Redefining Uncle Tom

Sports fans are likely already familiar with the controversy surrounding statements made by former NBA star Jalen Rose. Rose, a member of the (in)famous Fab Five of the University of Michigan, made some pointed comments about the basketball players at my alma mater, Duke University. I will not speak to Rose’s comments – I think Grant Hill did a wonderful job. Rather, I will speak to the literary reference used by Mr. Rose. Among the epithets and insults thrown at former Duke players, Mr. Rose called Duke’s African-American players “Uncle Toms.”

In the fall of 2011, Mr. Rose will open the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a charter high school in Detroit, MI. When building the curriculum for his new school, I hope Rose includes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In doing so, he might teach some valuable lessons and allow his students to rediscover the true meaning of being an “Uncle Tom.”

Using the power of his Christian faith, Tom resists a descent into hopelessness, though it would be understandable for someone faced with a lifetime of servitude. While sometimes described as passive, that description unfairly simplifies Tom’s behavior. When challenged to whip a fellow slave, he refuses. When confronted with the racist attitudes of slave owners, Tom shows his humanity in a way that forces slave holders to rethink their opinions on America’s ugliest institution. Lastly, in the end, Tom gives his life rather than reveal the whereabouts of a pair of escaped slaves. Tom gives his life in loyalty to his race. How have we redefined “Uncle Tom” as a synonym of sell out – someone that turns on his or her race? Tom, in his active resistance, was a true leader.

Statements such as Mr. Rose’s demonstrate the importance of teaching true reading comprehension skills. An understanding of this important piece of literature might change one’s interpretation of the commonly used epithet. Tom was brave, tough, and loyal – three characteristics of which any race would be proud. He sacrificed his life to protect his own. Let this lesson not be forgotten. If any of Mr. Rose’s students are ever called “Uncle Tom,” I hope they simply say, “thank you.”

During adolescence, teens fumble toward the formulation of a true identity. They drink in the definitions that surround them. For the kids Reach serves, this means an ongoing effort to truly understand their blackness. At times, our kids receive messages that intelligence, effort, and the refusal to engage in conflict are all antithetical to their racial identity. Never should our students feel this way.

I wonder if Mr. Rose appreciates the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously called an “Uncle Tom” by Malcolm X. Each January, I wonder if he celebrates the progress aided in part by Dr. King’s non-violent resistance. In looking at Dr. King, a true hero, we see a Black man carved in the image of Stowe’s Tom. Let’s hope Mr. Rose’s students one day learn that lesson.

Thanks, as always, for reading.


Posted in Ed Reform Notes |
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