Pick any black man or woman “sell-out” and you can be sure to hear the term “Uncle Tom”. A “sell-out” can be defined as anyone who despises something about themselves such as their own people, company, or family and as a result turns them in either literally or figuratively speaking. “Sell-Outs” are basically haters and are known to be deceptive in exchange for personal greed or gain (by “selling people out”). The term can be traced as far back as biblical days when Esau “sold” his birthright to Jacob for red stew. Here, Esau literally “sold-out” to Jacob by selling his inheritance for something as futile as lentil stew. In the black community, a “sell-out” is known as someone who despises being black or something about being black (or is ashamed of that blackness in any way) usually causing them to behave in a two-faced and deceptive manner as to cause shame or harm to their own people. For this reason, many have come to characterize such individuals as “Uncle Tom’s”.
But who was Uncle Tom? And should his name be used in such a derogatory way?
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a great book of study for this. The book is an extensive one, but provides great insight into this subject manner. I have the book, but its a 500 pager and the thought of producing a summary was taxing just thinking about it so I took the lazy way. Below is an online summary:
“Having run up large debts, a Kentucky farmer named Arthur Shelby faces the prospect of losing everything he owns. Though he and his wife, Emily Shelby, have a kindhearted and affectionate relationship with their slaves, Shelby decides to raise money by selling two of his slaves to Mr. Haley, a coarse slave trader. The slaves in question are Uncle Tom, a middle-aged man with a wife and children on the farm, and Harry, the young son of Mrs. Shelby’s maid Eliza. When Shelby tells his wife about his agreement with Haley, she is appalled because she has promised Eliza that Shelby would not sell her son.
However, Eliza overhears the conversation between Shelby and his wife and, after warning Uncle Tom and his wife, Aunt Chloe, she takes Harry and flees to the North, hoping to find freedom with her husband George in Canada. Haley pursues her, but two other Shelby slaves alert Eliza to the danger. She miraculously evades capture by crossing the half-frozen Ohio River, the boundary separating Kentucky from the North. Haley hires a slave hunter named Loker and his gang to bring Eliza and Harry back to Kentucky. Eliza and Harry make their way to a Quaker settlement, where the Quakers agree to help transport them to safety. They are joined at the settlement by George, who reunites joyously with his family for the trip to Canada.
Meanwhile, Uncle Tom sadly leaves his family and Mas’r George, Shelby’s young son and Tom’s friend, as Haley takes him to a boat on the Mississippi to be transported to a slave market. On the boat, Tom meets an angelic little white girl named Eva, who quickly befriends him. When Eva falls into the river, Tom dives in to save her, and her father, Augustine St. Clare, gratefully agrees to buy Tom from Haley. Tom travels with the St. Clares to their home in New Orleans, where he grows increasingly invaluable to the St. Clare household and increasingly close to Eva.
After Tom has lived with the St. Clares for two years, Eva grows very ill. She slowly weakens, then dies, with a vision of heaven before her. Her death has a profound effect on everyone who knew her: Ophelia resolves to love the slaves, Topsy learns to trust and feel attached to others, and St. Clare decides to set Tom free. However, before he can act on his decision, St. Clare is stabbed to death while trying to settle a brawl.
St. Clare’s cruel wife, Marie, sells Tom to a vicious plantation owner named Simon Legree. Tom is taken to rural Louisiana with a group of new slaves, including Emmeline, whom the demonic Legree has purchased to use as a sex slave, replacing his previous sex slave Cassy. Legree takes a strong dislike to Tom when Tom refuses to whip a fellow slave as ordered. Tom receives a severe beating, and Legree resolves to crush his faith. Tom meets Cassy, and hears her story. Separated from her daughter by slavery, she became pregnant again but killed the child because she could not stand to have another child taken from her.”
I’m going to stop right here for explanation. Although this summary includes spoilers, I think its worth it due the nature of this article. If you’ve read Uncle Tom’s Cabin (there was also a movie made in 1987), you know that Uncle Tom is a black man who refuses to obey his white oppressors in relation to harm against blacks and suffers because of it. In fact, not only does he suffer, but Uncle Tom dies because he refuses to beat another slave.
For years, we have been taught that the Uncle Tom’s were those who sold out to the race and we’ve wrongly applied this term to those who we feel have sold us out. When you read the books and do the research and compare the character of the Uncle Tom figure and the Sambo figure, it was Sambo who is more closely related to what we have come to know as the sell-out. Sambo was originally used in a derogatory way to refer to African Americans who were of mixed ancestry (specifically European and African American). It was basically just another word for “Mulatto”. Later, it came to be applied to those blacks who would do anything to please their white masters, including sell out their brothers. In Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained for instance, this is the exact character of Stephen (as pictured, played by Samuel L. Jackson) who was so loyal to his master that he’d rather watch Django die than to help his brother and his wife in their quest for freedom. In this movie Samuel played a Sambo, not an Uncle Tom.
However, though Uncle Tom was technically not a sell out, the term will continue to be associated with those who are. For this, it is not a positive thing to be referred to as a “Tom”. It still means sellout in today’s world. This information is to shed light on the fact that the Sambo was historically the sell out. Not the Tom.