So, instead of just basically defining what an Oreo is, and why it`s absolutely a sign of self-hate and self-prejudice, I decided instead to do an in-depth look at exactly where this term most likely really comes from, as in what the driving force behind it really is, and to understand the very complex nature behind this extremely confusing obsession with calling successful, educated black people Oreos. Why is being educated a white trait, exactly? Come along on this two part special with me, and we can explore this new racially charged and highly offensive terms origins together. Let’s get right to where it alllll started… With the Uncle Tom.
All About The Uncle Tom
The term Uncle Tom, for those of you who don’t know, actually originates with a character from a novel that was later made into a movie. Harriet Beecher Stowe published her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. As an avid abolitionist, Stowe penned the novel as an anti-slavery message, highlighting the horror, cruelty, and inhumanity of slavery in the hopes of making the reasons slavery should be abolished tangible to millions. Her mission succeeded, and it is even said to have been one of the major catalytic forces behind the Civil War. In her novel, Uncle Tom was a placid, ever humble and ever subservient slave, who also happened to be quite competent. The focus that was later taken from the Uncle Tom character was his blindly faithful and ever loyal behavior when it came to his Master. So, you can imagine exactly what the black community felt about this character. A general summary can be found in the dictionary definition of what Uncle Tom means today:
- a black person who is eager to win the approval of white people and willing to cooperate with them
- a black who is overeager to win the approval of whites (as by obsequious behavior or uncritical acceptance of white values and goals)
- a member of a low-status group who is overly subservient to or cooperative with authority
definition can be found at http://www.merriam-webster.com/
Ummmm… doesn’t sound much like Stowe’s character, does it? Now, to be fair, the woman was trying to incite a certain emotion in people. I’m sure that the cocky, brilliant, proud slave would have been an amazing story for the free and enslaved black folk, a story of hope. But isn’t it more likely, being honest, that this docile, ever-faithful man, who was also whip-smart but CHOSE to remain forever beside his massa just to be loyal, would be a far more poignant, heart-string-tugging character to the white folk she was trying to get her anti-slavery message across to?
The problem is, as always, that knowledge is power, and a lack of knowledge creates a bunch of weak ignorant people who use their fractured information as useless ammo in a battle they maybe shouldn’t be fighting…or, if they should be fighting it, maybe they should pick the fight with the right person, huh?
House Slave: Almost As Good As Passing
Connect this Uncle Tom concept to the already hostile relationship between the field slaves vs. the house slaves and the hate mixed with envy for the black people who could “pass” and escaped a life of slavery, and move it forward to this day and age, and suddenly many of the inter-race relation issues we have suddenly make a lot of sense. To clarify those two points briefly for those who aren’t caught up on all the slave dynamics, let me just tell you a few things. If you want to read up a little on the difference between house slaves and field slaves there are a good couple sources here and here.
In a nutshell, house slaves did not do the field work or manual labor, and were seen as the “privileged”. They were dressed far better, sometimes even in the masters and mistresses hand-me-downs, ate better food, and had far more privileges, such as accompanying their master/mistress on trips. Due to the close working relationship that many house slaves had with their owners, sometimes they were treated as well as the families children. Some slaves were assigned specifically as playmates or companions for a child, and so had a much easier life in many regards. Field slaves were forced into hard labor each day, with an overseer or driver monitoring their every move and punishing them for anything considered remotely deviant. The punishments were often swift and very harsh. Who would become a house slave and who would become a field slave was not some form of random assignment – usually, the lighter your skin tone, and the more attractive you were, the more likely you were to work in the house.
But, if you really want to get into the nitty-gritty of the differences in societies attitudes and beliefs about the house slaves, and the unfair dichotomy that existed between the two kinds of slave, I want you to take the time to listen to this video. Malcolm X had a major influence on black society, especially on those who fought for, and who still continue to fight for, equality. And his summation of this is something you’ve got to hear, it’ll give you a true understanding.
Now, moving along, passing, in slavery times and in the present (click here for some personal stories of people who did so here) meant to fool people into thinking you were 100% Caucasian. During slavery times, the white slave masters would have sexual relations with the slave women (sometimes consensual, sometimes not) and impregnate them. The resulting child would be fairer skinned than it’s mother, usually. And some children would come out so fair-skinned, with such baby-fine or stereotypically white hair, that if you did not know them, you would assume they were white. Some of the white fathers, loving the mother and child secretly, would assist the child in running away to a city where nobody knew them to begin life as a white man/woman. Generally though, if it could be managed, one way or the other, once the child escaped they could live their entire lives as free white people, and the deception could last on throughout the rest of that families generations. After the abolition of slavery, many “passable” black people still did this, to avoid the segregation and disadvantages of being black and trying to succeed. Passable people got to avoid the pain and hardships that those who could not pass could not. And the lighter skinned you were, the less stereotypically black features you possessed post-slavery, the more likely you were to be able to get one of those highly coveted second-class jobs.
end of part one..awwwww I know, I know, you were JUST getting into it, right? Well don’t worry, you won’t have to wait too long for part two!
Tune in this Friday, February 21st, at 9am EST to catch the second, and final, half of this discussion. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your opinions thus far! Did you know the history behind the Uncle Tom reference, including the real man behind the Uncle Tom character? Do you think some of the in-fighting amongst black folk can be attributed to slavery day relations? If you had the choice, would you pass as another race if it would make your life easier? Toss in a whole dime, the first two cents is always just a freebie anyway, right?
Happy Wednesday Y’all!