THE ORIGIN AND REALITY OF UNCLE TOM
Many people in the Black and White community are offended by the use
of the term Uncle Tom. In many instances a select group of Blacks are more offended
by Uncle Tom than the use of Nigger. For the record thieves, crooks, rapists,
corrupt officials and liars are offended when they are classified as such. My
brother often said that "a hit dog will holler."
For all practical purposes most of those that are offended by Uncle Tom are
There are historical accounts that note that the term Uncle Tom was
first used in the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the novel. From my estimation Ms. Stowe was a
great writer. She was also a product of her time. She was not born in the South
and did not live in a slaveholding state. Ms. Stowe as a Christian had a
feeling of compassion for those kept in bondage. Ms. Stowe did not exaggerate
the conditions of slavery like many of her critics suggest. From my estimation
she fictionalized the attitude of some characters. Meanwhile, she offered a
tragic reality of slavery in that she noted the irresponsible behavior of
slaves like her character Uncle Tom.
Ms. Stowe notes in A Key To
Uncle Tom's Cabin the origin of many of her characters. Thus, The
Key to Uncle Toms's Cabin notes
facts and documents upon which the story was founded. Josiah Henson is the man
in which she is said to have created her character Uncle Tom.
To bring into focus this character let us look at some particular
points noted in the book. We have already mentioned that Ms. Stowe was a
religious woman. She also came from a religious family. Her narrative was told
in fiction based on facts. She recalled what Josiah Henson told her and also
what she read in his autobiography. She also related the experiences related by
fugitive slaves in Cincinnati and accounts she read in the anti-slavery press.
Thus, Uncle Toms's Cabin
was mainly about Uncle Tom, a faithful slave that reminded her of Josiah
Her critics noted further that Ms. Stowe's view of slavery came from
a brief visit to a Kentucky plantation. Her limited contact with the slave
South had some impact on her recollections of slavery. But regardless of her
limited southern experience she was moved with the typical abolitionist spirit.
Meanwhile, she felt that many slaves were treated kindly. She did not blame the
slave holders but blamed the system. Ms. Stowe also relied on information
supplied by slaves and her imagination. Uncle Tom's Cabin
was published March 3, 1852. The book sold three thousand copies the first day.
The book stirred the conscience of the people. It exposed the evils of slavery.
The Fugitive Slave Law had aroused the conscience of the people who despised
slavery. Thus, this law actually promoted the sale of the book.
The controversy over the character Uncle Tom developed soon after
the book was released. Critics and apologists for Uncle Tom's
Cabin noted that stage productions distorted the book. Uncle
Tom was depicted to draw laughs. He was often presented as a ridiculous flunky.
Many critics noted that this character bore little resemblance to Josiah
Henson. These critics evidently did not realize that a faithful slave was a
negative role model for Black people. Thus, the character Uncle Tom was what
many White people would ascribe as a good Boy. From a Black perspective this
characterization is negative and irresponsible. Meanwhile, the book was not
sold in many parts of the South. This censorship resulted in an ongoing
interest in the book.
There are several sources that note the real life of Josiah Henson. Notably Josiah Henson, Truth Stranger Than
Fiction-Update of Josiah Henson Life Story, 1858. Also Frances Cavanah, The
Truth About The Man Behind The Book That Sparked The War Between
1975. For the record Uncle Tom is characterized as a faithful, loyal slave. It
is also documented that Josiah Henson was also a faithful, loyal slave. Before
we review the work by Cavanah we will review what
Henson said. Josiah Henson was converted to Christianity at 15. I would argue
that his conversion had an impact on his attitude of subservience. Throughout
his early life Josiah Henson notes abuses by various slave Masters. His father
was nailed to a whipping post by his ear. After he was beaten, his ear was torn
or cut from his body. He was eventually sold down south. Later Henson's
siblings were sold off. Henson was also sold away from his mother at age five
or six. If not for an illness, he would have been permanently separated from
his mother. Henson received several brutal beatings in one severe beating he
was maimed for life by an overseer at a neighboring plantation.
