Uncle Tom has a legacy rich in racism and is a derogatory term applied to blacks who “sellout.” Sambo is also rich in racism and is a derogatory term. Historically, these two have been used interchangeably although they are not the same. These two are so intertwined in modern society and so incorporated into our language I am not sure they can ever be separated. It will be difficult to view them as anything other than names used to describe black people who betray other black people. (Think Tom Dubois on the social and political television comedy Boondocks.)
In this post, I will give some background on the Coon, the Sambo, and the Uncle Tom and reveal the truth on how Tom was not the sellout we have made him out to be.
Let’s start with the Coon caricature. The name is an abbreviation of the word Racoon so that the name alone is dehumanizing. The prototype for the coon caricature was Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, known by his stage name as Stepin Fetchit. His signature was that he was the world’s laziest man. He was always sleepy, his eyes low and his speech slow. He took minutes just to complete simple sentences. A scene of him laying in bed in pajamas taking three whole minutes to answer the phone and then another whole minute to say “hello” is what could be expected of his stage performances. The idea behind the coon was that he acted like a child although he was an adult. Stepin Fetchit also tap danced (hence “step it”) so that “Perry epitomized the mumbling, shuffling, buck-eyed buffoon who acted like he didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.” (BlackThen)
Stepin Fetchit manifested what racists whites thought of blacks and became one of the top paid black entertainers of his time.
The Sambo was portrayed as lazy, easily frightened, and chronically idle, an inarticulate buffoon. While the Coon was considered an adult who acted like a child, the Sambo was not considered an adult but was depicted as a perpetual child incapable of living as an Independent adult. What is important to note about the Sambo and the Coon was that they were born from names applied to the characteristics of real people. This is important to remember when we get to Uncle Tom. A stereotype is created when a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular person or thing applies to an entire group of people. Perry was certainly a buffoon, the real-life version of the coon but to refer to all so-called African Americans as coon is what created the stereotype.
The Sambo caricature was born from enslaved blacks who were so loyal and dedicated to the slave owner they would betray their own people. The characteristics of the Sambo really did (and does) exist. “Stereotypes are “cognitive structures that contain the perceiver’s knowledge, beliefs, and expectations about human groups” (Peffley et al., 1997, p. 31). These cognitive constructs are often created out of a kernel of truth and then distorted beyond reality (Hoffmann, 1986). Racial stereotypes are constructed beliefs that all members of the same race share given characteristics. These attributed characteristics are usually negative (Jewell, 1993).” The Coon and Sambo stereotypes contain kernels of truth. There really were blacks who were happy and willing to betray, and completely aid in the destruction of their own people.
(Notice that “Acting white” is not part of the characteristic of the Sambo or Coon. The thing that made the Sambo and Coon an embarrassment and disgrace to the race was their loyalty to those who oppressed them, their betrayal of their brethren and their willingness to make a fool of both themselves and their people. Being intellectual, prompt, professional, and well spoken are not traits that “belong” to “white” people and certainly had nothing to do with these stereotypes. It’s actually the opposite. Racists at that time did not want blacks to read, write, display characteristics of dignity and esteem and professionalism. They wanted to portray them as ignorant, foolish, and childish.)
While the Sambo and Coon caricatures fit this description, Uncle Tom was not the same and it would take an entirely different post to look into how he became associated with these caricatures. For now, let’s see who he really was.
Again, stereotypes come from kernels of truth. Just as Lincoln Perry was the epitome of the Coon, and sellout blacks were the real-life Sambos, the fictionalized story of the Uncle Tom was inspired by a man named Josiah Henson.
Josiah was an author, abolitionist, minister, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson’s father was whipped, got his ear cut off, and was sold south after hitting a white man who tried to rape his wife. Henson never saw his father again, but this gives us insight into Josiah’s character. He became a preacher through memorizing verses although he couldn’t, at the time, read and write. In 1830, Henson ran away with his wife and two youngest children, walking over 600 miles to Canada but he didn’t stop there.
“Henson helped start in 1841 a freeman settlement called the British American Institute, in an area called Dawn, which became known as one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad. Henson repeatedly returned to the U.S. to guide 118 other slaves to freedom. It was a massively dangerous undertaking, but Henson saw a greater purpose than simply living out his life in Ontario, Canada. In addition to his service to the school, Henson ran a farm, started a gristmill, bred horses, and built a sawmill for high-quality black lumber— so good, in fact, that it won him a medal at the first World’s Fair in London ten years later.”
Henson’s life inspired the work of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Tom displayed the following characteristics:
- He refused to beat black women
- He refused to force other black people to pick cotton
- He took the cotton out of his own bag and put it in other’s bags so those slaves wouldn’t get whipped for not having the proper weight (as you know, the enslaved had to pick a certain amount of cotton or they would be punished.)
- And he refused to tell where attempted escaping slaves were hiding
Josiah Henson is Uncle Tom. He was not a Coon, and he was not a Sambo. “Uncle Tom,” helped hundreds of enslaved men, women, and children escape North years before the Underground Railroad. He was a good man and a great leader. The truth about Uncle Tom is this:
To refer to blacks who portray characteristics of coons and sell outs as Uncle Toms is a disrespect to Henson’s legacy. To refer to intelligent and well spoken blacks as Uncle Tom’s is actually a compliment.
Henson was no sell out and neither was Tom.
Be sure to check out other Black History Fun Facts on the page here.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, paperback edition
Black Then: How Being Ghetto Fabulous Caused Stepin Fetchit to Lose It All
Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African-Americans
The Coon Caricature