“I would compare it to Star Wars.”
Cheryl Thompson may not be referring to what you’d expect when she says that. The “it” in her statement is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which has since become a canonical text in American literature and literature about slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War. It is also the inspiration for Thompson’s own new book of cultural criticism, Uncle: Race, Nostalgia, and the Politics of Loyalty, published by Coach House Books. Thompson’s text provides a historical examination of how the character of Uncle Tom went from being a sympathetic symbol of the evils of slavery to an insult targeting Black men accused of being race traitors.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a sentimental story about the eponymous figure – bought by the kindly Mr. Selby then sold to the brutal and dissolute Simon Legree – was a huge bestseller in its time and became enormously influential among abolitionists. No less a figure than Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have quipped, upon meeting the author, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” It is in the context of the book’s outsized impact that Thompson locates it alongside George Lucas’s culture defining cinematic space opera. “It’s a mega book that changed everything. Everything you read after that, you point back to that.”
Thompson was a latecomer to Stowe’s novel, which she first encountered in her early twenties. Her initial experience involved surprise, not so much at the denseness of the 19th-century prose – something she also points to – but the treatment of the central character. Growing up in the late 20th century, Thompson’s understanding of the term “Uncle Tom” was as an epithet, something hurled at Black men who stood accused of some sort of wrongdoing. “You read the novel, and it’s kind of this sentimental tale; you’re meant to empathize with Uncle Tom in the novel,” she says. “I actually didn’t really get it.”
Thompson was working as an insurance claims adjuster at the time and she read the novel during her commute from the suburbs into Toronto. It took her close to a year to get through. Once she finished, she put the book on the shelf, where she expected it to stay. “I never in my wildest dreams thought I would write about the book,” she says. “That was not my intention.”
Of course, life has a way of messing with even the best intentions. What drew Thompson back to the novel was a confluence of events in her own life and in the city around her.
Beginning in 2015, a parking lot behind Toronto’s City Hall was excavated as the projected site of a new court house. Sitting in the heart of what used to be the Ward, an immigrant Toronto enclave from the mid-19th century through the Second World War, the dig site uncovered a treasure trove of artifacts relating to Black history in the city. One of the pieces uncovered was a plate featuring an illustration of Eliza, an enslaved character in Stowe’s novel, fleeing her captors with her young son. Around the same time, Thompson was struck by a display at Toronto’s St. James Cathedral that included memorabilia related to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Part of the exhibit comprised what she calls “a little shrine” to Josiah Henson, the formerly enslaved founder of a Dresden, Ontario, settlement for fugitive slaves; Henson is considered by some to be the inspiration for the character of Uncle Tom.
Simultaneous to Thompson’s reacquaintance with the subject of Stowe’s novel, John Lorinc, editor of Spacing magazine and an editor at Coach House Books, read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in part because he was interested in putting together a sequel to his 2015 edited collection The Ward, which would focus specifically on the artifacts from the recent excavation. (That sequel, The Ward Uncovered, appeared in 2018.) Knowing Thompson had written some academic articles on the subject, he called her up and invited her for coffee to discuss the novel. In the course of their conversation about the history and enduring impact of Stowe’s work, Lorinc suggested there was a book there and that Thompson should be the one to write it.
Returning to Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a sort of revelation for Thompson, who had acquired a PhD in the interim and was, by her own reckoning, much more informed about literature and history than she had been in her early twenties. “I realized that the book was actually a political book,” she says. “It was making a political statement.”
What she saw the second time around was not so much the sympathetic hero of her memory, but an infantilized character who is rendered inferior through the novel’s sentimental gaze. “I started to realize that Uncle Tom has lived on in all these different manifestations that actually have nothing to do with the novel,” she says.
Thompson traces this infantilization in Uncle through an examination of Stowe’s primary text, but also through pop cultural ephemera such as Shirley Temple movies, in which the cherubic blonde child star is featured dancing with Black actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; the pair offer an echo in Thompson’s reading of Uncle Tom and Eva, the young daughter of the plantation owner Mr. Shelby. The early presentations of Black men as peers for white girls was a manifestation of one of Thompson’s central arguments: that white North American culture will only accept a Black man who has been completely emasculated and appears utterly unthreatening. “That was the point I was trying to articulate in the book in a kind of slow and meticulous way. Because I think people just don’t realize it,” she says. “They don’t see it until they see it.”
One reason we don’t see it, Thompson’s book argues, is that we are too nostalgic for unquestioned stereotypes from years past. These include the helpful, nurturing mammy of Gone with the Wind (or her corporate counterpart, Aunt Jemima), the demure subservience of Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or the rectitude of Barack Obama, who seemed never to get angry in public because to do so would have been to signal an unacceptable violence. “We are not yet evolved as a human race where we can understand the nuance of what it means to be human,” she says. “What it means to be human is you’re good and you’re bad.”
What stands in for this nuanced understanding, in Thompson’s estimation, is the racism inherent in the portrayal of Disney’s Uncle Remus (in the notorious 1946 film Song of the South), the caricatures of Amos ’n’ Andy and the Jimmie Walker character on Good Times, and the corporate friendliness of O.J. Simpson’s Hertz ads. Like all stereotypes, each of these represents an internalized oversimplification of Black lives and Black experience, often with the goal of making them palatable for white audiences. “You’ve been inundated with that stereotypical image your entire life,” Thompson says. “That’s why you can see Kevin Hart in a movie do some buffoonery and the Black community is outraged but then white people say, ‘I like that movie.’ ”
What such attitudes fail to countenance is the extent to which Black people – both public and private – are forced to curtail their true selves, in much the way Uncle Tom was forced to do in Stowe’s novel, just to survive in a society that is canted in their disfavour. Even such iconic figures as Sidney Poitier – whom Thompson contrasts with more militant Black contemporaries such as Harry Belafonte and Ossie Davis – have had to tone down their images in order to appeal to a broad (read: white) populace. “These figures that you may have really liked, they’re performing,” Thompson says. “They’re doing a lot of things that are actually counterintuitive to what they would do if the world wasn’t the way it was.”
Indeed, if there is one through-line in Uncle, it involves the inability of Western culture to see Black people as fully human, to rise above broad stereotypes and accept Black people as nuanced, flawed, passionate individuals. “A lot of people maybe haven’t given that much thought,” Thompson says. “And this is the reason why when protest happens, people don’t know where it’s coming from.”
It is for this reason that Thompson cannot, after repeated exposures, claim to like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, notwithstanding a true appreciation for what Stowe accomplished – culturally, if not on the page. “I don’t like the book at all. To me, Birth of a Nation doesn’t get made if there’s no Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because it created the same archetypes that D.W. Griffith’s film really aggrandized for a specific political purpose,” Thompson says. “For that, I don’t like it. But I do respect the fact that it was the first mega-popular book ever produced in America.”