googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: I'd Like to Be Like Uncle Tom

Monday, May 14, 2012

I'd Like to Be Like Uncle Tom

Like most people, I learn the meaning of words and terms by hearing how they are used. I suppose that's the usual way people learn any language. Should I be angry with myself, then, that I've long had the wrong impression of the term, “Uncle Tom”? I've always understood the phrase to be a term of derision. Usually, it is spoken by black people to insult other black people where the first group accuses the latter of “acting white.” I know that Clarence Thomas was called an “Uncle Tom” when he was being considered for the Supreme Court. Congressman, J. C. Watts has often been called an “Uncle Tom” for being a conservative Republican. Any black person who isn't a card-carrying, liberal Democrat is called an “Uncle Tom.” It's a term reserved by blacks for blacks who don't act black enough.

From the way the term has been used, I had the impression that Uncle Tom was a mousy, smarmy character who would suck up to white people in an effort to ingratiate himself into their favor. I considered him a snake of a person, similar to the clich̩ fink portrayed in prison movies. You know the type Рthe weasel-looking inmate who would squeal on fellow prisoners in hopes of earning special treatment from the guards. Such characters usually only win loathing from everyone.

Perhaps I should not be too hard on myself for not knowing that the fictional character of Uncle Tom portrayed in the book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, bears no resemblance to the rat-fink I had in my mind's eye. After all, when liberals use the term, “Uncle Tom,” they usually mean it in precisely the same way I understood it. I suspect rather that it's those who hurl the term who are ignorant of the true nature of the literary character.

I've read a lot of books in the past including many of the classics but as is always the case, there are far more books that I haven't read than I've read. Uncle Tom's Cabin happens to be one of the books I hadn't read until recently. That's too bad. It's a treasure that I wish I could have cherished decades ago.

The book surely gored many sacred cows of its time. Certainly the southern slave owners were exposed for their crimes against slaves – both the “good” masters and “bad” masters. This book also shone a light on the complacent abolitionists of the north who spoke openly against the scourge that was slavery but did very little else but speak. Much blame was also (justly) laid to the charge of the churches in that day. Perhaps the worst offenders were those churches who endorsed slavery as a part of the divine order of things but other churches were equally culpable by walking a fence on the issue – not endorsing slavery but neither condemning the white slave owners in their congregations. The book gave a most insightful glimpse into the plethora of attitudes that existed on every side of the issue.

The hero of the story was, of course, Uncle Tom, who, throughout the book, moved from master to master (three in total). The masters ranged in attitude from the most benevolent to the most malign but each was used in such a way as to show the injustice of slavery. Throughout his trials, Tom was a model of Christian character: His honesty and integrity won the confidence of many who knew him, he always concerned himself with the salvation of those around him – slave or master, and he relentlessly sought instruction from the Bible.

As I read, I sometimes thought of Tom as a picture of Joseph and at one point in the book, Tom also intimated the same thought about himself. As the book progressed, however, I saw Tom as much more like Christ than Joseph. Toward the end of the book, two slave girls had planned their escape from the wicked, Simon Legree. Legree intended to learn the details of the escape from Tom. Read this edited version of the encounter:

Tom heard the message with a forewarning heart; for he knew all the plan of the fugitives' escape, and the place of their present concealment; - he knew the deadly character of the man he had to deal with, and his despotic power. But he felt strong in God to meet death, rather than betray the helpless.

He sat his basket down by the row, and, looking up, said, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit! Thou hast redeemed me, oh Lord God of truth!" and then quietly yielded himself to the rough, brutal grasp with which Quimbo seized him....

"Well, Tom!" said Legree, walking up, and seizing him grimly by the collar of his coat, and speaking through his teeth, in a paroxysm of determined rage, "do you know I've made up my mind to kill you?"

"It's very likely, Mas'r," said Tom, calmly.

"I have," said Legree, with a grim, terrible calmness, "done - just - that - thing, Tom, unless you'll tell me what you know about these yer gals!"

Tom stood silent.

"D'ye hear?" said Legree, stamping, with a roar like that of an incensed lion. "Speak!"

"I han't got nothing to tell, Mas'r," said Tom, with a slow, firm, deliberate utterance.

"Do you dare to tell me, ye old black Christian, ye don't know?" said Legree.

Tom was silent.

"Speak!" thundered Legree, striking him furiously. Do you know anything?"

"I know, Mas'r; but I can't tell anything. I can die!"

Legree drew in a long breath; and, suppressing his rage, took Tom by the arm, and, approaching his face almost to his, said, in a terrible voice, "…. You've always stood it out again' me: now, I'll conquer ye, or kill ye! - one or t' other. I'll count every drop of blood there is in you, and take 'em, one by one, till ye give up!"

It was but a moment. There was one hesitating pause, - one irresolute, relenting thrill, - and the spirit of evil came back, with seven-fold vehemence; and Legree, foaming with rage, smote his victim to the ground.

Scenes of blood and cruelty are shocking to our ear and heart. What man has nerve to do, man has not nerve to hear. What brother-man and brother-Christian must suffer, cannot be told us, even in our secret chamber, it so harrows the soul! And yet, oh my country! these things are done under the shadow of thy laws! O, Christ! thy church sees them, almost in silence!

But, of old, there was One whose suffering changed an instrument of torture, degradation and shame, into a symbol of glory, honor, and immortal life; and, where His spirit is, neither degrading stripes, nor blood, nor insults, can make the Christian's last struggle less than glorious.

Was he alone, that long night, whose brave, loving spirit was bearing up, in that old shed, against buffeting and brutal stripes?

Nay! There stood by him one, - seen by him alone, - "like unto the Son of God."

The tempter stood by him, too, - blinded by furious, despotic will, - every moment pressing him to shun that agony by the betrayal of the innocent. But the brave, true heart was firm on the Eternal Rock. Like his Master, he knew that, if he saved others, himself he could not save; nor could utmost extremity wring from him words, save of prayers and holy trust.

There is much about Tom that is worthy of emulation. In many ways – in every way, really – he was superior to the white men who owned him yet he carried himself with sincere humility. The quiet strength of his testimony won many to Christ. He even prayed for Simon Legree while he was being beaten to death.

I'm not sure why his name has come to be such an insult. I wish I could be more like him.

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