The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
February 02, 2005

Zenga Longmore on why Louis Armstrong was accused of being an Uncle Tom

Posted by Zenga Longmore

Zenga Longmore will be writing regularly about jazz for the Social Affairs Unit.

What on earth do people mean when they accuse someone of being an Uncle Tom? A surprisingly large number of successful black Americans such as Paul Robeson and Sammy Davis Junior have had their lives blighted by such an accusation. Even the beautiful Dorothy Dandridge, who set the 1950s alight with her smouldering rendition of Carmen Jones, was attacked for being an Aunty Tomasina. But why Uncle Tom?

Louis Armstrong, the most famous jazz musician of all time, frequently found his concerts were boycotted by African Americans who considered him to be an 'Uncle Tom'. In the Deep South, during the first half of the last century, all places of entertainment were strictly segregated. Sunday nights were for black audiences and Monday nights were for whites. Martin Napoleon, a white drummer with Armstrong's band, was shocked to discover that the attendance for the 'Black Nights' was only a fraction the size of the 'White Nights'. Napoleon explained:

The blacks felt that Louis was denigrating their race.
Paradoxically, Sammy Davis Junior was one of the most vehement voices to cry 'Uncle Tom' at Louis during the civil rights movement of the 1950s. So what did these people believe the world's greatest virtuoso jazz trumpeter in history had in common with old Uncle Thomas?

Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852 was a somewhat sentimental but vivid portrayal of the cruelties of plantation slavery in the American South. Abraham Lincoln felt that its powerful anti-slavery message helped to precipitate the American Civil War.

Uncle Tom himself was a middle-aged man who was whipped to death for refusing to betray a fellow slave. He was heroic - ready to die for his principals and his fellow African American. He was nothing like the doddery, white haired cartoon image our imaginations conjure up when we think of Uncle Tom. Yet he has become a byword for all that is grovelling, comic and disloyal.

This stereotype derived from the Uncle Tom Shows, which toured America after the American Civil War, and took on a momentum of their own. The Uncle Tom shows were more like pantomimes and bore about as much relation to Harriet Beecher Stowe's original novel as the Aladdin pantomimes bear to the original Arabian Nights story. One may search The Arabian Nights in vain for a Widow Twanky.

In similar vein, Lawyer Marks, a very minor character in the book, ended up taking over the whole Uncle Tom show, milking laughter from the audience for all he was worth. Simon Legree became transformed into a ludicrously evil demon, lashing slaves and free men alike, and Topsy, shining with boot-polish and white lips, enlivened her performance with buffoonish jigs and grotesque vowel sounds.

Of course Louis Armstrong was nothing like the original or the theatrical Uncle Tom. He was a man so obsessed with his music that he never took a holiday in his life, claiming that if he went away, he would only spend his time blowing his horn, so why go away?

Ironically, although he never complained about it, his career was devastated by racism from his white country people. When touring America he found that the very same white people, who barred him from restaurants and hotels in the morning, flocked to idolise him in concert halls in the evening.

Louis's larger than life personality - generous arm gestures, wide grin, pop eyes and gravely voice became a 'Negro stereotype'. His mannerisms, looks and personality were his own; Louis was not putting on an act. However, perhaps it was because it was so easy to do, Louis's style was ceaselessly imitated by whites in minstrel shows, films and cartoons. It seems very unfair to expect Louis to shoulder the blame for the bigoted society into which he was born.

When was the crucial moment when Louis Armstrong lost the affection of American black people? Could this be the very time when jazz ceased to be popular entertainment for and by black Americans?

Here is a potted and oversimplified History of Jazz.
1. 1915-1930: New Orleans jazz - the music Louis Armstrong both grew up with and helped to create.
2. 1930 - 1948: Big Band Jazz - large orchestras, featuring massed banks of musicians, plus stunning and exciting solos.
3. 1948-1962: Bebop Small Bands - playing experimental music for intellectuals.

Louis Armstrong, very much a Man of The People, adapted well to Big Band Jazz but did not wish to become involved in Bebop. Though he avoided intellectuals, it must not be thought that he was not intellectual. As he once stated:

I don't dislike progressive music. In my younger days, playing blues on a cornet was a brand new experimental idea.
During the 1950s he returned to New Orleans jazz which was now out of favour with black people but very much in favour with the white people who looked on the Roaring Twenties as a golden age. Louis's extrovert style of entertainment appealed greatly to white audiences, but was viewed suspiciously by black people most of whom had forsaken jazz and taken to Rhythm and Blues. They not only disliked his 'old hat' music, but also felt that his widely caricatured style was in some way demeaning to African Americans. Therefore they came up with the most hurtful remark they could think of - Uncle Tom.

Zenga Longmore writes for The Spectator, The Oldie, and The Daily Telegraph. She is an actress and blues singer and the author of Tap-taps To Trinidad. To read her other pieces on jazz for the Social Affairs Unit, see Jazz.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

"Uncle Tom himself was a middle-aged man who was whipped to death for refusing to betray a fellow slave. He was heroic - ready to die for his principals and his fellow African American."

I don't think that's the point at all. I'm an Englishman, but I'm sensitive enough to language to see somewhat into the mind of any English-speaking man - including that of the resentful Black American.

I expect most people who frequent this site will have read John Casey's "Pagan Virtue":

There's the point. Christian morality is a compassion-based morality and as such to be contrasted with the ethics of the Ancient World - which were pride-based.

The "African Americans" who fling this insult - "Uncle Tom" - around aren't moral philosophers and never read Aristotle, but they understand in an immediate and "unmediated" way that Uncle Tom is a Christian and as such a *meek* man - albeit not a "soft" man. That doesn't appeal.

They feel he ought to *resent* his position.

Posted by: Damian at February 2, 2005 08:34 PM

lyrics to black and blue

Iím white...inside...but, that donít help my case
Thatís life...canít hide...what is in my face

Posted by: mik at August 15, 2005 11:12 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement