Uncle: Race, Nostalgia, and the Politics of Loyalty. Coach House Books
Most of us have, in some form or another, encountered Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. It is ubiquitous in literary studies, a bestselling publishing phenomenon disseminated far and wide, translated and staged in various forms and contexts. Even if we have not read it, it is impossible not to know it or have an opinion about it. It is a novel that one approaches with a set of expectations or even prejudices, depending on how we have encountered it. As Cheryl Thompson points out in Uncle: Race, Nostalgia, and the Politics of Loyalty, one of the most recognizable iterations of the novel today is in the use of the eponymous character’s name as a slur hurled at Black men for behaving in ways that are deemed inauthentically Black, or—worse yet—evidencing supposedly traitorous behaviour towards the race. Being called an Uncle Tom is being subject to an assault on one’s racial loyalties and authenticity.
This is the genesis of Uncle: describing her own adult reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Thompson writes, “I needed to connect the dots between the martyr in the novel and the epithet hurled at Black Conservatives today” (9). Uncle is her attempt to map that connection through the figure’s “tumultuous journey from literary character to minstrel caricature, advertising icon, film, and television stereotype, and, eventually, to his final incarnation as a colloquial insult firmly embedded within Western culture” (14). But underlying the investigation—or perhaps emerging from it—is another consideration, the desire to “look deeper and ask difficult questions about how we choose to relate to white society and its institutions” (144). That second consideration does not stem from Stowe’s novel itself, but from the way the character of Uncle Tom has been reinterpreted and deployed by white culture and its institutions. He is, in this instance, less the radical Christian figure explored in Jane Tompkins’ seminal Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, and more the secular martyr who services white ideology.
Thompson is not the first to take on a history of this imagery. There is a proliferation of academic works exploring Uncle Tom and related figures, including Thomas F. Gossett’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture (1985), Maurice M. Manring’s Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima (1998), Micki McElya’s Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America (2007), and Adena Spingarn’s Uncle Tom: From Martyr to Traitor (2018), all of which Thompson has consulted. But her work differs in both scope and audience. In charting the evolution of Uncle Tom, Thompson stages a more expansive reading, bringing in a variety of iterations that evoke the figure more broadly. Her work becomes a miniature overview of crucial movements and events in African American history and culture from Emancipation to Black Lives Matter. It is an accessible overview that might work best for those who possess some familiarity with the history that allows them to appreciate the connections and cultural references. In twenty-four short chapters averaging ten or so pages, Thompson takes on everything: minstrelsy, lynching, redlining, Amos ’n’ Andy, The House Un-American Activities Committee, soul food, the Moynihan Report, Good Times, Eddie Murphy, Clarence Thomas, the murder of George Floyd, and more.
These chapters are akin to snapshots, introducing key cultural threads and episodes as Thompson traces her subject over almost two hundred years. For non-specialists, Uncle will serve as a crucial and comprehensive introduction to the evolution of Black representation in white popular culture and advertising. Specialists might note the ambitious scope occasionally leads to simplifications and a few odd moments—it seems a stretch to say “the horrors of slavery had been long forgotten” not even three decades after the close of the Civil War (42). At times the complexity of African American responses to both Stowe’s novel and the figure of Uncle Tom is collapsed. Notably absent are the voices of Black men and women before 1920 who had a great deal to say about their moment and the expectations of white society that African Americans perform gratitude and “know their place.” We see a few flashes of this activism, such as the acknowledgement that sleeping-car porters were “agents of political mobilization,” the challenges leading to Plessy v. Ferguson (76), and the protests of Song and the South (107-08). Indeed, as the book moves forward, we hear more about Black activism, coinciding with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. But, as Thompson makes clear, her book is not meant to be exhaustive, and any “omissions are not oversights” (14). Rather, it is the bigger picture she aims to convey. Moreover, more in-depth excavations of various elements would not have enhanced the stylistic choices or argument of the book, and may have, in fact, detracted from them. It is a balance.
Part of the way Thompson achieves that balance is through her deployment of contemporary artistic production. She repeatedly introduces contemporary playwrights and African American visual artists who respond to the legacy of Uncle Tom and related images. Describing various cultural productions, Thompson highlights the role of the African American artist in drawing attention to what is often taken for granted. They also provide an opportunity to consider a more explicit critique of the operations of whiteness.
Ultimately Thompson has produced, in Uncle, the kind of book that will inspire readers to tease out connections of their own, to seek out references, and to search for the cultural texts she introduces. From there, as they encounter new and old cultural forms, they may begin to add to her archive, enriching their understanding of the argument, perhaps nuancing it differently, perhaps not. In the process, they will inevitably rely on those dots she wanted to connect.
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