Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slurby Ron Christie
In the tradition of Randall Kennedy's Nigger and Shelby Steele's The Content of Our Character, Acting White demonstrates how the charge that any African-American who is successful, well mannered, or well educated is "acting white," is a slur that continues to haunt blacks. Ron Christie traces the complex history of the phrase, from Uncle Tom's/i>/i>… See more details below
In the tradition of Randall Kennedy's Nigger and Shelby Steele's The Content of Our Character, Acting White demonstrates how the charge that any African-American who is successful, well mannered, or well educated is "acting white," is a slur that continues to haunt blacks. Ron Christie traces the complex history of the phrase, from Uncle Tom's Cabin to the tensions between Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X to Bill Cosby's controversial NAACP speech in 2004. The author also writes candidly of being challenged by black students for his "acting white," and also of being labeled a race traitor in Congress by daring to be Republican. This lucid chronicle reveals how this prevalent put-down sets back much of the hard-earned progress for all blacks in American society. Deftly argued and determinedly controversial, this book is certain to spur thoughtful discussion for years to come.
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Uncle Tom’s Cabin
The Genesis of Acting White
March 1862—the White House, Washington, D.C. With the nation consumed by civil war, the sixteenth president of the United States broke away from his duties as commander in chief one day that spring to receive a visitor to the White House. According to a variety of accounts, when President Abraham Lincoln received Harriet Beecher Stowe that day, he is said to have exclaimed to the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”1
Whether or not Stowe’s landmark novel generated the spark that ignited into war between southern states, which endorsed slavery, or the states in the north, which opposed the practice, the author started yet another war with her words in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This was a war waged both between blacks and whites and between blacks and fellow members of their race for what it meant to be black in the United States at the midpoint of the nineteenth century. These battles were not waged for territory or possession but instead for personal identity, ideology, and freedom.
Unwittingly or not, with the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852 Stowe began a war of words in America about what it meant to be acting white while one was black, whether free or enslaved—a turmoil that still rages well past the turn of the twenty-first century. While certainly a work of fiction, Uncle Tom’s Cabin drew its power and inspiration from the real-life struggles for freedom, dignity, and identity confronting blacks during the middle of the nineteenth century—a legacy that remains with us to the present day.
During the first year of publication, Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 300,000 copies and was the bestselling novel of the nineteenth century.2 In fact, the novel was the second-bestselling book of the nineteenth century, surpassed only by sales of the Bible. Stowe’s work had a tremendous impact on American culture, an impact whose legacy resonates in contemporary society today. For one, while the author intended that her title character be perceived as a noble hero worthy of praise by her audience—Uncle Tom fought for his beliefs and refused to be exploited by his detractors—many instead found that Tom was subservient and all too willing to please whites. This stereotype—a black man who curries favor with whites by acting white is a sellout to his race—is one whose seeds were planted in 1852 and it has grown steadily over the decades such that an African-American believed to be acting white is treated to the derogatory moniker of being an “Uncle Tom” in contemporary society.
While ostensibly a work of fiction, Uncle Tom’s Cabin provides an interesting starting point to ascertain what it meant for blacks to be acting white in the American cultural mind-set of the 1850s. Before one can ascertain what it meant to be acting white during this time period, however, one must first establish a baseline from Stowe’s novel of what it meant to be black during this era both from a legal and stereotypical perspective. This is where our examination begins.
Harriet Beecher Stowe knew the legal definition of what it meant to be a Negro in several southern states: a person with a black parent or grandparent. Certain states, such as Louisiana, legally denoted one as being black even if they were one-eighth black—an octoroon. This legal distinction of being black with just one-eighth’s percentage is examined in chapter 3, which discusses the separate but equal precedent established in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Here, however, we examine how Stowe moved beyond the sterility of legalistic formalities to breathe life into her black characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by cleverly allowing blacks to be perceived and defined by the reader through the prism of three distinct vantage points: whites looking upon blacks, blacks looking upon fellow blacks, and both blacks and whites looking upon Uncle Tom himself. In order to best arouse the passion of sympathy of abolitionists in the North, who sought to eradicate slavery from the shores of America, Harriet Beecher Stowe often portrayed blacks in her novel—as viewed from the prism and perspective of whites—in the most negative light possible. To this end, one prevalent depiction of being black as viewed from the eyes of whites in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was that blacks were subservient and existed only to please the whims of whites rather than exercise any independent control over their mind or bodies.
