The Neighborhood Writing Alliance’s 2012 Every Person Is a Philosopher Annual Benefit is just around the corner on June 7! Our featured speaker will be Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of the New York Times Bestseller Wench. For the first time ever, we’re hosting a virtual book club in the weeks leading up to the event! Each Wednesday we’ll be posting a piece from the Journal of Ordinary Thought related to themes in Wench, along with discussion questions for the book. Make sure to read the book club questions from our first, second and third weeks, as well as a guest post from Dolen Perkins-Valdez launching the book club. And, if you’re new to NWA, read about who we are here.
TOM’S NOT SUCH A BAD GUY AFTER ALL
K. C. Hagans
At our family dinner on his Thanksgiving break from college, my nephew Louis pulled me aside. We walked out to the hallway, where we could hear ourselves talk over the football game on the flat screen and the laughter of the young kids. I could see he was eager to talk to me, and I was glad to see he was making the adjustment to life without his helicopter mother, my sister.
“Uncle, it’s really been fun so far,” said Louis, who had grown another inch and towered above me. “The first year was all a blur, but now I’m really finding time for both study and some other activities.”
My ears perked up as I searched for the name of last year’s sweetheart. “How is …?” I mumbled.
Louis interrupted: “How is Debra? She’s fine, Unc, but we stopped seeing each other over the summer.” Louis looked at me and hesitated before continuing. “But that’s not what I want to talk about. It’s the book about Uncle Tom,” Louis stopped to see my reaction.
“Right, the title is Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe,” I replied, wondering why he wanted to talk about a book written right before the start of the American Civil War, more than one hundred years ago.
He continued, “I remember you arguing with Uncle David when I was a kid, and I didn’t see what you were saying then, about how most black people are being misled by the myth of Uncle Tom. Uncle Tom was a sell-out because he wanted to be in the master’s good graces so he could live a comfortable life in the home of his white master instead of slave quarters with slaves who worked in the fields.”
I countered, “But that was almost ten years ago, and almost everyone was making fun of what I was saying.” I shook my head, saying, “But back then, even I was surprised after I actually read the book and found out that the common myth is wrong. Uncle Tom was not a sell-out, but a man who was being responsible for his family in the best way he could under the circumstances.”
Louis looked sheepishly and said in a low voice, “I think you were right. Uncle Tom was the hero in the story. Why is it that black folks keep calling each other ‘Uncle Tom’ as if it’s a bad thing? He stood up for his family and God. When did that become a bad thing?”
Louis looked to me for the answer to why we casually put down each other for getting along in society and working hard with people who work with us, regardless of whether they are black, brown, or white.
I said, “Sometimes rumors or myths are hard to stop. This one has probably been around since the book came out to discredit its author and discourage people, especially people of color, from reading it. We just need to remember that the saying ‘knowledge is power’ begins with reading for yourself and not just repeating what you heard someone say.”
Louis nodded his head in agreement and said, “Yes, but it’s hard to be in the barbershop or just hanging out with the fellows without going along when somebody calls someone else an Uncle Tom.”
I told him that he would have to find a way to express a different viewpoint, but it would be worth it. Both Uncle Tom and I would be supportive, having his back for standing up against a common myth that hurts our community.
“Tom’s Not Such A Bad Guy After All” was originally published in “I Believed Every Word,” the Winter 2012 issue of JOT.
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written in 1852 (the year Wench takes place) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white woman, as an anti-slavery novel. The novel describes the trials of several enslaved families, all connected by Uncle Tom, as they try to live a Christian life even under the cruelty of slavery. The book has been extremely controversial since its publication, at first by slave-owning Southerners who claimed it exaggerated both the hardships of slavery and the emotional and intellectual capacities of their slaves. Later, it was criticized for perpetuating stereotypes and degrading blacks to the point of negating its overall anti-slavery message. What K. C. Hagans describes as the “myth of Uncle Tom” is the criticism that Uncle Tom’s character merely “sells out” to the white characters and cares more about making his own life easy rather than fighting slavery. Hagans says he suspects the myth of Uncle Tom came into being “to discredit its author and discourage people, especially people of color, from reading it.” Why do you think the myth of Uncle Tom exists?
- The “myth of Uncle Tom” is one of the stereotypes about slavery in literature. What other stereotypes about slavery have you encountered in literature? Are these harmful or helpful? Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench has been praised for showing that the emotions of the enslaved mistresses about their masters are extremely complicated, and their reasons for running and staying are highly nuanced. Do you see Wench as reacting against certain stereotypes perpetuated in other novels? Do you understand and sympathize with the characters who choose not to run?
- What nuances and emotions does Perkins-Valdez build into Lizzie’s thought process when Lizzie betrays Mawu’s decision to run to Drayle? Is she merely thinking of her own comfort over her community’s? Who is she trying to protect? Later in the novel, when Mawu decides to run again, Lizzie says nothing. What has changed? Why do you think her decision is different the second time, especially since she does not run herself? Do you have sympathy for her situation, whether or not you agree with the choices she makes?