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De-mystifying Uncle Tom
Who was Uncle Tom?
Understanding how the name "Uncle Tom" has come to be perceived as a derogatory one was not the intent of my trip to South-western Ontario. The result of my trip, however has generated a deep interest to search, investigate and reclaim the name and reputation of a hero that I met. I've overheard conversations, mostly among persons within my race referring to others as "Uncle Tom". The context in which the name was used was always in a demeaning way; meaning that someone was a sell out or a traitor to his/her race. The word "Tomfoolery" also used to refer to someone who was acting less intelligent or foolish in order to gain some special favour with the establishment. It was not until I visited the Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic site in Dresden, Ontario on July 8, 2010, that I began to think about the person that the name Uncle Tom represented and what the name has come to mean in popular culture. Inwardly I started to challenge the negative stereotype attached to the name, Uncle Tom.
As I arrived at the Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site and Josiah Henson House in Dresden Ontario, immediately I felt like something great was going to happen to my consciousness and awareness. The grounds and the main building appeared to be well maintained and spaciously laid out among trees and open expanse of land. I could feel my spirits lifted as my heart beat excitedly with anticipation. I could hardly wait to enter the immaculately kept and welcoming foyer. The pleasant and knowledgeable attendants were a welcome relief. I did not feel uptight and stifled as I often feel when I visit some of the more mainstream museums. I did not feel disappointed as have happened on occasions when I visited a museum of Black History where usually it was evident that lack of funding renders such sites poorly facilitated. Uncle Tom's Cabin Historical site was a pleasant encounter. I was about to embark on a journey back to the 19th century. It was a window into my past and the door to my future.
Ontario, Canada is rich in the history of its diverse peoples. The Historical site in Dresden is but one of the many stops in Ontario's Underground Railroad sites. The Underground Railroad in Ontario was a network of people who hid and guided slaves and refugees to freedom. It included trails, private homes and churches along the shores of Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Georgian Bay, southern and central Ontario. According to the Visitors' Guide to Ontario's Underground Railroad, there are twenty nine different historical sites of Ontario's Underground Railroad. Places like, Owen Sound in Grey County, St. Catherines, Niagara Falls, Oakville, North Buxton, Chatham and Dresden are sites of historical significance to North America. These sites represent a reminder of the many dehumanized slaves who escaped from the bondage of slavery in the American South by following the North Star to freedom in Canada. God bless Canada!
Life of Josiah Henson: Josiah Henson was born on June 15, 1789 in Charles County, Maryland, USA. He survived being abused as a slave and was bought and sold three times before he was eighteen years old. According to Josiah Henson's autobiography, Life of Josiah Henson: Formerly A Slave, which was first published in 1849, his earliest recollection of his father was at the age of three. His father had fought a white man who had brutally assaulted his mother and as punishment had his right ear cut off and had received one hundred lashes to his back. His father was eventually sold and he never saw him again.
At the age of eighteen, Josiah Henson became a Christian. Even though he could not read and write he became a very dynamic preacher and was soon delivering ceremonies to many congregations of blacks and whites. He had saved up $350.00 to procure his freedom. He was betrayed and cheated by his master who sneakingly increased the price to $1000.00. Henson was taken to New Orleans to be sold because he could not pay the amount for his freedom. While in New Orleans, his master's brother became very ill. Josiah nursed him back to health and took him back home to Kentucky. Even after such kind act, his master was determined to sell him to the highest bidder. Josiah felt that "my merits, whatever they were, instead of exciting sympathy, or any feeling of attachment to me, seemed only to enhance my money value to them." (Life of Josiah, 44) It was with this realization, fuelled by the fear of being sold that he decided to escape to Canada.
Josiah Henson's Accomplishments: On October 28, 1830 Josiah, his wife and four children arrived in Canada. They settled in Upper Canada where Josiah became a community leader with the Underground Railroad Community of south-western Ontario. He was also a dynamic preacher and a writer. In 1841 he and several other abolitionists purchased 200 acres of land on which they built the British American Institute, one of the first vocational schools in Canada. In 1849 Josiah published his autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson: Formerly A Slave. Harriet Beecher Stowe used Josiah's memoirs to write her famed anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was from this novel that Josiah Henson became synonymous with Uncle Tom, the central character in Stowe's novel. It is said that Lincoln credited Stowe's novel as being the catalyst of the American Civil War. Josiah travelled to London on three occasions and met Queen Victoria.
