This may be the year that Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous character, Uncle Tom, finally redeems his reputation after getting a bad rap for nearly 150 years, says a UC Davis expert on African American culture.
Since it was published in 1851, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has spurred not just abolitionist passions but caricatures of Uncle Tom and other slaves.
Patricia A. Turner, professor of African American and African studies, says the characterizations and the plot in the original novel differ dramatically from their popular-culture depictions. "Almost immediately there were stage shows, musicals, comedies and eventually movies about it," she says. "And few match the novel."
In the novel, Uncle Tom chooses to be beaten to death because he won't tell the white masters the location of two runaway female slaves who have been sexually abused.
"But the slur of 'Uncle Tom' is still leveled at blacks by other blacks as a derogatory term for someone who has acted selfishly or is a sell-out," says Turner, a scholar of 19th and 20th century black culture and folklore and author of "Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and Influences on Culture" (1994).
She will be a guest speaker this fall at the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Connecticut in honor of the book's 150th anniversary. She also is participating in a conference next spring at UC Davis to focus on how the novel has been used as a springboard by other artists, such as Spike Lee in his film "Bamboozled."