Uncle Tom, trustworthy and sexless, needed only to drop the title “Uncle” to become violent, crafty, and sullen, a menace to any white woman who passed by.
He is a social and not a personal or a human problem; to think of him is to think of statistic, slums, rapes, injustices, remote violence; it is to be confronted with an endless cataloguing of losses, gains, skirmishes; it is to feel virtuous, outraged, helpless, as though his continuing status among us were somehow analogous to disease–cancer, perhaps, or tuberculosis–which must be checked, even though it cannot be cured.
In this arena the black man acquires quite another aspect from that which he has in life.
The Negro in America, gloomily referred to as that shadow which lies athwart our national life, is far more than that.
He is a series of shadows, self-created, intertwining, which now we helplessly battle.
There are others who remain, in our odd idiom, “underprivileged”; some are bitter and these come to grief; some are unhappy, but, continually presented with the evidence of a better day soon to come, are speedily becoming less so. They want only their proper place in the sun and the right to be left alone, like any other citizen of the republic. Before, however, our joy at the demise of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom approaches the indecent, we had better ask whence they sprang, who they lived? However inaccurate our portraits of them were, these portraits do suggest, not only the conditions, but the quality of their lives and the impact of this spectacle on our consciences.
There was no one more forbearing than Aunt Jemima, no one stronger or more pious or more loyal or more wise; there was, at the same time, no one weaker or more faithless or more vicious and certainly no one more immoral.It is this which defeats us, which continues to defeat us, which lends to interracial cocktail parties their rattling, genteel, nervously smiling air: in any drawing room at such a gathering the beast may spring, filling the air with flying things and an unenlightened wailing.Wherever the problem touches there is confusion, there is danger.We cannot ask: what do we really feel about him–such a question merely opens the gates on chaos.What we really feel about him is involved with all that we feel about everything, about everyone, about ourselves.They were, moreover, the only people in the world who did; and not only did they know us better than we knew ourselves, but they knew us better than we knew them.This was the piquant flavoring to the national joke, it lay behind our uneasiness as it lay behind our benevolence: Aunt Jemima and Uncle Tom, our creations, at the last evaded us; they had a life–their own, perhaps a better life than ours–and they would never tell us what it was.We do not know what to do with him in life; if he breaks our sociological and sentimental image of him we are panic-stricken and we feel ourselves betrayed.When he violates the image, therefore, he stands in the greatest danger (sensing which, we uneasily suspect that he is very often playing a part for our benefit); and, what is not always so apparent but is equally true, we are then in some danger ourselves–hence our retreat or our blind and immediate retaliation.As is the inevitable result of things unsaid, we find ourselves until today oppressed with a dangerous and reverberating silence; and the story is told, compulsively, in symbols and signs, in hieroglyphics; it is revealed in Negro speech and in that of the white majority and in their different frames of reference.The ways in which the Negro has affected the American psychology are betrayed in our popular culture and in our morality; in our estrangement from him is the depth of our estrangement from ourselves.