Friday, December 30, 2016

A Jewish Resurrection of Uncle Tom

Tonight a friend directed me to a segment of Backstory Radio about  Judaism in Americawhich aired on the first night of Hanukkah. The program covers the Jewish experience in Dutch colonial New York, George Washington assuring Jews in 1790 that they were welcome and that the young nation was indeed serious about the separation of church and state, the origins of modern day Hanukkah, Jewish delis, and popular songs rendered in Yiddish.  The hosts were struck by an early Jewish presence in the South, and how incongruous and uncomfortable the institution of slavery must have appeared at Passover prior to the Civil War. This reminded me of a play we saw at the Marin Theater Company three years ago, which centers on a Seder taking place on the day of Lincoln's assassination. 

Here is my review hoisted from the vault... 

The Whipping Man
By Matthew Lopez
Produced by the Marin Theater Company 2013

Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man is centered on a Passover Seder celebrated by two Jewish house Negroes (Simon and John) in the ruins of their former home in Richmond Virginia on April 14, 1865.  The date is significant because it is the day of Lincoln’s assassination, just five days after the surrender of the South.  A third member joins them at this Seder table, the son of the household who returned in the middle of the night at the beginning of the play, with a shot up leg. Before lighting the Seder candles the former slaves amputate their old master's leg just below the knee with a saw to save him.  

You might ask “Jews in the South?”  Well, yes, there was a Jewish population of approximately 25,000 in 1860 in the South, and those with means owned slaves.  Southern Jewish gentry tended to congregate in the cities, which means they owned “house negroes” not “field negroes” as Malcolm X would have it.   Malcolm X didn’t approve much of house Negroes. 

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in serial form in 1851-1852, sold 500,000 copies world wide by 1853.  The book has been credited by some with being responsible for the election of Abraham Lincoln, and it was instrumental in fueling the abolitionist movement leading to the end of slavery in the United States in 1865.  Wikipedia's encapsulation is:  “Stowe's melodramatic story humanized the suffering of slavery for White audiences by portraying Tom as a Christlike figure who is ultimately martyred, beaten to death by a cruel master because Tom refuses to betray the whereabouts of two women who escape from slavery.”  An early (1852) anonymous reviewer of the book in the Boston abolitionist publication, The Liberator, took exception to the saintly Christian pacifist portrayal of Uncle Tom:  “Uncle Tom’s character is sketched with great power and rare religious perception. It triumphantly exemplifies the nature, tendency, and results of CHRISTIAN NON-RESISTANCE. We are curious to know whether Mrs. Stowe is a believer in the duty of non-resistance for the White man, under all possible outrage and peril, as for the Black man….”  

In 1949, James Baldwin wrote an influential essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, titled “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” which excoriated the novel as a political pamphlet.  Baldwin argued that protest novels are inherently sentimental, and that sentimental art is inherently dishonest.  Thereafter, it was all downhill for poor Uncle Tom who came to be a derogatory epithet for excessive subservience and acceptance of a racially defined lower-class status, to the point of collaborating with the oppressor, and being a traitor to one’s own.  It’s what resonates in Malcolm X’s characterization of the “house negro.”  

Well this play has two house Negroes: the level headed, powerful, illiterate but wise Simon; and the younger, never-do-well, thieving, intelligent, literate, self-educated, and angry John.  But neither one of them has a trace of the pejorative “Uncle Tom.”  John was a rebel and was whipped for it.  Simon is like the original “paragon of Christian virtue” Uncle Tom, except he is a paragon of Jewish virtue.  His Jewish faith is more constant in the face of disaster than Caleb’s, the prodigal soldier son of the household.  [Not the only son, but that is another story]  Simon raised both Caleb and John, and he is the most powerful of the three.  He is powerful like a good version of Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen in Django Unchained.  He runs the show.  

If Simon’s power comes from his Judaism, John’s (and what kind of meshugganah Jewish name is that?) comes from his learning and intelligence.  He knows that the Bible commands the Israelites that they may buy slaves from “the nations that surround you, … but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.”  Leviticus 25: 44-46.

"Were we slaves ..., or were we Jews,"  asks John.  He has within him the seeds of the Civil Rights movement, the seeds of affirmative action.  

Simon is promised his freedom by his master, who sold his wife, and who may be dead;  but John knows that, as to Hebrew slaves, the bible commands:  “in the seventh year you must let them go free.  And when you release them, do not send them away empty-handed.  Supply them liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to them as the Lord your God has blessed you.  Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.”  Deuteronomy 15:12-18.  

Here is the legislative history behind all of that.  

 Gives a whole new meaning to being "on the side of the angels” don’t it?

Keep a lookout for a production of the play and let me know what you think the implications might be of this Jewish resurrection of Uncle Tom. 

For those of you in the San Francisco Bay Area, check out Marin Theater Company's upcoming production of Native Son. 

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