From the opening pages of the novel, Stowe introduces her reader to the young slave Harry in the most subservient and demeaning manner possible. As his master, Mr. Shelby, calls Harry forth to introduce the boy to the slave trader Haley, Stowe writes:
“Come here, Jim Crow,” said he. The child came up and the master patted the curly head, and chuckled him under the chin.
“Now Jim, show this gentleman how you can dance and sing.”3
“Jump Jim Crow,” well known to Harriet Beecher Stowe and other social observers of the time, was a derogatory song and dance routine created in 1828 by the white comedian Thomas Dartmouth Rice that was performed in blackface. This routine was supposedly inspired by a dance of a crippled African immigrant in Cincinnati, Stowe’s adopted hometown from 1832 to 1851. On more than one occasion, Stowe introduces the reader to a young black slave for the first time by referring to him or her as Jim Crow in the presence of whites. The introduction of the term “Jim Crow” into the lexicon at this point in American history is significant given that it would soon characterize a pattern of oppressive and discriminatory behavior from whites toward blacks well into the middle part of the twentieth century. “Jump Jim Crow” would soon devolve from a derogatory song and dance to symbolize the oppressive discrimination that enveloped the American South for more than one hundred years.
In the novel, however, consider the following derisive comments made by the slave owner Augustine St. Clare when he introduces Topsy, the poor yet clever slave girl, to the reader:
“I thought she was rather a funny specimen in the Jim Crow line. Here, Topsy,” he added, giving a whistle, as a man would to call the attention of a dog, “give us a song now, and show us some of your dancing.”4
It is significant that the author uses the derogatory term “Jim Crow”—a term that would later be used to identify racial-discriminatory practices such as prohibiting blacks from using the same railway cars as whites or from sharing the same lunch counters, a practice that would extend well into the 1960s in contemporary American society.5
Beyond viewing blacks as subservient, many white characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin consider blacks unintelligent—incapable of performing such basic tasks as reading, writing, and speaking clearly. Literacy was an important aspect of being a full and well-informed member of society during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Blacks were legally denied the opportunity to become literate in several southern states. Alabama, Georgia, and Virginia joined several other states in enacting statutes that prescribed fines, flogging, and imprisonment for those who taught African-Americans how to read and write during this era.
Blacks were to remain uneducated and illiterate to the greatest extent possible during this era of American history since literacy and the ability to communicate clearly and intelligently were the province of whites; blacks who attempted to read and write were deemed as acting in the manner of a proper member of white contemporary society—behavior that was discouraged or forbidden.
Consider the following speech in Stowe’s novel between two slaves, George and Eliza Harris. While the characters themselves are clearly fictional, Stowe infused life into the struggles faced by blacks during this era both enslaved and free. In railing against the oppressive treatment at the hands of his master, George proclaims the following in regard to his station in life:
My master! And who made him my master? That’s what I think of—what right has he to me? I’m a man as much as he is. I’m a better man than he is. I know more about business than he does; I am a better manager than he is; I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand,—and I’ve learned it all myself, and no thanks to him, I’ve learned it in spite of him.6
There is an interesting dichotomy of thought among blacks in Uncle Tom’s Cabin in regard to literacy and academic achievement that persists today. On the one hand, there are blacks who agree with the sentiments expressed by George; they believe reading and writing are critical assets one must possess to be successful—even if such skills must be self-taught in order to be acquired. On the other hand, some blacks in the 1850s as well as today believe that education and literacy is only the province of whites. This perspective thus extended law to an ideology. It holds that blacks, unable to receive a proper education or become literate in the 1850s, are only acting according to a white man’s prerogative when they achieve such things—a black man doing so would be acting white.
