A-Z of Black Radicalism

T is for Tom, Uncle

Make it Plain is exploring Black Radicalism with Kehinde Andrews exploring a new letter each day. All of these are sourced from Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century, proceeds of which go to the Harambee Organisation of Black Unity There are some limited suggested resources below but please send in suggestions for more, these are just a few to start with

We should never be afraid to call out those working against Black liberation. If they are Black we should be more vocal in our condemnation because they are often using their Blackness to undermine the struggle. Traitor is not too strong a word for those who use their identity to work against Black people as a whole. But we need to be careful to understand that to call someone an Uncle Tom is not a simple insult, it is an analytical description of a certain kind of behaviour.

In the speech where Malcolm outlines the Uncle Tom, there is a clear separation from the Tom and the House Negro. The House Negro was that person on the plantation in a slightly better economic position who Malcolm equated to the middle class. They were blinded to the reality of racism because of their slightly better conditions but Malcolm was appealing for unity of all the enslaved. The point is not to judge those in the House but to explain that they need to see through the eyes of the Field. This is what Kwame Ture meant when he said every ‘Negro’ is potentially ‘Black’, potentially able to join those in the Field. But the Tom is a whole different category.

For Malcolm, the Tom was someone who was handpicked by the master, given a little schooling, nice clothes so that the enslaved looked up to him and then could be used to control the masses. Tom is the mouthpiece of the master, spouting the lies needed to keep us in check. When you call someone a Tom you are not saying they are not Black, you are saying they are using their Blackness to hurt Black people. Unfortunately there are many examples today.

T could be for Clarence Thomas, the Blackest and most conservative (racist) justice on the US Supreme Court. Or for Thomas Sowell, arch conservative economist who through all his so-called intellect manages to miss the structural racism of the US. T could also be for Trevor Phillips, formerly head of the Commission for Racial Equality in the UK and now darling of right wing (racist) press. But there are plenty of non-middle class version of Tomming. There is probably no better example of Uncle Tom coonery than L’il Wayne in general, but specifically rapping ‘whip it like a slave’ on a track. In fact, the commercialised so-called Gangsta, Thug or Bad Bwoy is probably more dangerous because too many of us confuse authentic Blackness with the ‘blackface’ of celebrity Hood Niggas.

The Tom metaphor isn’t perfect. It has grown well beyond the character it is based on in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is also too gendered removing our focus from the Black women who have been used as ventriloquists for racist ideas and practice. Think of Condeleeza Rice being one of the main faces of the Bush administration, or Candace Owens fronting the extremists of Turning Point. But the concept of Tomming is an important one for understanding radical politics. Our role is not to compromise with the enemies of freedom. We need to call them out in no uncertain terms, make it plain that there is not room from everyone in the struggle for the liberation.


Adena Spingarn When Uncle Tome Became an Insult

Malcolm X Message to the Grassroots

1 comment

Leave a Reply