The Philistine

The Forgiveness of Uncle Tom

In the November issue, Quadrant’s resident culture critic alerted readers to the “Let’s Go Brandon” phenomenon that swept the United States this northern fall. See page 112 for details—or just ask Google. The internet will tell you instantly that Let’s Go Brandon is a “minced oath” without mincing words about just what that oath is. Here in Quadrantspace, our erstwhile Matthew Arnold more politely explained that Let’s Go Brandon is “a three-word chant aimed at the [current] US President”. It’s a meme in which Let’s stands in for a popular adult pastime, Go rhymes with Joe, and Brandon is assonant with Biden. Now ubiquitous wherever crowds sense the presence of a television camera, “Let’s Go Brandon” is also a popular rap song that reached number one on the Apple iTunes sales chart. This, despite being banned from YouTube for … medical misinformation (because everyone turns to rap music for medical advice). Ironically, the lyric in question was “If you ask questions ’bout the vax, then they gonna ban us”. How true.

Australians may have heard of another snippet from the song, the classic couplet:

Look at Australia, that’s what’s comin’ next if we don’t stand up
Stop complyin’ with them takin’ our rights, it’s time to man up

The musical genius behind “Let’s Go Brandon” is the Christian conservative rapper Bryson Gray, whose previous hits include “Trump Is Your President” (from the 2020 album Maga Ain’t Got No Color) and “Gun Totin’ Patriot” and “Chinese Virus” (from Maga Szn, also released in 2020, and undoubtedly his greatest work to date). The most provocative song from Maga Szn (that’s youngspeak for “season”) is undoubtedly “Uncle Tom”, a deeply introspective song in which Gray samples conservative commentator Anthony Brian Logan confessing, in Spartacus style, “I’m an Uncle Tom”. Gray’s own lyrical refrain laments:

When you a black conservative, what type of words you get?
House negro, Uncle Tom, the worst of it

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a classic of American literature. You know it’s a classic, because it’s been banned—twice. The book tells the story of an antebellum African-American whose Christ-like revolt against slavery is won, not with his ephemeral fists, but in his eternal soul. Over the years, the name of Stowe’s title character has become an epithet for (to quote the OED) “a black man who is considered to be excessively obedient or servile to white people”. Any African-American public figure who does not advocate armed revolution is bound to be branded an Uncle Tom. Malcolm X famously called Martin Luther King Jr a “twentieth-century or modern Uncle Tom”. Alan Keyes, Ben Carson, Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain, Larry Elder, Thomas Sowell, Tim Scott: all Uncle Toms. They should be proud; they’re in good company. Australia’s own Stan Grant and Warren Mundine have also been honoured with the distinction.

Reviled by the Southern slavocracy, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was originally banned in the South, for its uncompromising condemnation of slavery. These days, it is more likely to be banned in the North, for—what else?—racism.

Truth be told, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not so much banned as contraband. You can order it on Amazon, but good luck finding it in a school library. Of course, it uses the “n-word”—105 times. But the book’s problems go much deeper than that. It is a subversive book that peddles offensive racial stereotypes wrapped in a seemingly acceptable critique of slavery. It portrays a little blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl as a preternaturally wise angel of mercy. It humanises “good” slave-owners and offers sympathy for the plight of the slave trader whose “property” commits suicide on the voyage downriver. Despite Stowe’s best efforts, Uncle Tom’s Cabin turned out to be a thoroughly, unapologetically, root-and-branch racist novel. And the author seems to have been as racist as her novel. She compounded her literary errors by committing the horrific thought crime of comparing her sense of loss following the death of her infant son to the travails of mothers separated from their children at slave auctions.

Yet Stowe was a progressive among progressives, thoroughly up to date on the practice of being ahead of her time. Her father was the president of a Presbyterian seminary that refused to enrol escaped slaves; Stowe was involved in a student walk-out that bankrupted the institution. In collaboration with her professor husband, Stowe ran a station on the Underground Railroad, the illegal network of smuggling runaway slaves to freedom in Canada. She wrote for the Atlantic, then as now the conscience of America’s liberal establishment. Anticipating progressive concerns with preserving authenticity and giving voice to the voiceless, Stowe even published a supplement to Uncle Tom’s Cabin that presented the original slave narratives on which her novel was based. Immediately after the Civil War, Stowe moved to Florida, where she taught emancipated slaves at a school founded by one of her brothers. In later life, she helped establish art museums and an art school.

How did such a goody-two-shoes write such a bad novel? No one at the time thought it was bad, except for Southerners, and as culture critics they hardly count. Frederick Douglas, the first great African-American intellectual and himself an escaped former slave, lauded the book upon its publication, writing that “the friends of freedom owe the Authoress a large debt of gratitude for this essential service rendered by her to the cause they love”. Another abolitionist former slave, the novelist and playwright William Wells Brown, wrote that Uncle Tom’s Cabin “has come down upon the dark abodes of slavery like a morning sunlight”. The novel has been credited with accelerating the end of slavery in America—and serfdom in Russia. Even the radical intellectual James Baldwin, who famously called Uncle Tom’s Cabin “a very bad novel”, criticised it only in the literary sense. He actually praised Stowe’s “laudable determination to flinch from nothing in presenting the complete picture” of slavery.

It was the post-war civil rights movement that put paid to the reputation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Baldwin played a part in that, perhaps the decisive role. His beef with the book wasn’t its use of racial stereotypes; he took those for granted. His more serious objection was the book’s Christianity, the “medieval morality … posing its alternatives between heaven and the flames”. In Baldwin’s indictment, Stowe’s most serious crime was that she gave her title character the highest praise she could imagine: she modelled him on Jesus. Not implicitly; explicitly. At the climax of the novel, when Tom is whipped by the slave-owner Legree, “everything around him seemed to fade, and a vision rose before him of one crowned with thorns, buffeted and bleeding”. As Tom’s body lost consciousness, “his soul woke”, and “the sharp thorns became rays of glory; and, in splendor inconceivable, he saw that same face bending compassionately towards him”.

Tom lost consciousness for two nights, and when on the third day he gave up the ghost, “the expression of his face was that of a conqueror”.

It was his Christian perfection—his embodiment of the Christian injunction to “turn the other cheek”—that turned Tom into an Uncle Tom. What to the nineteenth-century progressive Harriet Beecher Stowe was the highest compliment she could pay to any man became to the twentieth-century progressive James Baldwin the epitome of the slave morality. Stowe’s failure, it seems, was that she hadn’t read Nietzsche. She was still so naive as to think that “Christlike” was a compliment.

Sadly for Stowe and her legacy, progress is a moving target. Present-day progressives, beware: today’s virtue signals are apt to become tomorrow’s shibboleths. It’s not hard to think of edgily progressive positions on race and race relations that might look embarrassingly dated in the not-too-distant future. Setting up “safe spaces” for members of racial minorities (as if they were too weak to fend for themselves); demanding that athletes “take the knee” when national anthems are played; accusing white musicians of “cultural appropriation” for singing songs written by (and earning royalties for) black songwriters; forcing kindergarteners to confess their incipient white privilege: none of these currently fashionable practices seems likely to age well.

In a world where nearly every “person of colour” is what Stowe would have called a “mulatto” or a “quadroon”, and most “whites” are just white enough to pass, we might all dream of the day when people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. When that judgment day comes, Harriet Beecher Stowe will certainly pass the test. So will Uncle Tom, Martin Luther King, and—yes—probably Malcolm X. As for today’s race-baiters and Twitter scolds, well … Tom will forgive them, just as he forgave the slave-owner Legree. The rest of us may not be so kind.

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