During Black History Month we celebrate the contributions of black Americans, many of whom, such as Martin Luther King Jr., dedicated their lives to fighting for freedom and equal rights for black Americans and for people of color. Their contributions helped to achieve many victories, including laws (such as the Civil Rights Act) that make racial discrimination illegal. However, decades after the successes of the civil rights movement black Americans continue to receive an increasing amount of rhetorical racism from both black and white Americans.
For example, since Harriet Beecher Stowe's scandalous novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the phrase "Uncle Tom" has functioned as racist hate-speech from the mouths of black Americans against other black Americans. Beecher Stowe exposed the horrors of slavery in part by placing a virtuous, hard-working, house slave named Uncle Tom at the center of her narrative. In the novel, Uncle Tom, going against the advice of some of his fellow slaves, refuses to run away from his master. Instead, he faithfully serves him for as long as he remains his master's property.
As a result of this character's devotion to his white master, the phrase "Uncle Tom" eventually entered into popular American culture as a derogatory epithet. In general, some black Americans call other black Americans "Uncle Tom" when the "real" blacks perceive the "sell out" blacks to care more about pleasing the white man than about preserving African American identity and particularity.
Terms of Abuse and Dishonor
Some black Americans from a variety of diverse communities and backgrounds classify certain black Americans as "Uncle Toms" based on certain beliefs or action. These include association with white people, a well-rounded education, a solid work ethic, use of standard English, membership at a multi-ethnic or predominately white church, embracing an exclusive confessional evangelical Christianity, involvement in an inter-racial relationship, affirming conservatism (either theological or political conservatism), listening or not listening to a certain type of music, attending a certain type of school, and a long list of other characteristics.
Ironically, many of the same black Americans who use the phrase "Uncle Tom" to question "authentic blackness" employ as a term of endearment the word "nigger"—a term traditionally associated with and used by white racists (specifically by racist slave owners) to shame and dishonor African slaves. However, black Americans who use the N-word often have a double standard. Some of them would be offended if a white person were to call them a "nigger," while finding the term acceptable if used by a black person.
As a black American with a multi-racial background, who was born and raised in an extremely racist part of eastern Kentucky, I have been called a number of racist epithets by both blacks and whites. White racists have called me everything from a "colored boy" to a "black nigger." Likewise, black racists have called me "half-breed," "high yellow," "sell out," whitey," "Uncle Tom," and—not so lovingly—a "black nigger."
Regardless of the ethno-racial group that directs racist rhetoric toward another group, hate-speech is sinful and, therefore, dishonors God. However, in my view, the term "nigger" is the most offensive of all slurs directed toward blacks, regardless of the lips from which it comes.
The reason is simple: white racists used this term from its inception to dehumanize, to dishonor, and to ostracize African slaves within (what they thought was) a superior white society. And many black Americans continue to refer endearingly to each other as "niggers" in music, movies, and casual conversations, even though, in using this racist language, they reinforce the racist rhetoric and worldview of slavery and white superiority.
The Real Uncle Tom
I am absolutely puzzled that so many black Americans embrace the term "nigger," given its long, dehumanizing history, as in-group racial slang of endearment. I am equally baffled that many black Americans likewise use the phrase "Uncle Tom" as a derogatory appellation to paint a negative caricature of other black Americans. In Beecher Stowe's novel, both terms seem to have the opposite rhetorical function compared to how both black and white racists use these expressions today in popular culture. Beecher Stowe's novel suggests that Uncle Tom chose to be faithful to Christ and to suffer the horrors of slavery for the sake of honoring Christ, a biblical principle that neither condones the evil institution of slavery nor excludes the Bible's permission to practice civil disobedience.
To clarify, I am neither suggesting that the phrase "Uncle Tom" is honorable language or appropriate speech, nor am I suggesting that this phrase should be used to describe any black American. American slavery and all other forms of slavery are evil. Those who worked to abolish slavery, to hide slaves "underground," and to help them attain their freedom not only did what was right, they also did what all Christians should have done. My point, however, is that all ethno-racial communities should embrace the Christian identity of Beecher Stowe's character Uncle Tom while rejecting every form of racism directed toward him and rejecting the racist worldview that both forced him and others into a slavery founded on white superiority.
Black Americans should stop calling fellow black Americans "Uncle Toms," and they should stop calling each other "niggers" since both expressions are racist hate-speech regardless of who uses them. All ethno-racial communities alike must repent of their sins (including the sins of racism), embrace new identity in Jesus Christ, and be willing to experience any natural ethno-racial ostracism that may come from rejecting the gospel. God sent Jesus to die for the sins of all communities in order to recreate them into a new race known as Christian (John 1:29, 3:16; Eph 2:11-22; 1 Pet 2:9).
Before he laid the foundation of the universe, God chose to save different ethno-racial groups and to unite them together in Christ by faith. He forgave them for their transgressions and sins by the blood of Christ and sealed them by the Holy Spirit, so that they would hear and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ (Eph 1:3-14). God creates Christians to be new creatures in Christ (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15).
We must carry the truth of Christian ethno-racial identity in the gospel beyond Black History Month. We must work to make the gospel heard so that it may reign in the hearts of all ethno-racial groups who have ears to hear and hearts to believe. And we must have the courage to live as biblically responsible risk-takers for the gospel of Jesus Christ as we rigorously and intentionally work to demythologize the Uncle Tom myth and N-word.
Jarvis J. Williams is associate professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including One New Man: The Cross and Racial Reconciliation in Pauline Theology.