Illustrative of the sentiment that literacy and success should be limited only to whites is what Tom says to young Master George, the son of his previous owner as Uncle Tom is led away after being sold to a new master:
O, Mas’r George, you has everything,—l’arnin’, privileges, readin’, writin’,—and you’ll grow up to be a great, learned, good man, and all the people on the place and your mother and father’ll be so proud on ye!7
Apparently, the notion that blacks would apply themselves to become literate and educated, even in the face of antiliteracy statutes, was a foreign concept to someone of Uncle Tom’s mind-set since these attributes applied only to whites rather than blacks. This subservient and inferior ideology about education—then and now—holds that African-Americans seeking to emancipate their minds from the chains of illiteracy act as do whites.
As Harriet Beecher Stowe further reveals in her work, blacks who possessed such advanced skills as literacy, ingenuity, and independent thought were perceived not only as acting white but also as a threat to whites. Consider once more the description of the slave protagonist George, who was relegated by his master to work in a bagging factory. Rather than complete his tasks in a plodding and uninspired manner, George was instead viewed by his fellow slaves and factory owner alike as being adroit and thoughtful—it should not be lost on the reader that Harriet Beecher Stowe reveals that George has created an invention that could rival the genius of Whitney’s cotton gin.*
Rather than revel in the ingenuity of an enslaved black man’s creativity, the white slave owner in this instance feels threatened by a display of intelligence by a black man who was perceived to be property, not a person, under the laws of the era in question:
George, who in high spirits, talked so fluently, held himself so erect, looked so handsome and manly, that his master began to feel an uneasy consciousness of inferiority. What business had his slave to be marching round the country, inventing machines and holding himself up his head among gentlemen? He’d soon put a stop to it. He’d take him back, and put him to hoeing and digging, and “see if he’d step about so smart.”8
While Uncle Tom’s Cabin was fiction, Stowe’s snapshot of life in America in the 1850s proved all too real. In the discrimination depicted by Stowe, as well as that suffered by blacks today, whites believe that a person of color speaking well, holding themselves high, and possessing intelligence threatens society.
As Augustine St. Clare discusses the notion of educating blacks in the South, he articulates a fear prevalent at the time that has yet to be fully extinguished from certain segments of American culture today:
Yet our laws positively and utterly forbid any efficient general educational system [for blacks], and they do it wisely, too; for just begin and thoroughly educate one generation, and the whole thing would be blown sky high. If they would not give them liberty, they would take it.9
The infraction committed by the proper education of blacks? That blacks would become successful, intellectual, influential—in other words, that they would act equally as whites—while being black.
It is important to recognize, however, that not all the depictions of blacks acting as whites from the perspective of whites in Uncle Tom’s Cabin were to be perceived in a negative light. Instead, Harriet Beecher Stowe subtly used the characters George and Eliza Harris to portray blacks in a different light altogether—strong, determined, and intelligent. To this end it is fascinating to observe that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s representation of all major black characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (save Uncle Tom himself) could pass as white—in other words, they possessed fair complexions, spoke well, were literate, and could assimilate as whites without arousing suspicion of their true racial identity.
Given the era in which Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, Stowe’s subterfuge is remarkable. George and Eliza could pass as white and move freely in society because they were treated as human beings rather than as black—or rather than as blacks accused of acting white. Instead of building on racial prejudices and stereotypes of the time, Stowe created black characters that not only were perceived sympathetically by her audience but also further instilled the notion that blacks and whites could interact as relative equals, an equality based not on the color of one’s skin but on the content and strength of one’s character.
In this vein, the author subtly yet overtly moves beyond the physical descriptions of George and Eliza to focus on those character attributes that allowed them to succeed in very difficult circumstances. For example, George and Eliza were each able to read, write, and speak clearly. Each possessed a strong sense of purpose, moral compass, and love for God and family.
More demonstrably, Stowe sought to instill the same character and value attributes of well-to-do members of white society within these two black characters to illustrate that blacks could successfully integrate into society not by acting white but by enjoying the freedom and emancipation brought on by hard work, morality, and a foundation built on education and literacy. George and Eliza symbolize the essence of freedom, and their quest in the novel is to be free from oppression, free to live their lives without castigation and to assimilate in society not as blacks acting as whites but as individuals who can choose their own destiny.
