing amount of rhetorical racism from both black American and white American communities.
For example, since Harriet Beecher Stowe’s scandalous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the phrase “Uncle Tom” has functioned as racist hate-speech from the mouths of black Americans against other black Americans. Beecher Stowe exposed the horrors of slavery in part by placing a house-slave named Uncle Tom at the center of her narrative. He was a virtuous, hard-working, and (as far as I can tell from the novel), a Christian slave. Against the advice of some of his fellow-slaves in the novel, Uncle Tom refused to run away from his master. Instead, he faithfully served him as long as he was his master’s property.
As a result of this character’s devotion to his white master, the phrase “Uncle Tom” eventually entered into popular American culture as a derogatory epithet directed toward black Americans by black Americans. In general, some black Americans call other black Americans “Uncle Tom” when the “real” blacks perceive the “sell-out” blacks as caring more about pleasing the white man than about preserving African-American identity and particularity. The former group believes that the latter group is not being true to its African-American-ness.
Some black Americans from a variety of diverse black American communities and backgrounds classify certain black Americans as “Uncle Toms” based on certain beliefs or actions. Some of these include a good education, use of appropriate English, good work ethic, membership at a multi-ethnic church or at a predominately white church, embracing an exclusive confessional Evangelical Christianity, association with white people, involvement in an inter-racial relationship, affirming conservatism (either theological or political conservatism), listening or not listening to a certain type of music, an honest living, attending a certain type of school and several other characteristics.
Discussions about Uncle Tom-ness in the media support some of these assertions. Recently, at least two former black professional athletes publicly referred to two black professional athletes as “Uncle Toms” due to a privileged upbringing, attendance at a certain school and a good home life (in the case of one) or due to an international upbringing (in the case of the other).
Ironically, many black Americans, who use the phrase “Uncle Tom” to question the authentic blackness of certain black Americans, often employ the term “nigger” as a term of endearment. But this term has been traditionally associated with and used by white racists (specifically by racist slave owners) to shame and dishonor African slaves. And racists continue to use the term to dehumanize black Americans.
And just as white racists, many black racists continue to use the term “nigger” either to address or to speak of black Americans because they think it is hip, cool, socially acceptable or funny. However, black Americans who use the N-word often have a double standard. Some of them would be offended if a white person were to call them a “nigger,” while finding the term either less offensive or un-offensive if called a “nigger” by a black person. In fact, a few years ago some very accomplished black Americans in the film industry publicly criticized a white woman who works in the media when she publicly stated that no one (white or black) should use the term “nigger.”
As a black American with a multi-racial background, who was born and raised in an extremely racist part of Eastern Kentucky for 18 years, I have been called a number of racist epithets by both blacks and whites throughout my 35 years of life. White racists have called me everything from a “black nigger,” to a “colored boy.” Likewise, black racists have called me everything from a “black nigger,” “Uncle Tom,” “whitey,” “sell out,” “half-breed” or “high yellow.”
Regardless of the ethno-racial group that directs racist rhetoric toward another group, hate-speech is sinful and, therefore, dishonors God. However, in my view, the term “nigger” is the most offensive racist slur of all slurs directed toward blacks, regardless of the ethno-racial lips from which it comes.
The reason is quite simple: white racists used this term from its inception to dehumanize, to dishonor and to ostracize African slaves within (what they thought was) a superior white society. And many black Americans continue to refer endearingly to each other as “niggers” in music, movies or in casual conversations, even though, in using this racist language, they reinforce the racist rhetoric and the racist worldview of slavery and of white superiority as descendants of slaves.
I am absolutely puzzled that so many black Americans embrace the term “nigger,” given its long, dehumanizing history, as in-group racial slang of endearment. I am equally baffled that many black Americans likewise use the phrase “Uncle Tom” as a derogatory appellation to paint a negative caricature of other black Americans. In Beecher Stowe’s novel, both the terms seem to have the opposite rhetorical function compared to how both black and white racists use these expressions today in popular culture.
Beecher Stowe’s novel suggests that Uncle Tom chose to be faithful to Christ and to suffer the horrors of slavery for the sake of honoring his God and his Christ, a biblical principle that neither condones the evil institution of slavery nor excludes the Bible’s permission to practice civil disobedience. Now, to clarify, I am neither suggesting that the phrase “Uncle Tom” is honorable language or appropriate speech nor am I suggesting that this phrase should be used to describe any black American. American slavery and all other forms of slavery are evil. Those who worked to abolish slavery, to hide slaves “underground” and to help them attain their freedom did the right thing (indeed the Christian thing!). My point, however, is that all ethno-racial communities should embrace the Christian identity of Beecher Stowe’s character, Uncle Tom, while rejecting every form of racism directed toward him and while rejecting the racist worldview that both forced him and others into slavery and that advocated white superiority.
Black Americans should stop calling fellow black Americans “Uncle Tom,” and they should stop calling each other “niggers” since both expressions are racist hate-speech regardless of who uses them. Persons from all ethno-racial communities should repent of their sins (including the sins of racism), embrace a new identity in Jesus Christ and be willing to experience any natural ethno-racial ostracism that may come from the many diverse ethno-racial communities that reject the gospel, because God sent Jesus to die for the sins of all communities in order to recreate them into a new race known as Christian (John 1:29, 3:16; Eph 2:11-22; 1 Pet 2:9).
God chose to save different persons from ethno-racial groups before the foundation of the world and to unite them together in Christ by faith so that they would be forgiven for their transgressions and sins by the blood of Christ, so they would be sealed by the Holy Spirit and so they would hear and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ (Eph 1:3-14). God creates Christians to be new creatures in Christ (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). And Jesus Christ is the only one who (and the category of “Christian” is the only ethno-racial category that) will bring eternal life, joy, honor, hope and glory in the coming kingdom of God and of Christ. May the truth of Christian ethno-racial identity in the gospel forever reign — not only during MLK day or during Black History Month — in the hearts of all ethno-racial groups who have ears to hear and hearts to believe and courage to live as biblically responsible risk-takers for the gospel of Jesus Christ as they rigorously and intentionally work to demythologize the Uncle Tom myth and to demythologize the N-word.
Photo illustration by Emil Handke.