Reverend Josiah Henson died in 1883 at the age of 94. He was buried at the Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic site.
Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ontario: This site is located on a portion of the 200 acres purchased by Josiah in 1841. The site celebrates the life and work of Josiah Henson. It includes the Josiah Henson Interpretive Centre which showcases a collection of 19th century artefacts and rare books pertaining to the abolitionist era. Located on the grounds are a restored church, a saw mill, the Harris House and the original Henson dwelling, commonly referred to as Uncle Tom's Cabin. There are also two cemeteries, one of which is the resting place of Josiah and is located on the premises.
Negative Perceptions of Uncle Tom: The Minstrel show depictions of Stowe’s novel formulated the derogatory images of Uncle Tom which were etched in the minds of most Americans.Uncle Tom was usually performed by white men in black-face, and tended to be disdainful and pro-slavery. These depictions transformed Uncle Tom from Christian martyr to a fool or an apologist for slavery. According to Wikipedia, the adapted theatrical performances of the novel remained in continual production in the United States for at least eighty years.These representations had a lasting cultural impact and influenced the derogatory nature of the term Uncle Tom in later popular culture.
Personal Perspectives:Having made the visit to Dresden's Uncle Tom's Cabin Historical site and having read Josiah's memoirs about the tragedy, betrayal and inhumanity of slavery, I am astounded that he could transcend all that brutality and led such a successful and exemplary life; giving back to his community and the world. He was truly a leader of his community; a visionary role model and hero. Some argue that he was a naive martyr and that he did not understand human nature as expressed in his tolerance of the cruelty of his master. He was criticized for being an ethical person in an unethical world. He was perceived by some as being subservient to those who sought to exploit and abuse him and a whole race of people in their quest for money and wealth. Having met Josiah in spirit, I understand why he made those decisions. Placed in the same situation, would I have made those choices? I definitely would not be as tolerant, trusting and humble as he was; but I was born within twentieth century conditions; such as the benefits of the Civil Rights Movement. Those who see Josiah as the subservient martyr for Christianity, argue that he betrayed his race. They posit that he demonstrates how Christian principles were used to keep slaves in their roles and therefore to maintain the status quo.
Trustworthy or A Fool? Was Josiah Henson an honest and trustworthy man or was he a subservient fool? He kept his promise to his master when he was asked to deliver a group of 18 slaves from Maryland to Kentucky. He had the opportunity to free them as well as his family. He chose instead to deliver the slaves, himself and his family to his master's brother. It is obvious that such action would be perceived with outrage by all blacks because it was perpetuating a system that was oppressive to himself and those of his race. The critics argue that he was seeking approval and sympathy from people who did not see him as a human being, but rather a chattel - to be bought and sold at the highest price. The argument that he was subservient is true, a fool; I think not. His trustworthiness was not diminished, not even by the cruel and ungenerous actions of his master. Josiah's trustworthiness speaks volume to his character as a man as as a Christian.
Josiah's Humanity: Josiah has proved undoubtedly that he displayed more humanity than those who sought to dehumanize him. Josiah demonstrated tremendous restraint, mercy and Christian-like qualities. For example, he was cheated by his master who took his life's savings for his freedom and then reneged on the agreement, demanding more money than was possible for Josiah to obtain. Josiah exerted amazing restraint. He could have easily killed everyone on board the boat that was taking him to be sold in New Orleans. Instead he showed Christian principles of mercy and obedience to one of God's commandments, 'Thou shall not kill". Most people would be more concerned with self preservation than Christian values. Juxtapose his action to the notion of Americans right to bear arms, what does that say about self defence?
Transcend Hate and bigotry: What does Josiah's life prove about the ability of the human spirit to survive and transcend hate and brutality? It demonstrates that it is possible to transcend hate and bigotry and to thrive in spite of insurmountable barriers and disparities. Josiah's life story highlights that forgiveness and having a dream or desire for something better, even when the way forward is not clear or easy, can be the difference between apathy and being a pioneer. Josiah shows us that we are each other's keeper. He demonstrated that through his sense of community building as in the Dawn settlement, now Dresden, Ontario.
One hundred and sixty seven years after the passing of a pioneer and hero, my family and I have rediscovered the leadership and fortitude of Josiah Henson. We draw inspiration and strength from his life. He survived and thrived and, so we will as well as the generations to come. Bravo Josiah!