Uncle Tom is a concept that has been used in Black America to describe a Black person whom the community believes acts adversely to Black interests and bends over backwards to appease Whites in general and oppressive Whites in particular. In one respect, it could be argued that the concept “Uncle Tom” is a relative concept whose meaning resides in the eye of the beholder. One thing that is certain about the concept “Uncle Tom” is that it is not a flattering term; nor is it meant to be a compliment. The relativity of the term first dawned upon me during a lecture in my classroom. This was during the time when my institution had its first Black president who happened to be a Black male. I asked an open ended question to the class. “What do you think about our president?” A swift answer leapt from one of the students. “He’s and Uncle Tom!” I was quite astounded by his response. I believe the student was referring to the college’s first Black president as an Uncle Tom simply because he wore a suit and tie at a majority White institution. Oblivious to the student was the reality that some of his peers would refer to him in the same manner simply because he was a student in college. Ironically, the student was sitting where the Black college president had once sat. I do not know what happened to that particular student. However, I do know that it possible that he is somewhere in a prominent position wearing a suit and tie.
This is not an attack on the aforementioned student. I have also used the term “Uncle Tom” to refer to other African Americans whom I believe are working against the aggregate interests of Black people in the United States. I also have no doubt that I have been referred to as an Uncle Tom by someone who does not know me. Nevertheless, I have a long list of individuals whom I have labelled as an Uncle Tom. Included on this list are Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Dr. Ben Carson, former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, Stacey Dash, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Donald Trump’s African American Outreach Coordinator Omarossa Manigault, Ward Connerly, Allen West, Allen Keyes, and a host of conservative television political commentators whose names are too numerous to mention. Ironically, before General Collin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for President in 2008 and 2012, I referred to Collin Powell as an Uncle Tom. Although I have never referred to President Obama as an Uncle Tom, many in the Black community have used the term to describe President Obama. The current Green Party Vice Presidential candidate, Ajamu Baracka, has referred to President Obama as an “Uncle Tom.” Disclaimer. Ajamu Baracka and I attended grad school at Atlanta University (CAU) together. There are times when I believe the term “Uncle Tom” hurled at Blacks by other Blacks whether warranted or unwarranted carries an equivalent sting of the term “Nigger” being hurled at Blacks from Whites.
The inspiration for this particular article came from watching a debate over the presidential race on MSNBC’s AM JOY. A liberal African American commentator made a comment about Donald Trump’s mental health. Immediately one of the conservative Black commentators forcefully chastised the liberal commentator for making such remarks about “Mr. Trump.” Upon hearing this exchange I immediately thought about Malcolm X and his differentiation between the “Field Negro” and the “House Negro.” Malcolm’s explanation is as follows: So you have two types of Negro. The old type and the new type. Most of you know the old type. When you read about him in history during slavery he was called “Uncle Tom.” He was the house Negro. And during slavery you had two Negroes. You had the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negro usually lived close to his master. He dressed like his master. He wore his master’s second-hand clothes. He ate food that his master left on the table. And he lived in his master’s house–probably in the basement or the attic–but he still lived in the master’s house. So whenever that house Negro identified himself, he always identified himself in the same sense that his master identified himself. When his master said, “We have good food,” the house Negro would say, “Yes, we have plenty of good food.” “We” have plenty of good food. When the master said that “we have a fine home here,” the house Negro said, “Yes, we have a fine home here.” When the master would be sick, the house Negro identified himself so much with his master he’d say, “What’s the matter boss, we sick?” His master’s pain was his pain. And it hurt him more for his master to be sick than for him to be sick himself. When the house started burning down, that type of Negro would fight harder to put the master’s house out than the master himself would.
There is a great deal of talk about “White working class anger.” To some extent, news media even attempt to justify racism based on Whites feeling shut out from economic progress. The most troubling aspects of such presentations is the presence of Black people at the same rallies. Black anger over police brutality and lack of jobs seems to be dismissed. For example, I question the presence of Blacks at Republican Presidential rallies. Yes, Blacks are angry. But what is it that brings on your anger. I even heard a conservative Black television commentator denouncing the Black Lives Matter Movement. I expect such rhetoric from Rudolph Giuliani, Bill O’Reilly, and Ann Coulter. But when I hear such anti-Black rhetoric emanating from a Black person, all I can wonder is if “We sick?”
Anthony Neal earned his Ph.D. in political science at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). Dr. Neal is an associate professor at State University College, Buffalo. The author of numerous book reviews and journal articles, he has had his work published in the Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Black Studies, and Black Issues in Higher Education. In 2014 Dr. Neal received the university’s Faculty Appreciation Award, was named Instructor of the Year by the university’s United Student Government, and Professor of the Year by the Student Political Society in the Department of Political Science. In 2015, he published The American Political Narrative which is a succinct yet poignant narrative about the development of the American political system and what is needed to maintain it. In 2016, he will publish a book of poetry entitled “Love Agnostic | from 9/11 to Charleston”
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