Virtual Voices

Uncle Tom and Jalen Rose

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Abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe created the character "Uncle Tom" 160 years ago. A literary catalyst for the War Between the States, Uncle Tom continues to create civil wars today. Last week, a controversy ignited between former basketball stars from the University of Michigan and Duke University over the use of the term "Uncle Tom," which left me wondering who is the real Uncle Tom.

"For me Duke was personal and I hated everything I thought Duke stood for," said former Michigan basketball player and NBA standout Jalen Rose in his recently aired ESPN documentary. "Schools like Duke didn't recruit players like me. I felt they only recruited players that were like 'Uncle Toms.'"

Rose was referring to Duke and Phoenix Suns forward Grant Hill and other black players like Hill that Duke recruited from intact families. So, what did Rose, who grew up fatherless, mean by his pejorative reference to Uncle Tom?

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ESPN analyst Chris Broussard explained: "Uncle Tom is about the worst thing you can call an African-American. It's worse than the 'N-word.'" Rose defined Uncle Tom in an ESPN interview as a "black person that's subservient to whites."

The Uncle Tom of today's culture sounds more like Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Sambo" and "Quimbo" than her heroic Uncle Tom. Tom earned the moniker "Uncle" from black children who loved him for his kind demeanor. True, he was subservient to whites in that he was a slave. Like all slaves, he had little choice but to be one. He converted to Christianity at a camp meeting and became known for his high moral character, intelligence, and his ability to manage business affairs for his relatively compassionate owners in Kentucky and New Orleans. Tom's enlightened service improved the lives of everyone within his sphere of influence. Eventually, he was sold to brutal plantation owner Simon Legree who tried to make him an overseer like his two other enslaved, privilege-seeking overseers, Sambo and Quimbo. Risking his life, Tom rejected the offer because he, unlike Sambo and Quimbo, refused to treat Legree's slaves harshly. Legree threatened to tie Tom to a tree and burn him. Fearless and inspired by his faith in God, Tom defied Legree and suffered a horrendous beating for it.

Tom was a bright light in Legree's hell. He cared for his fellow hopeless slaves with an abundance of Christian compassion. Eventually, Legree had Sambo and Quimbo beat Tom to death for his defiance in concealing the whereabouts of two runaways. Dying, Tom forgave Sambo and Quimbo and the two men became Christians in response. Moreover, Tom's example inspired the son of his former Kentucky owner to emancipate his inherited slaves. "Think of your freedom, every time you see Uncle Tom's Cabin; and let it be a memorial to put you all in mind to follow in his steps, and be as honest and faithful and Christian as he was," said the young emancipator.

"Uncle Tom" . . . worse than the N-word? It's sad that the name of a literary hero has turned into a curse word. But the suffering endured by young men who have been abandoned by their fathers is sadder. Read more of Jalen Rose's words from the documentary and share in his pain:

"I was jealous of Grant Hill. He came from a great black family. [His] mom went to college, was roommates with Hillary Clinton [at Wellesley]. [His] dad [Calvin Hill] played in the NFL as a very well-spoken and successful man. I was very upset and bitter that my mom had to bust her hump for 20-plus years. I was bitter that I had a professional athlete that was my father that I didn't know [Rose never met his father, Detroit Pistons standout Jimmy Walker]. I resented that more so than I resented [Grant Hill]. I looked at it as [the black players at Duke] are who the world accepts and we are who the world hates."

I hope the world will look past Jalen Rose's disparaging Uncle Tom remarks because Rose is now an Uncle Tom in the best sense of the word. He recently founded a charter school in Detroit, the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy. "Give me an education . . . that's always been my heart's desire. Then I can do all the rest," said George Harris, another Stowe character. Rose is giving Detroit kids their heart's desire. I hope his will be fulfilled in return.

Lee Wishing
Lee Wishing

Lee is the administrative director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

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