This quest for freedom and emancipation shone as a beacon of hope in a novel wrought with personal tragedy and despair brought about through the evils of slavery in the United States. Following his escape from slavery in Kentucky, George encounters Mr. Wilson, the kind white foreman from his job in the bagging factory. Stowe adroitly reunites the two men in a tavern where white “gentlemen” had congregated to discuss the flight from slavery of a young man who could pass as white; his return, dead or alive, held the promise of a reward. The slave in question here of course is George, and Wilson spies his former employee acting and passing as white among a group of whites eager to recover him and return him to slavery. As the two men retire to a more discreet area of the tavern to speak, Mr. Wilson makes the following observation:
“George, something has brought you out wonderfully. You hold up your head, and speak and move like another man,” said Mr. Wilson.
“Because I’m a freeman!” said George, proudly. “Yes sir; I’ve said Mas’r for the last time to any man. I’m free!”10
This freedom to integrate and assimilate in society is demonstrated shortly thereafter. George travels farther north on his journey to freedom in Canada and receives sanctuary from a benevolent Quaker family along the Underground Railroad.
Unbeknownst at first to George, the same family also rescued his wife, Eliza, and their small son, Harry. Following their joyous reunion, George has the opportunity to sit down to breakfast with his family in the home of the Quaker conductors who had brought them one step closer to freedom. As Harriet Beecher Stowe describes the happy reunion around the breakfast table, she writes:
It was the first time that George had sat down on equal terms at any white man’s table; and he sat down, at first, with some constraint and awkwardness; but they all exhaled and went off like fog, in the genial morning rays of this simple, overflowing kindness.11
One should recognize, however, that George and Eliza are not the only black characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin that are treated as human beings by whites in the novel. Eva, the daughter of the slave owner St. Clare, is one of the only major white characters that refuses to castigate blacks who sought physical and intellectual freedom as acting white. Topsy, the comical slave girl, and Eva are brought together in one of the most symbolic and allegorical scenes in the novel. Assessing the void between blacks and whites in the South at the midpoint of the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe writes:
Eva stood looking at Topsy. There stood two children, representatives of the two extremes of society. The fair, high-bred child, with her golden head, her deep eyes, her spiritual, noble brow, and prince-like movements; and her black, keen, subtle, cringing, yet acute neighbor. They stood the representatives of their races. The Saxon, born of ages of cultivation, command, education, physical and moral eminence; the Afric, born of ages of oppression, submission, ignorance, toil and vice!12
And yet, despite the racial, social, and educational dichotomy Stowe outlines above, the two children soon develop a bond of trust and friendship that transcends their racial difference—a remarkable depiction just before a civil war that would nearly destroy the country and that was waged in large measure to secure the rights of blacks and whites to act as equals rather than as subservient and dominant members of society who were at odds with one another.
Thus far we have observed how whites perceived blacks throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin. At this juncture it is important to recognize that, while many whites in Uncle Tom’s Cabin perceived blacks who sought to educate themselves, speak clearly, and free themselves from the yoke imposed by slavery as acting white, it is further illustrative to examine how blacks, then as now, negatively perceive fellow members of their race who seek similar emancipation.
Prejudice, then as now, is not merely confined to whites treating blacks poorly; black-on-black prejudice is rampant in Uncle Tom’s Cabin—prejudice that is particularly manifested in the derogatory manner in which lighter-skinned blacks perceive those whose complexions are darker than their own. As we shall also see, darker-skinned blacks in Uncle Tom’s Cabin often accuse lighter-skinned members of the same race as acting white—based merely on skin color. This form of discrimination that Harriet Beecher Stowe brought vividly to life in her work of fiction more than 150 years ago remains in certain black communities across America today.
* As Stowe herself noted in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a young colored man from Kentucky had created just such an invention in real life. The fact that her fictional character George is described as having created such a machine in the book—and hailed from Kentucky—is not to be overlooked.
Meet the Author
RON CHRISTIE, a veteran senior advisor of both the White House and Congress and formerly a special assistant to President George W. Bush, is a noted political and legal analyst. He is a professor of political science and strategy at George Washington University and Haverford College and the author of Black in the White House.
RON CHRISTIE is a senior advisor to both the White House and Congress, and was a special assistant to President George W. Bush. Christie is adjunct professor of strategic advocacy at George Washington University. He resides in New York, New York, and Alexandria, Virginia.
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