The Enduring Myth of Uncle Tom

sam-jackson-as-stephen-in-djangoIn the film Django Unchained the character Stephen is fashioned in the image of the imaginary Tom, the faithful Uncle of Birth of a Nation (1915)…an enduring myth of the Old South that still permeates American folklore.

*Note: This piece is in most parts an excerpt taken from a previous blog on the film Django Unchained, revisited for a particular focus.

Welcome Back Uncle Tom

The standout figure of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is likely the villainous character Stephen, played by Samuel Jackson. Indeed, Aisha Harris at Slate called him “Tarantino’s best character yet.” Described by Jackson as a figure that will make him the “most hated black man” in cinematic history, Stephen is the elderly black slave caretaker of Candyland–the plantation of Calvin Candie. Affable, filled with laughter and ever seeking to please, Stephen is the quintessential Tom. Throughout the era of the plantation epics, this caricature could be seen played by Uncle Billy (Bill “Bojangles” Robinson), dancing happily with a young Shirley Temple. He appeared repeatedly, taking on his last major roles as the old dutiful coachman Uncle Peter in Gone with the Wind (1939) and the carefree Uncle Remus of Song of the South (1946).

After the 1960s, inspired by the social unrest of the Civil Rights and later Black Power movements, the Hollywood Tom underwent dramatic transformation. In Slaves (1969) Ossie Davis’s Luke is a loyal Tom who turns out to be in cahoots with the slave rebels–joining them in insurrection. In Mandingo (1975), the slave Agamemnon (Richard Ward) puts on the face of the faithful self-effacing Tom, at one point even agreeing with his master on the non-existence of his own soul. But within the protective space of the slave community he slips his mask, revealing a bitter figure that chafes at bondage; by movie’s end, he kills his master. No one mistook Roots (1977) Fiddler (Louis Gossett Jr.) for a faithful Tom, even if he slipped into that emasculated skin from time to time; his faithfulness was a ruse, a false face for “puttin’ on ole massa,” allowing him a cunning advantage over whites.

Samuel Jackson’s Stephen is none of these. He is a throwback to the real thing–a full-fledged Tom, loyal to the end and wholly invested in the slave regime. Yet, this Tom has its origins less in slavery, and more in the Southern nostalgia of the post-slavery experience. By the late nineteenth century the faithful Tom had become a staple of Southern reminiscence on The Lost Cause. In literature, theatrical performances, orations and everyday observation, white Southerners conducted daily rituals to his memory. Held up in stark contrast was the emerging generation of young blacks, “newfangled Niggers” who were “lazy and thriftless,” much too “serious, self-conscious” or “sullen” and “insolent,” seeming to “retrograde towards barbarism.” The solution for dealing with this troubling present was to look to the past, where loyal Toms toiled happily on the slave plantations of white imaginations. This caricature eventually transferred to the early cinematic screen, where white men in blackface portrayed the loyal Tom. In Confederate Spy (1910), Uncle Daniel is a faithful slave who turns spy for the Confederacy; sacrificing his life before a Northern firing squad, he dies content, knowing that he “did it for massa’s sake.” In For Massa’s Sake (1911) the faithful Uncle Joe volunteers to be sold back into slavery to pay off his master’s debts. A statue to this archetype’s memory (erected in 1927) can still be found in Louisiana today, dedicated to Uncle Jack, a bowing humble figure described as “the good darky.” More grand gestures to the Mammy, the Uncle’s more popular counterpart, also dotted the American landscape. The grandest proposal, made by the Daughters of the Confederacy several times in the 1920s, was to have a statue to Mammy placed in the mall in Washington DC; it was narrowly defeated in Congress.

83420791_8ece9d05a2statue erected in 1927 in the town of Natchitoches, Louisiana. Dubbed “The Good Darky” by local residents, it captures in bronze the epitome of the faithful Uncle.

