Uncle Tom

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Uncle Tom is a term for a black person who behaves in a subservient manner to white people.[1] The term comes from the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Critical and popular views of both the character and the novel have shifted over time,[2] leading to the shift in the term's use.


Contents

Original characterization and critical evaluations

At the time of the novel's initial publication in 1851 Uncle Tom was a rejection of the existing stereotypes of minstrel shows; Stowe's melodramatic story humanized the suffering of slavery for white audiences by portraying Tom as a Christlike figure who is ultimately martyred, beaten to death by a cruel master because Tom refuses to betray the whereabouts of two fugitive female slaves.[2][3] Stowe reversed the gender conventions of slave narratives by juxtaposing Uncle Tom's feminine passivity against the brave daring of three African American women who escape from slavery.[2]

The novel was very influential and commercially successful, first published in serial form in 1851-1852 and in book version from 1852 onward.[2][3] An estimated 500,000 copies of the novel itself had sold in the United States and internationally by 1853, including unauthorized reprints.[4] Senator Charles Sumner credited Uncle Tom's Cabin for the election of Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln himself reportedly quipped that Stowe had triggered the American Civil War.[2] Frederick Douglass praised the novel as "a flash to light a million camp fires in front of the embattled hosts of slavery".[2] Despite Douglass's enthusiasm, an anonymous 1852 reviewer for William Lloyd Garrison's publication The Liberator suspected a racial double standard in the idealization of Uncle Tom:

James Weldon Johnson, a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance, expresses an ambivalent opinion in his autobiography:

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