Shortly after Sen. Tim Scott’s rebuttal to President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress, which aired April 30, Twitter blew up.

The president spoke about his plan for America’s economic recovery after months of lockdowns and rising unemployment. In the Republican rebuttal to Biden’s address, Sen. Scott exposed the ways in which the president failed to deliver on many of his promises.

After taking aim at President Biden’s promise to unite the nation, the senator from South Carolina went on to reveal his personal experience of “intolerance.” He explained: “I get called an ‘Uncle Tom’ and the N-word by progressives.” Sen. Scott’s describing this form of name calling as “intolerance” did not deter his critics – progressives – from continuing to call him the name he, like so many, finds offensive.

Almost immediately following Sen. Scott’s speech, a myriad of tweets called the senator “Uncle Tim” – a reference to the slur “Uncle Tom,” which, in contemporary parlance, describes a Black person who is obsequious to white people. Scott responded with his characteristic eloquence, but he, along with most who use the term on social media platforms and in print media, seems to have misunderstood its connotations.

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote her 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” from which the name derives, right here in Brunswick, during the virulent debates over the Fugitive Slave Law, passed by the Senate in 1850. But when Sen. Scott’s critics and political opponents use the epithet, they are not referring to Stowe’s character. Most have heard the reference to Stowe’s famous novel having started the Civil War, but not as many have read it. When people use the name today, it has little to do with Stowe’s anti-slavery novel. For Stowe, Uncle Tom was a religious figure par excellence, a martyr and faithful Christian.

The term developed into a racial slur only around the mid-20th century, when African American writers like Richard Wright, Chester Himes and James Baldwin used it in their fiction. Baldwin compared Wright’s controversial protagonist in the 1940 novel “Native Son” to the protagonist of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” calling Wright’s Bigger Thomas “Uncle Tom’s descendant.”

This was Baldwin’s way of putting Wright in his place, of asserting his dominance over his erstwhile literary mentor. Baldwin would go on to revise his opinion of both Wright and Stowe when he would reveal his near-obsessive relationship with “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in a much later work of literary criticism. It was not until the 1960s, however, with the emergence of more radical voices, like that of the Black poet and playwright Amiri Baraka, that the term would gain traction as a racial slur. In his celebrated 1964 play “Dutchman,” the term was used by a white woman (Lula) to denounce a Black man (Clay), who she meets on a New York subway and kills with impunity, following an extended flirtation between the two. Lula uses the slur to revile a Black man who thinks he has the authority and audacity to flirt with a white woman.

When progressives denounce conservative leaders like Sen. Scott by calling him “Uncle Tim,” they can be traced to Baraka’s Lula. I would recommend that those who use the term on Twitter and elsewhere have a look at “Dutchman” (and its literary precursors) to know the high stakes of putting down a Black man whose ideas oppose their own. Perhaps this is what Stowe had in mind when she wrote her novel in Brunswick amid the political turmoil of the 1850s.

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