Django’s Stephen is fashioned in the image of this imaginary Tom, the faithful Uncle of Birth of a Nation (1915) who remains loyal to his owners even after slavery, and takes up arms in their defense against other blacks. He is the Tom who became an epithet in the 1960s, the “Uncle Tom” (taken, somewhat erroneously, from abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin) who betrays his race to curry favor with whites. Tarantino imbues this classic Tom with intellect, guile and a sadistic streak, whose self-hatred lashes out at the other blacks about him. The noticeably darkest-skinned character in the film, Stephen is incomprehensibly evil, shuffling about with his staff and spitting vitriol at other blacks, making “nigger jokes” and laughing heartily with the whites–an un-hip surreal version of Mr. Glass reborn as Aaron McGruder’s “Uncle Ruckus.” We soon learn in fact he is the brains behind Candyland, a type of mentor “Nigger Jim” to his owner Dandie’s Huck Finn.

By the climax of the film, Stephen emerges as the main villain for Django, setting up a plot based on the “house versus field slave” trope. Popularized by Malcolm X in the 1960s to criticize contemporary black politics (most notably the generational strategic differences of activists) this theory alledges that house slaves were inherently tied to their owners due to proximity; they received better treatment and food, and so took on the personality of their masters. The historical record of course shows this reading of the slave past to be overly simplistic. While there were slaves who indeed preferred work in the house over the grueling tasks of the field, it is difficult to generalize their experience. The slave record is riddled with house slaves who, due to their proximity to their masters, suffered some of the worst abuses. In Oklahoma, a mistress stabbed her slave cook in the eye, because her potato was served cold; a Georgia house slave recounted how her young cousin was struck with a board and killed, after accidentally dropping the master’s infant; a Missouri slave related the rape of her mother, a kitchen slave, by her mistresses three sons. Neither were house slaves always more obedient. It was house slaves who spied on their owners for other slaves; who attempted to poison their food; who became part of popular slave folklore for (allegedly) murdering their owners’ infants. This is not to say there were no slaves–either in the field or the house–who acted for their own gain, or against the will of the slave community. Some slaves betrayed insurrection plots, served as drivers and overseers and could be selfish, even brutal, to fellow slaves; they were, again, human beings, with all the requisite frailties. But the Tom archetype, described by Django at one point as the lowest type of slave, is more myth than reality.

Despite the historical evidence, the popular image of the house slave remains one-dimensional and derogatory in popular black discourse. It is an epithet, the eponymous ancestor of modern-day “traitorous” blacks lacking racial awareness–the opposite of the field slave, certain in his black identity, unapologetic and always “down for the cause.” Tarantino, who seems to study black culture with the scrutiny of an anthropologist, fashions Stephen in this mold–in part the Tom of Old South nostalgia, in part the traitorous slave of African-American folklore. The struggle between Django and Stephen thus comes to symbolize this “house slave versus field slave” dynamic. While Django allows the other slaves to flee his vengeful wrath, Stephen suffers the fate of the whites with who he loves so dear. Left to die in the plantation, he is incapable of redemption, his last breath spent declaring his eternal loyalty as Candyland explodes around him.

Through Stephen, the old Tom, once thought dead and buried with the 1960s, has made his triumphant return to cinema, exhibiting a new-found streak of evil genius. In Tarantino’s new take on Old South nostalgia, whites and traitorous blacks colluded to maintain slavery. It is a vision of the slave past that has even bled into contemporary black folklore, in urban mythologies like the Willie Lynch forgery which fantastically purports that an uber-white mad scientist slave master devised an ingenious plan to pit slaves one against the other (young versus old, fair versus dark skinned), hence dooming future descendants to perpetual mental servitude. Like a thing that will not die, the faithful Uncle seems to be reborn again and again, visiting his peculiar behavior upon each generation. Hollywood especially appears to delight in invoking him for the celluloid screen. Welcome back Uncle Tom–seems getting rid of you is much harder than many thought.

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