Filed Under:  OpEd, Opinion

Uncle Tom’s children

22nd April 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Edmund W. Lewis

When most people think about Uncle Tom, a character made popular in the Harriet Beecher Stowe antebellum novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we think of an elderly, nonthreatening Black man with nappy hair that is as white as cotton and a kind and mild-manner disposition. We often think of someone who kind of resembles the brother on the Uncle Ben’s rice box who couldn’t and wouldn’t hurt a fly, even if he had a notion to do so. Couldn’t you just picture ole Uncle Tom in his britches and suspenders with an old pipe in his mouth and a twinkle in his eye, telling folks, “Things’ll get better by and by”? I can’t.

You see, I’m having too much trouble conjuring up such an image in my head with all of the real-life Uncle Toms walking around making it hard for Black folks to get where we’re trying to go. The Uncle Tom I see and shake my head about rarely strolls around in pastoral scenes where he is as harmless as a lamb. No, for me, Uncle Tom dons justice robes, graduation ceremonial gowns and Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani suits. He is the myopic brother who uses every minute of every day trying to get all the bread crumbs and praise he can from the oppressor while preventing people who look like him from achieving their personal and professional goals. He lurks around the corridors and boardrooms of Corporate America and rubs elbows with the rich and shameless on Capitol Hill.

The thing is, he isn’t an Uncle Tom because he has attained material success or scaled the heights of academia. It’s much deeper than that.

He is an Uncle Tom because he is unrelenting in his pursuit of self-aggrandizement and is willing to step on or undermine anyone who shares his skin color to get what he wants. That’s a special brand of human being. He is eager and adamant about burning down every bridge that could potentially help other Black people striving to reach their full potential.

In essence, there is no difference between Uncle Tom and the neighborhood drug dealer because both are engaged in activities that are detrimental to communities of color. Both are sellouts, willing to do whatever they have to do to get paid and maintain the standard of living to which they have become accustomed. Both react viciously and violently to encroachments on their “turf,” showing that they are not above doing anything and that the “end$” justify the means of getting rid of the competition whether the competition is real or imagined. While an old-fashioned gunfight is the modus operandi for the drug dealer, Uncle Tom and Aunt Thomasina prefer to use “invisible violence” such as subtle, pernicious policy changes and self-serving pieces of legislation to take out the competition.

Often with Uncle Toms, it isn’t all about the money. While the good life has its advantages, it’s often also about being “accepted” and praised by the powers that be.

Black folks have proven countless times that there are occasions on which the color of one’s skin or one’s ancestors’ skin has very little influence over what they think and feel. One’s genetic makeup is not always a reliable predictor of an individual’s level of commitment to his or her history and community. The U.S. has all kinds of Black people and some of them simply don’t feel any kind of kinship with or loyalty to other Black people. For some, the reason for this may be unbeknownst even to them. For others, it may be a byproduct of the self-hatred they have learned over the course of their lives or the association of Blackness with oppression and powerlessness.

The latter group may think it’s not a very time to be Black in America (as if there ever was such a time) and that by distancing themselves from their history and culture, they may be able to soften the racist blows directed at people of African descent for the “crime of being Black.”

It is imperative that we be very clear about what makes someone an Uncle Tom. It isn’t an individual’s political party affiliation alone, though sometimes Uncle Toms and Aunt Thomasinas have been know to frequent the Grand Old Party and other conservative organizations. Some Blacks who going the Party of Lincoln do so because they agree with the organization’s philosophy on spending and the government’s role in the lives of Americans. I see nothing wrong with espousing divergent political views or philosophies. One doesn’t necessarily have to be an Uncle Tom or a sellout to be financially successful. Many successful Black people, including the late great Reginald F. Lewis, have remained true to themselves and their history despite achieving unprecedented success.

There’s no reason Black folks can’t be conservative and remain true to themselves and their history. In fact, Blacks are among the most conservative people in the United States, though you wouldn’t know it from the mainstream media. Our definition of what it means to be conservative varies greatly from that of the larger society. Throughout our history in the U.S., Black people have believed in the sanctity of human life while others used the issue of abortion as merely a means to achieve a political goal. While Black people have long believed that able-bodied people should work and support themselves and their families, communities of color also believe that there is nothing wrong with governments providing assistance to families struggling to survive. One of the reasons it has become so difficult for U.S. families is because the powers that be have made it easier for American companies to move their operations overseas in order to exploit cheap labor and avoid paying tax-paying citizens a decent wage.

Again, we have to be very clear about what makes someone an Uncle Tom. Is it the brother who may disagree with some of the strategies used in the Black liberation struggle? I don’t think so. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. disagreed on a lot of things, but both were about the business of liberating the sons and daughters of Africa from the vestiges os slavery. Is it the man or woman who is willing to sell his soul and his self-respect to the devil in order to get what he or she wants, even if it leads to the demise and destruction of the rest of the community or is diametrically opposed to anything that uplifts and empowers communities of color? Bingo!

Contrary to popular myths, the Black community has always been diverse in terms of political beliefs and affiliations. That diversity serves us well as long as we are able to come together and agree to disagree when we’re discussing an issue of critical importance to the community.

Admittedly, I think that we are sometimes too quick to label a member of the community an Uncle Tom. That’s something we have to work on. But when it barks, walks, bows and scrapes like an Uncle Tom, we need to tell the truth and shame the devil.

It’s not about assigning scarlet letters to certain members of the community or bullying those with different opinions. It’s about doing whatever is necessary to secure the blessings of liberty for Black people and removing all obstacles that stand between us and equal protection under the law.

We need to make it very clear to those who go out of their way to betray or undermine us that we know who they are and what they are up to, and that we’re not going to stand for it. Just as there are folks who do everything in their power to block Black progress and report our every move to Mister Charlie, we need to repay them in kind. While we don’t need to spend every waking moment thinking about them and their crazy, misplaced allegiance to the powers that be, we do need to make sure that they know what we think of them and how we feel about what they are doing. Why should be allowed to carry on with their shenanigans stress-free while the rest of us are staggering around with migraine headaches, high blood pressure and anger-management issues?

Black Enterprise publisher Earl Graves told me something more than a decade ago that makes a lot of sense. He said that those who look like us but work against our aims should be left to themselves and eventually their wrongful deeds will catch up with them and they will either mend their ways and return to the fold or self-destruct. That makes a lot of sense but requires a great deal of patience and compassion for others.

Patience and compassion are also needed to help us to understand that not everyone who falls out of the good graces of the Black community is an Uncle Tom. Some folks are lost—lost and confused. Every effort should be made to convey to them that they are our brothers, sisters and fellow sufferers under the great weight of racism and white supremacy.

In the end, people are going to be people and do whatever they damn well please. We must resist the temptation to waste precious time and energy on name-calling and finger-pointing. We can’t allow them or anyone else to divert our collective eyes from the prize our turn our attention and energy away from the struggle. When we tired, angry or frustrated, we should remind ourselves that there is strength in unity and that “I am because we are.”


This article originally published in the April 22, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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