In parts one and two I said that 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 Middle Class/Well Paid Uncle Tom
Dr. Dre came from the hood, put in work and became successful. As a businessman Dre has made a killing from his headphones and various other ventures. What to do with all that cash!? Not build up black institutions, apparently. Dre gave a whopping $35 million to USC, a school with an endowment greater than all black colleges — combined. How can a wealthy guy from the hood feel no urgency to build up the black institutions that will produce the next black success stories? There are levels to this.
The middle class Uncle Tom does not feel the urgency of the black struggle, perhaps because he lives in comfort. I am that Tom. At times I fail to understand the extreme level of dedication and discipline necessary –from all black people– to secure black power. Since I do not live in any tangible crisis I fail to realize that, while I am fine, the condition of the black masses is in many ways critical. I don’t always grasp that there can be no days off and that every black person must maintain a laser focus on liberation, if it is to be achieved. My actions (or inactions) have real consequences for others.
It starts small. I got a decent job out of college and felt good about myself, as I should have. I knew the obstacles I overcame to get there and wanted to protect my gains. I tried to integrate myself with my colleagues at work and show them I was worthy of my station in life. That I felt the need to validate myself to a white world is in itself problematic but understandable. One day I boarded the subway for my commute home. The subway car had twenty whites and me. At the next stop a young black man boarded who was obviously not middle class. He was listening to rap lyrics and reciting them — loudly. I was embarrassed. I did everything in my power to distance myself from the brother and show all the white passengers that I was not like him.
That seems innocent enough but this root of perversion grows. I did not understand, as Elijah Muhammad said, “No one man can rise above the condition of his people.” I did not understand that because black unemployment is always wildly out of step with white unemployment, I must go out of my way to support black institutions toward eradicating this disparity. I often fail to realize that, unlike other groups, black people do not have the luxury of allowing black entrepreneurs to fail. If the Tide laundry brand fails there are a number of others that will thrive. If the True detergent brand (black owned) fails, however, it will mean yet another space where black representation is non-existent. There is no room for complacency.
My middle class lifestyle affords me the privilege of sometimes paying just a little bit extra to support black businesses. I can afford to give money to black organizations and colleges. I often forget this. At times I do not connect to the larger struggle for black power and so I sit on the sidelines as black institutions, which I could help sustain, crumble.
Worse than sitting on the sidelines, I can be critical of black institutions which I do not even bother to support. In the past I’ve said, “Black colleges can’t get their shit together!” and “I’m not going to support some black bank with my money, they might steal it!” (sidenote: many Toms are unbothered by the fact that Wells Fargo literally got caught stealing money from its customers, they still bank there). I said those things and yet wondered why things didn’t change for black America. I am part of the problem.
In my Tom moments it’s not that I’m an evil person or unaware of racism — I’ve personally been stung by it. I simply want to enjoy the finer things and eat at the same restaurants my counterparts do. In those moments, however, I fail to understand that just because I am okay, it doesn’t mean urgency is not required. I am sometimes clueless, because of my own security, as to how fragile our collective state is and thus why I must have a firm dedication to building all things black. Through my inaction and passivity, I unwittingly retard black progress. My inaction renders me an Uncle Tom, if only temporarily. Malcolm X described the middle class Uncle Tom like this: “But there’s another kind of Black man on the scene. If you say you’re in trouble, he says, “Yes, you’re in trouble.” He doesn’t identify himself with your plight whatsoever.”