This afternoon one of my professors asked the class why Uncle Tom particularly dislikes being beaten by other slaves. A white guy in the back responded by saying that it’s “like getting beaten by your mother. It just doesn’t gel well in your psyche.”
Guess what? No one batted an eye.
I wrote it down in my notes, careful not to miss a word, but said nothing.
Not only was I stupefied, I was also already tired from trying to deal with another discussion topic. Other white guys in the class were going on and on about how Uncle Tom is like Jesus because he’s kind to those who treat him poorly. It made my skin crawl, for some reasons I could name and some I couldn’t. I didn’t want to listen to any white person explain how there is goodness and righteousness in Tom’s subservient devotion to his masters, and I felt ashamed to be there. (I know, I know, Tom helps free other slaves and does not support slavery. But he stays with and prays for and looks after his slave masters, and I so wish Stowe hadn’t written it that way.) I contended that Jesus lived outside of and in defiance of the system while Uncle Tom perpetuates it in many ways. I couldn’t say quite what I wanted quite how I wanted*, and more than anything I wanted to know what the handful of people of color had to say on this point. I was quickly drowned out, and I never got to hear what those quieter voices had to say.
And I really don’t even know what to do with all of this right now.
On a related note, when we first started the semester our professor asked us how we felt about reading the n-word aloud in class when we went through passages. The first hand up was that same white guy in the back. “I don’t mind it,” he said.
* Uncle Tom clearly derives his method of dealing with his oppressors from Jesus, but there is something innately flawed in a slave feeling as if he must comply and submit because that’s how Jesus did it. It’s a twisted system, all the more disturbing since the whites were the ones hell-bent on the spread of these “Christian values.” If Tom was a real person I would not hold him accountable for any of this. (See Martha on the topic of victim blaming). But Tom is the creation of Harriet Beecher-Stowe. I could quickly get turned upside down and backwards by the subtlties of all this, in proper English major fashion, but I’m rather sick of the whole thing. Thank goodness the next book on the syllabus is Huckleberry Finn. Oh, wait.