BETHESDA, MD. — Uncle Tom got a bum rap.
I'm convinced of that after talking to James Henson Sr., a retired attorney in suburban Washington, D.C. He ought to know. He's known Uncle Tom like he would know a member of his own family.
Henson, 69, is a direct descendent of Josiah Henson, the escaped slave whose memoir helped Harriet Beecher Stowe write her famous novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." He's also a descendant of Matthew Henson, the black explorer who accompanied Admiral Robert E. Peary on his historic expedition to the North Pole in 1909. Henson family stories make James Henson a pretty busy man during Black History Month.
This year is special. In January, Montgomery County, Maryland, bought the old farmhouse to which a small log cabin is attached that once served as a kitchen and as Josiah Henson's sleeping quarters. His life reveals how complicated the cruel and peculiar institution of slavery could be. Separated from his family as a young boy when he was sold as property in an estate sale, Henson was a loyal servant until he learned he might be sold again. In 1830, he escaped to Canada and founded a settlement, a trade school and a lumber business, while also helping other slaves to escape.
When he returned after the war, a free man, to his former owners, the lady of the house is said to have told him in surprise, "Why, Si, you're a gentleman now."
To which he is said to have replied, "Ma'am, I always was a gentleman."
Josiah Henson's autobiography, "Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction," became a best seller and helped Stowe recreate the day-to-day life of slaves for what would be her own best-seller, a book that enflamed the abolitionist movement. When Stowe met Abraham Lincoln in 1862, he was reported to have remarked, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!"
Today, Uncle Tom is a prickly American paradox. His very name has become an insult, describing a black person who is overly eager to win white approval. Yet, Stowe's Uncle Tom ultimately is a heroic figure who encourages two abused slave women to escape, then suffers a fatal beating rather than give up their whereabouts or his Christian faith.
"It's ironic that Uncle Tom is a derogatory term today, yet he was such a powerful character in bringing about the abolition of slavery," Henson said. "The way he was depicted as almost Christ-like caused a lot of Christian people to say, if the institution of slavery could kill someone as kind, gentle and noble as Tom, we have got to put an end to this institution."
But, Tom's image became a victim of the book's success. Its popularity spawned countless stage productions called "Tom Shows" that were often little more than minstrel shows, turning noble Tom into a gross buffoon. A new stereotype was born and later thrown back by black-pride activists at anyone who wandered off the reservation of mainstream black political thought.
Most recently, we've seen Harry Belafonte put a new and pernicious spin on the "Uncle Tom" smear by calling Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice "house slaves" for supporting President Bush's policies. Conservatives, especially black conservatives, were quick to counter that Belafonte was a "house slave" of the Democratic Party and an "Uncle Tom" to the liberal establishment. Two can play that nasty name-calling game, for what it's worth.
More troubling to me are those black youths, influenced by a misguided sense of black pride, who believe that traditional English or academic pursuits are somehow selling out, making them modern-day "Uncle Toms" for "talking white" or "acting white." The fictional Uncle Tom and the real-life Josiah Henson both knew better.
As a monument to their memory, Henson's cabin sends a clear message to today's young people: Freedom under law doesn't matter much if you don't liberate your mind.