Toronto’s City Hall stands tall in the heart of the city.
With its forecourt, Nathan Phillips Square, a popular gathering place and focal point, few realize the complex and comparatively recent history underfoot.
Dr. Cheryl Thompson does.
A professor at Ryerson University, Dr. Cheryl Thompson has become intimately familiar with the history of “The Ward,” a one-thriving multi-ethnic community that was levelled to make way for the city’s seat of power. During recent excavations of the site, archeologists found numerous telling artefacts, including a souvenir plate made to commemorate Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, prompting Dr. Thompson to delve deeper into a complex topic.
She is bringing her findings – virtually – to the Aurora Public Library next Thursday, February 4, to help kick off Black History Month.
Dr. Thompson’s work on the “Uncle Tom” plate found its way into “The Ward Uncovered,” a collection of stories illustrating the forgotten history in the core of Toronto, but her work wasn’t done. It inspired her forthcoming book “Uncle: Race, Nostalgia and the Politics of Loyalty,” due out this month.
“Why would you find an Uncle Tom’s Cabin plate? The book was a sensation,” Dr. Thompson explains. “There were plates, wallpaper, napkins – Uncle Tom’s Cabin was literally put on everything. When I was writing this chapter and having conversations with my editor, he said, ‘I think you should write a book about this.’”
Dr. Thompson was already familiar with the story, knowing that when the name “Uncle Tom” was applied today it was applied specifically to Black men and invariably in a negative context. In short, it was a slur, but that didn’t necessarily jive with her reading of the subject matter.
“When you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Uncle Tom in the book is kind of a hero,” she says. “He’s seen as a Christian man, very loyal, and he basically dies a martyr’s death. He’s very adverse to violence of any kind and that is what led to the thesis of my book. Why is it in my lifetime that I have only known this word to be negative and hurled as an insult, yet when we go back to the book he is a hero?
“At the same time, the way Uncle Tom is used in media culture, people go right back to the 1852 book. I thought, ‘There have been so many iterations of Uncle Tom since 1852, how come people don’t mention that? I wanted to go on an exploration to literally find every case that I could on how Uncle Tom morphed from the book, to the stage, to advertising, to film, to radio, to television – and now, in the contemporary, we see that archetype showing up in politics, especially Black conservatives. I wanted to trace all the twists and turns from the novel of today so it would kind of answer the question: Why we shouldn’t we be referring to the novel of the 19thcentury, because it really has no bearing on the way ‘Uncle Tom’ is used today?”
One of the reasons Dr. Thompson says it is still invoked is out of “a sense of loyalty,” pointing to “Uncle Tom” being levelled at the Kentucky Attorney General’s handling of the murder of Breonna Taylor.
“Why he was called an ‘Uncle Tom’ is he was seen as not really being sincere to the Black community,” says Dr. Thompson. “Instead, he was kind of doing the work of the ‘White’ institutions that have historically disenfranchised [Black communities]. Since this moment in 2020 with Black Lives Matter, there has been a lot more of a sense of being on the right side of history and being on the right side of people who have been victimized. This book illuminates the racial conversations that do come up around this idea of being loyal to your community. Even when you sort of go up the ranks and attain power, there is always this push-pull that you still have a mindset towards your community and do things the community would agree with and not do things only to service White institutions or people in positions of power.”
At the end of the day, she says it is important that people understand the power of stereotypes and hopes her book will help achieve that goal. Stereotypes have been with us for centuries, but sometimes we don’t recognize them because they change over time.
“I always think of the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’,” she says. “It was a sitcom, but it was actually kind of the truth: either you’re this squeaky-clean Carlton who is out of pace and kind of a nerd, or you’re Will who was supposed to be ‘from the streets.’ Just make that connection between where these things come from and what it means that you’re complicit in consuming them, but not really asking questions about what it is you’re consuming.
“If you want to understand why a lot of people don’t like [U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Clarence Thomas, or why a lot of Black people don’t like, say, another Black male you really like and can’t understand why the community doesn’t like them, this is the book that is going to explain why.”
Dr. Cheryl Thompson, author of “Uncle: Race, Nostalgia, and the Politics of Loyalty” and “Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada’s Black Beauty Culture” will be hosted virtually by the Aurora Public Library on Thursday, February 4, at 7 p.m. over Zoom. To register, visit bit.ly/3k9schY.
Brock Weir, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Auroran