‘Uncle Tom’ is a vile insult to a person of colour.
It means someone servile, someone who will grovel just to please their white master.
For decades it’s been repeated as the most derogatory thing you can say.
‘Uncle Tom’ has become everything a black man should be ashamed of.
Which is strange, because it originally meant exactly the opposite.
All that’s changed is time, which has changed context, which has changed perception.
The character of Uncle Tom is nowadays seen as a weak and spineless.
But that’s in our world where all people are legally equal.
Remember, it was written in 1852 about America’s south, where it was legal for a white man to own any number of black men or women as slaves.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was part of an educated, northern, abolitionist family.
They were all devout Christians and believed slavery was deeply anti-Christian.
So she wrote ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ an anti-slavery novel.
The hero was a strong slave with deep Christian beliefs.
He wasn’t frightened of his evil white master, but (like Gandhi later) he wouldn’t sacrifice his pacifist principles.
He wouldn’t grovel, but he wouldn’t fight violence with violence.
In the God-fearing north, this made him a hero, and it made the slave masters villains.
In the south, the reaction was of course exactly the opposite, fury and outrage, her book was called slanderous and criminal.
They were used to lynching slaves not reading books that celebrated disobedience.
In the first year, her book sold 300,000 copies and became the best-selling novel in the world.
It enflamed passions so much that, when she met Abraham Lincoln at the start of the Civil War, he said, “So you are the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war”.
After the civil war, slavery was abolished.
In the twentieth century, civil rights activists sneered at her story of a black man letting a white man hit him without fighting back.
So ‘Uncle Tom’ has become an insult.
But remember, that’s in our world where slavery is outlawed.
That’s not in the world where fighting back automatically got you lynched.
In the 1960s, James Baldwin called it “A very bad novel, ruined by its own self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality”.
But that’s the criticism of a man writing in the freedom that was, in large part, made possible by that book.
Of course, the book is inappropriate today, but that’s no reason to disrespect its history.
About the need to acknowledge the past, Danny Glover reminded the President:
“President Obama is a man who had advantages because of the civil rights movement.
He had the opportunity to go to the best schools in the country, schools that train you to run the political paradigm, not to challenge it. But remember, the leaders of the Black Power Movement were the ones who did challenge that paradigm in the first place.”
That’s why it’s so important to learn from the past instead of just dismissing it.
Whatever business we’re in, the world wasn’t always the way it is now.
The more we learn about the way our business came to be the way it is, the more empowered we are to change it.
We should learn why it is the way it is, because that gives us power.
The more we learn about the history of advertising and marketing, the more power we have to change it.
That’s why the best people always study what went before.
So they can change what’s happening now.