But, the most significant act that brings Uncle Tom into focus is
recorded in 1825. His Master asked him to take 18 slaves and his family from
Maryland to Kentucky. He was in debt and would lose his slaves if they remained
in Maryland. In Kentucky they would continue life as slaves. In order to get to
Kentucky they had to pass thorough free territory in Cincinnati. Henson took
the slaves onto Kentucky. The slaves begged Henson to allow them to remain in
free territory. Henson was intent on keeping his word even if it meant to
return to slavery. His attitude was based on his loyalty to his Master and his
Cavanah argues that the
real Uncle Tom was no "Uncle Tom." He was a hero who should be known
and celebrated. This attitude evidently comes from the White apologists and
Black Uncle Tom's who are misinformed about the Black experience. This attitude
is also indicative of those that wish to continue the manipulation of Black
people. It is surely the White perspective that there was such a thing as a
loyal slave. It is for sure that no slave owed any slave Master any form of
loyalty. The slaves that took on this attitude were correctly described as
Uncle Tom's. For those that argue that all slaves were akin to Uncle Tom are
mistaken. They have forgotten about the slaves that staged slave revolts and
Furthermore, this attitude is so evident in that there are erroneous misinterpretations of Henson's bid to freedom. For example in Timelines of African-American History, 500 years of Black Achievement, edited by Tom Cowan, and Jack MaGuire we see the following misinformation:
"1825 Josiah Henson the alleged model for Harriet Beecher Stowe's character "Uncle Tom," leads a group of runaway slaves from Maryland to freedom in Kentucky. Henson later flees to Canada, where he founds a settlement of former slaves. P. 54
Henson himself states that he led these slaves back to slavery, Cavanah also confirms what is found in the autobiography by
Henson. So where did the editors of The Timelines of
African-American History get their facts?
Henson was born in 1789. His first owner was Dr. Josiah McPherson.
He gave him his first name and the last name of an uncle who had served in the
Revolutionary War. Cavanah also notes that Josiah's
father was whipped for defending his mother from a rape attempt by an overseer.
His ear which had been nailed to the whipping post was torn from his body after
When his so-called kind Master Dr. McPherson died he and his family were sold. For the record there were no Kind Master's
during slavery. If they had been kind and compassionate they would not have
owned slaves. The slaves were not allowed to learn to read or write. When
Josiah was found with a book, his Master beat him viciously. Cavanah notes that Josiah saw nothing wrong with taking
food for him and his fellow slaves to eat. Even though the plantations were
centers of agriculture and a place where hogs, cattle, goats, chickens, ducks,
etc. were raised most slave Masters did not provide enough food for the slaves.
Slave Masters were notorious for not providing slaves ample food but slaves
like Josiah Henson still were loyal. Meanwhile Henson thought it would not be
honorable to run away. He was taught that he belonged to his Master. Thus, he
considered himself a piece of property. Men of religion preached that it was a
slave's duty to obey and respect his Master.
After his conversion at 15, he began to preach to the other slaves.
Mostly likely Josiah Henson was the old slave time non
reading Black Preacher that the slave Master controlled. Thus, he was ordered
to preach to other slaves that the slave holder was the Master and by divine
intervention they were slaves. During the week Josiah supervised the other
slaves. (Is it documented during slavery that any of the slaves that led slave
rebellions were overseers on the plantation)? As the overseer he managed the
farm. He also took vegetables to market in Washington. He made a strict account
of all money he received. Even though he is said to have yearned for freedom he
felt it dishonorable to run away. His master was so confident of his
faithfulness that he had Josiah take all of his slaves to Kentucky to his
brother's farm. He influenced all the slaves to return to slavery. Later it is
noted by Cavanah that Henson felt saddened by
betraying his friends and keeping them in slavery. Eventually all of his fellow
slaves were sold down South.
His faith to his Master is further tested when he is allowed to a
pass to go back to Maryland to see his mother. Let me also note at this
juncture that true Christians keep God first. Did Josiah Henson keep man first,
his Master? On the way he once again passed through free territory. As he
passed through the free state of Ohio, instead of running for freedom he earned
money preaching to buy his freedom. When he arrived in Maryland, his old master
agreed on $450 as a price for his freedom. Josiah paid him $350. But, when he
got back to Kentucky, his old master had changed the price to $1000.
Josiah still remained faithful. Finally the brother in Kentucky with
the authority of the brother in Maryland decided to sell him down South. Josiah
considered killing the Master's son who was told to sell him and take the boat
and head North. He knew that many slave holders in the
deep South worked their slaves to death and then
replaced them. He visited the slave plantation where his friends had been sold
in Mississippi. They were all walking death, for they had met the fate of the
cruelest of the slave Masters.
Due to the illness of the Masters' son he was not sold. The son
needed Josiah to take care and nurse him. They returned to Kentucky by steam
boat. Only then did he decide to escape with his family. They arrived in Canada
by way of Lake Erie in 1830. He later joined the abolitionist movement. He
returned at least twice to Kentucky to help other slaves escape.
The conclusion of this note in Black history reveals that it took
almost a life time for Josiah Henson to realize that no man is destined for
slavery. Did this redeem him? Make up your own mind. It is my contention that
Josiah Henson committed unforgivable sins against God and his people. As you
know God will forgive any sin if you repent. I pray that Josiah Henson repented
for his sins. Meanwhile, I argue that he set the precedents for the Uncle Tom
attitude that is still prevalent in the Black community.
It is counter-productive for anyone in a historically oppressed community to support the oppressors over those that are oppressed. Those that commit these crimes are labeled as traitors and Uncle Toms.
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