2/19 — African American Reactions (3)

  In a kind of preface to Uncle Tom's Children (1938), his first book, Richard Wright wrote: "The post Civil War household word among Negroes—'He's an Uncle Tom!'—which denoted reluctant toleration for the cringing type who knew his place before white folk, has been supplanted by a new word from another generation which says—'Uncle Tom is dead!'" I've never been able to confirm his assertion about that 19th century usage of "Uncle Tom" — as far as I've been able to learn, it isn't until the 20th century that blacks begin using "Uncle Tom" in this sense. Nor is Wright's assertion that Stowe's character is dead any more convincing. For example, if it were true, Wright wouldn't need to take Tom's name for the title of his first book. We'll end this semester with a number of looks at the way African American writers keep going back to the cabin.

  • Douglass' "What the Black Man Wants" (1865)   As we noted much earlier in the semester, throughout the 1850s Frederick Douglass carefully defended Stowe's novel from African American critics like Martin Delany, but at the very end of this speech, given at the very end of the Civil War, he makes it clear that Uncle Tom was never his hero. Douglass is always worth reading, but for this class you can scroll down to the speech's last 20 lines. (And if you want to see one of the stranger items in the archive's collection of post Civil War newspaper notices, an account of Douglass impersonating Uncle Tom, CLICK HERE.)

  • [Eulogizing Stowe] (1896)   What 3 African American newspapers said in their obituary notices

  • 2 Poems (1894, 1898)   Read the poems by Holloway and Dunbar.

  • Hanover; or The Persecution of the Lowly   The subtitle of this 1900 novel about the Wilmington, North Carolina, Riot, by "Jack Thorne" (the pseudonym of an African American writer named David Bryant Fulton), clearly evokes the subtitle Stowe gave her book. Uncle Tom's Cabin is explicitly mentioned twice in Fulton's book, and you'll read those two passages.

  • Johnson's Ex-Colored Man (1912)   In Chapter 3 of this novel, published anonymously as an "autobiography," the "black" narrator talks about what "Uncle Tom" meant to him growing up at the end of the 19th century.

  • "Uncle Tom" in the Twenties   There are 8 short texts on this page, mostly speeches by the black nationalist Marcus Garvey and a couple articles by unionizer A. Phillip Randolph. As far as I've been able to discover, these texts define the moment when African Americans turned "Uncle Tom" into a pejorative term. Read them — then look at the Messenger cartoons and think about the way their visual representation of "Uncle Tom" is related to the earlier images we've studied.

  • "Everybody's Protest Novel," by James Baldwin   This essay was originally published in a small Parisian magazine named Zero, in 1948, but became well known after it appeared in the Partisan Review (June 1949). Baldwin reprinted it in Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). I'll hand out copies of the text as it appeared in Baldwin's book. The essay doesn't mention, however, how much Uncle Tom's Cabin meant to Baldwin as a young man.

  • Selections from Malcolm X   Excerpts from 3 Sixties' speeches by Malcolm X, probably the person who did the most to put "Uncle Tom" back into cultural currency for a new generation.

  • Slave Ship, by LeRoi Jones.   I'll hand out excerpts from this 1967 play by the writer who in 1970 changed his name to Amiri Baraka.

  • OPTIONAL: I'm one of many Americanists who consider Charles Chesnutt the most brilliant African American writer between the Civil War and (at least) World War I. His fiction does not engage with Stowe's novel in ways that are easy to represent, but if you're interested, you can see how at the turn into the 20th century Uncle Tom's Cabin gave him, his publishers, and reviewers of his greatest novel a valuable point of reference at THIS PAGE.

  • OPTIONAL: And THIS PAGE will give you access to a few additional archival exhibits on the African American response to UTC.