Uncle Toms are the greatest threat to black America. In 2017 Uncle Tom might take the form of Dr. Dre on Monday, T.D Jakes on Tuesday, Future on Thursday and morph into Very Smart Brothas by week’s end. Even I, the writer, am guilty. In his autobiography Malcolm X indicated that he could stomach a conservative racist more than an Uncle Tom. Malcolm understood the danger. If black people are to achieve true revolution and freedom, we must eliminate Tom, wherever he might be found.
The trouble in 2017 is that we don’t understand what makes one an Uncle Tom and we resist the notion that each of us, woke as we believe ourselves to be, have some Uncle Tom in us. Again, I myself am not exempt.
The Uncle Tom, for our purpose, is any person who identifies as black but actively or passively undermines black power; black power= black freedom and self determination. This can be momentary or a permanent condition, for some. Holding conservative views does not make one an Uncle Tom. Having liberal views –which I do– does not make one aligned with black power, either. In fact, the most dangerous Uncle Toms in 2017 happen to be liberals/Democrats. The danger we pose is that we think ourselves woke because of our liberalism. When our lives are misaligned with the ideals of black power and independence, however, we have to be convinced that we are in fact Uncle Toms.
By virtue of American citizenship all black people wrestle with some level of internal Tom. Indeed, it is often a necessary evil for survival. In the 1940’s it may have been necessary to buy from white folks to literally escape death. Survival. In today’s world Van Jones went from basically condemning Trump voters on election night as bigots to now traveling the country, holding town halls with Trump supporters to explore their “viewpoints.” Again, survival. But black power is beyond survival and to attain it we must be mature enough to reflect on our level of Uncle Tom and work to kill that son of a bitch. Are you bold enough to join this collective journey and identify which variety of Tom lives in you?
The Religious Uncle Tom
Bishop T.D Jakes has shined brighter than most preachers for years. His books and sermons have reached millions. Still, given his tremendous platform, it is fair to ask how it all has furthered the quest for black freedom. The bishop is to be commended for preaching a message of self-healing and empowerment but he is positioned to actually erect or support institutions to help facilitate that empowerment. Based on the ministries his church website promotes, this is not the case. Further, sermons are fine but black people need his voice to confront the many crises we face on a more consistent basis.
Yes, his ministry helps ex-offenders and needy people but because the Bishop has been given much, more is required. Some might say his role as a preacher is simply to inspire individuals, who then will minister to society. That argument is tempting but disarmed when the history of the black church is considered. The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church is the oldest denomination founded by black people in America, back in 1816. They preached the word but also built colleges like Wilberforce University and by 1880, operated over 2,000 schools. In an era of strict segregation, their congregations raised the money needed to keep those schools operational.
In a time when black people literally risked death for speaking out on social issues, AME bishops like Henry Mcneal Turner were fearless in the political arena. From the dangerous terrain of central Georgia, Turner successfully ran for the state legislature and used his voice as a trumpet for justice. Jakes, on the other hand, speaks loudly on prosperity but historically has been mute on topics of black oppression. He plays it safe, not wanting to alienate supporters. Turner risked his life to speak out but Jakes appears apprehensive about losing offerings or influence. After all, he never would have gotten a talk show had he gone all Jeremiah Wright.
The religious Uncle Tom is dangerous and I have been him. My thoughts were of heaven and developing the self toward godliness. In that state I chose to downplay social issues, having been taught that if we all just stopped sinning everything would be fine. I knew oppression existed but again, I was told that it was the result of sin. I saw racism but rather than call it out, I was taught that we should focus on –you guessed it– the sinful nature. I was told that it was godly to bring people together rather than directly rebuke those who oppress others. Those who taught me seemed unaware that it was Jesus who said that he did “not come to bring peace but a sword.” As we looked to the sky in our piety, we failed to see the urgency on planet earth.
I prayed often but the ills of the world persisted. At times I even tried to feed the hungry but never evolved to the understanding of Archbishop Hélder Câmara, who said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” The religious institutions I belonged to played it safe. Feeding hungry people earned our nonprofit a grant. Speaking against those who oppress the poor and building institutions that promote power, however, might lose offerings and friends. Our nonprofits ultimately rendered us “non-prophets.”
Some of our churches can raise a nice offering. In fact, the black church is one of the few institutions that successfully pools the capital of black people. Those dollars, however, go toward maintaining facilities and the work of the “ministry.” We can’t seem to connect the dots. Our community faces crises in employment and resources and yet, the church’s successful pooling of black capital never results in job creation or combatting the deep disparities our communities face. The church building remains in tact, however, as the neighborhood crumbles. We believe we are doing the Lord’s work but in fact, we hinder the progress of black people.
Black churches have not the luxury to exist as other churches do. No other group in America had to emerge from the depths of chattel slavery, live under neo slavery/Jim Crow and seek equality in the face of constant harassment, void of meaningful reparations. The urgency, focus and commitment required to overcome this legacy leaves no room for passivity. Here are a few tangible ways to take action as a faith community:
- Use money collected from members to start a fund to support local entrepreneurs and black institutions, such as your closest HBCU.
- Deposit church funds into a black owned bank.
- Use the pulpit and church communications to direct members to business owners in the congregation and the community.
- Require candidates for public office to articulate their plan for black empowerment through economic development prior to giving them a platform at your church.
- Use the pulpit to rebuke policies and policymakers that hinder black freedom, especially locally.
To kill Tom must be a daily fight and it is difficult. On the other side of that fight, however, is a world where black people are free, independent and collectively walk in power. Religion can serve the aim of liberation or pacify both the oppressed and the powerful.
Stay tuned for the next installment on “The Hood Uncle Tom”