In a recent documentary on Michigan’s “Fab Five,” Jalen Rose charges that Duke only recruited black players that were “Uncle Toms.” Of course this has raised a ruckus all over. But this is nothing new. The term “Uncle Tom” has been used by Blacks against Blacks for years. Often interchangeable with that other favorite term, “sell out,” it’s used to describe someone who, in essence, acts white in the eyes of the person who is throwing out the term. Of course, if you’re Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, you are called Uncle Tom, sell out, AND depicted on the cover of a black-oriented magazine as a lawn jockey, but I digress.
The Original Uncle Tom was from Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe, who was anti-slavery, used her novel as an eye-poke to the pro-slavery folks of the day. But many blacks in the day (and after) weren’t happy with the fact that Uncle Tom was a very subservient, “God will save me” character instead of one who fought back against his situation. Fast forward some years. As blacks continued to fight for rights and fight to be treated equally, some managed to do well and begin to assimilate to what at the time were lifestyle activities more akin to whites in the US. Those who went too far were prone to catch the “Uncle Tom” nickname.
So, back to Mr. Rose. He looks at his own background, which wasn’t so easy. He looks at the black players at Duke, including Grant Hill, who many people know came from a 2 parent household, with a former NFL player for a dad and a highly educated mom. And instead of saying “well, we’re just different,” he plays the UT card.
Now, to paraphrase (and agree with) what my friend Hashim Uqdah tweeted just this morning, I doubt he had even read the book to know where the term came from. Then again, MOST folks who say it probably didn’t read the book. They heard it and decided its nice and handy to use. But ultimately, it comes down to one thing: the person using the term has decided that the target of the slur isn’t black enough.
When I heard about Rose and his quote, I wasn’t thinking this, but then that jumped into my head and I realized it was true. Somewhere, there is a “Black Handbook” that lists all the things a black person should say, do, like, eat, drink, and even think. Violators are treated harshly (look up the movie “DROP Squad”). Now, I’m not condoning those decide to completely forget their life, history, and heritage (example: OJ Simpson seems to be in that category, and made a triumphant return to being black around the time he went on trial for murder). But for the majority, simply doing the activities mentioned earlier was enough. As things have changed in the 2000s, and we see more and more starting to “make it,” the Uncle Tom moniker tends to be focused more on politics. Black and conservative? Yep, Uncle Tom. Disagree with affirmative action? Oh, yeah, UT. And don’t be a Tea Party member!
Bottom line is, it is a true shame that within the black community, we often end up tearing down others who may not fit a certain mold instead of simply saying “to each their own.” One wonders if we will ever get to that point.