- "Uncle Tom is Dead!":Wright, Himes, and Ellison Lay a Mask to Rest
In his recent valorization of Uncle Tom's Cabin as "the ur-text in the fictional depiction of Americans across the color line" (xxvii), Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explained that the novel's demise in the college classroom was due to "the utter disdain of the Tom character by the black community" in the postwar era (xxvi). For Gates as for Linda Williams, the text that "mark[ed] the definitive end of the popular appeal" (Williams 62) was James Baldwin's essay, "Everybody's Protest Novel" (1949), his infamous attack on Stowe's title character, a man "robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex" (18). Yet four other African American male writers produced equally revealing attacks upon the figure of Uncle Tom at the time, beginning a decade earlier with Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children (1938). Chester Himes literally buried Uncle Tom in the short story, "Heaven Has Changed" (1943); Ralph Ellison killed him off figuratively in the opening chapter of Invisible Man (1952). Duke Ellington's objective in staging his Los Angeles revue Jump for Joy (1941) was "[to] take Uncle Tom out of the theatre, [and] eliminate the stereotyped image that had been exploited by Hollywood and Broadway" (175). Despite the vast literature on these artists, scholarship on Wright's collection rarely focuses on the title's figure of disdain, the Himes story has never received critical attention, and Ellison's opening chapter has not been analyzed in this context. Neither Gates nor Williams mentions any of these texts as their scholarship recuperates issues of gender and family lacking in these masculinist works.1
In returning to the literary texts of Wright, Ellison, and Himes, I will change the register of the object of vilification: it was less Stowe's Uncle Tom that incited these authors to literary attack than what I will call the Uncle Tom-mask. During the mid-1960s "[when] the term 'Uncle Tom' became synonymous with self-loathing" (xii) as Gates recalled its function as a metonym, "the black man all too eager to please the whites around him … [was] the embodiment of 'race betrayal' and an object of scorn, a scapegoat for all of our political self-doubts.… We talked about him as the model to be avoided" (xi; original emphasis). Here and throughout the essay, Gates conflates Stowe's Uncle Tom—the literary character—with the set of gestures involved in the survival technique of masking, especially (but not only) in the U. S. South. It was not Stowe's Uncle Tom who was "the model to be avoided"; the African American vernacular had long since appropriated this figure and dumped its literary association. What was under attack was the lived embodiment of deference marked by the mask in the public sphere—as a convention of American theater and music, as a set of physical disciplines, as a marker read by whites of African American acceptance of national racial ideology. Stowe's Uncle Tom perhaps retained purchase for older white Americans as a literary fantasy of African American passivity—the character had, after all, been transposed into minstrel, theatrical, and cinematic fantasy—but in the African American vernacular, "Uncle Tom" registered a survival practice of everyday life that required figurative literary murder in order to liberate both African American male artistic agency and the right to individualized social protest. In fact, Wright, Himes, and Ellison assess their Uncle Tom-masked characters with surprising nuance; they slay the mask yet manage to honor the survival strategies of Southern African American men. [End Page 83]
The postwar period marks the end of what W. T. Lhamon has called "the black-face lore cycle," a set of transgressive verbal and physical gestures—from whistling to dance moves—projected onto African American men and women in the minstrel theater, and often accepted by white Americans as authentic representations of black men and women. For Lhamon, the NAACP's lawsuits against the last minstrel shows in the early 1950s mark the "retiring [of] the blackface mask" (148). Lhamon's interests are in the expressive culture of the...