Uncle Clarence Tom: What Makes a “Sell Out”?

Uncle Clarence 2 Honestly, this post isn’t much about Clarence Thomas.  It’s about a trope or a symbol that he has nearly universally become associated with: That of the Uncle Tom.

And you know what’s interesting about that?  Read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel and you’ll find that the actual Uncle Tom character looked out for his people! He helped those enslaved on the plantation and while they were trying to escape.  He was a contemplative, thoughtful man who wrestled with Black people’s position in the world, and pondered how he could transform the social order of his day.

Uncle Tom 2Jim Crow

The modern image of “Uncle Tom” wasn’t really invented until the early 20th century, when minstrel shows revisited his character and transformed him on stage into a smiling, singing, dancing, blackface-wearing buffoon, who was surreally happy with his lot in life.  This “Tom” was the type to ask his “owner”, “Is we sick bawse?”  And he’d say things like, “This is a nice house we got here suh.”  This Tom was an invention, for he rarely existed on American plantations.

In fact, one could probably make the case that his spirit is more alive today than it was a century ago.  How so?

Ask yourself this: What makes someone a “sell out”?  Generally, as a descriptor we could probaby agree that a sell out is one who actively conspires against his or her people.  The more liberal of us may even expand it to include those whose actions don’t benefit their people, and in particular, those who have resources, education, skills and talents that are sorely needed, yet never used in the service of their community.

Forty Million Dollar SlavesWell damn!  Based on that criteria, who aint a sell out?  In the 2-0-0-9, Black people are as American as fried chicken… Wait–poor reference.  And what exactly does that mean?  Well, among other things, it means we commonly think as individuals who will gladly forsake our communities for a couple of dollars.  Dope dealers do it.  Rappers do it.  Ball players do it.  Hell, upper middle class Black doctors, lawyers, professors, and engineers do it too.  A few years ago I read a book called Forty Million Dollar Slaves, and was shocked to learn that Michael Jordan, one of the best to ever shoot a fade-away and the 1990’s status symbol of successful Black manhood, once refused to publicly support Harvey Gant, a progressive Black Democrat, who was running against Jessie Helms, a former segregationist and out-of-the-closet racist/homophobe, for a North Carolina Senate seat.

Jordan’s argument?  “Republicans buy sneakers too” (200-201).  As it turned out, they voted in large numbers too.  Helms defeated Gant.

And what about the apparent “air-apparent”, Lebron James?  In 2007 he refused to sign a letter penned by then team mate Ira Newble.  The letter was an attempt on Newble’s part to draw international attention to the genocide occurring in Darfur, and position the NBA to take an official public stance.  But Bron-bron was nothing doing, saying he didn’t have enough information.  To date, at least 300,000 people have been murdered in Darfur.  The “king” is apparently still wating for details.

As for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas (and should you happen to read this, sir, I don’t want no static with you, the Court, COINTELPRO, the Feds, or Immigration), all I’m saying is let’s apply the definition consistently.  If he is a “sell out”, then so are most other Blacks in lofty positions who have done little to change the day-to-day realities of America’s “least of them” in the years since desegregation.  The only question left to ask is, are YOU one?

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