Oct 26, 2014

Uncle Tom's Cabin: The Slave as Object of Desire

In the first years of the twentieth century, everyone read Uncle Tom's Cabin, the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) that, in Abraham Lincoln's famous joke, "started the Civil War."

Or they went to see one of the many silent film or theatrical versions.

 The characters and events were as intimately familiar as anything in today's Harry Potter or Twilight series.

You would call anyone evil a Simon Legree.

Anything with an unknown origin was compared to Topsy, who was never born; she "just growed."

Jokesters called anyone impossibly virtuous a Little Eva.
And Uncle Tom, the doddering, creaking, white-haired, who sang and danced and reveled in his slavery, proclaiming it the best of all possible worlds?

By the 1940s, his name was being applied to African-Americans who supported or abetted racist policies.  Today anyone in an oppressed group who sells out to the oppressor is called an Uncle Tom.

Like the gay writers and actors who fill our tv screens with screaming-queen stereotypes.

But in the original novel, Uncle Tom was no sell-out: he was strong-willed and principled, standing up to slave owners to obey the dictates of his conscience.

And he wasn't a doddering oldster: he was in his 40s, still strong, his muscles an object of both admiration and fear.

The comic book versions depict him as more of a sex symbol than an elderly minstrel, his overalls falling open to reveal his massive chest.

The  poster for the 1965 film version (top photo) shows the back side of a naked muscleman, and promises: "the real story of how it all happened -- the SLAVES, the MASTERS, the LOVERS!"

Although the movie contains no nudity and no lovers.

Uncle Tom has a wife in the novel, but she is of minimal importance.  What is important is the homoerotic desire that he elicits in his owners:

Simon Legree, who beats him because he refuses to harm another man.

And especially Augustine St. Clare, the gay-vague fop who opposes slavery even though his wife forces him to own slaves, and who wants to free Tom but can't bear the idea of not being able to gaze on his sleek, shimmering muscles anymore.

See also: The Uncle Tom Award #1: Todd Graff; and Brock Ciarlelli, the Uncle Tom of the Middle.

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