Discussion about taz-headline: Is "Uncle Barack's Cabin" racist?

Not only in US-Blogs, but also at the taz newspaper itself the issue is heavily discussed: Is using the reference to "Uncle Tom's Cabin" when discussing Obamas nomination offensive? Two controversial opinions.

Is the White House Obamas cabin? Bild: taz


When Barack Obama was born most blacks in the United States could not even vote. Today, one of them is on the point of conquering the presidency. Nothing could be further removed from this historic triumph than the literary figure of "Uncle Tom" - that simple, pious slave in the 19th century South who acquiesces in his fate, who likes his little cabin, who forgives his master even after brutal torture, who prefers to die rather than to betray or even join his fleeing comrades.

The novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is actually a burning indictment of slavery, but in US Afro-American discourse its hero has become the epitome of the subservient negro who accepts his condition instead of changing it. Today in the US an "Uncle Tom" is a traitor, a black who works for white interests. Calling somebody "Uncle Tom" is an insult. In today's context this characterisation has an curious history: When at the end of the 19the century the Democrats in the South upheld racial segregation together with the Ku Klux Klan, "Uncle Tom" was used to describe blacks who chose to desert the Republicans, then more progressive on citizens' rights, in favour of the Democrats.

So what could it mean to describe the White House in the event of a Democratic victory as "Uncle Barack's Cabin"? The discourse of infantile ultra-leftists, perhaps, or of disgraced preacher Jeremiah Wright, casting Obama as a traitor because he works within the system?

Using "Uncle Barack" to describe Obama's politics is nonsense. And as he is not even descended from slaves but from black Kenyans and white Americans, the literary reference "Uncle Tom" is not even remotely applicable to him - except if one regards it as sufficient that he is also (half) black. In which case the only common point is the colour of his skin and the only common framework a racist stereotype.

"Uncle Barack" is then the equivalent of the neo-conservative slogan "Obama = Osama", meaning Bin Laden and referring to Barack Obama's time in Muslim Indonesia and his second name Hussein. "Hussein's Cave" might have been an apt headline from this angle. Oh, you can't do that? How interesting. It requires remarkable brainlessness to think of "Uncle Tom" first when looking at the success of a black politician in the United States. BY DOMINIC JOHNSON


From Bernd Pickert Thursday's edition of taz triggered fierce reactions: The headline "Uncle Barack's Cabin" was racist, we were accused. Comparing the democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama with the "uncle Tom" character from Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel is offensive and an insult to Obama and to all african americans, critics say. The "uncle Tom" from the novel is a black slave who tries to make good with his white owners. He relies on religiosity rather than standing up against slavery. He renounces his human condition as an active subject - almost.

After assisting two other slaves in their escape he denies the information about their whereabouts to the slave owner and gets killed for that. The author was a passionate abolitionist. Her novel was read all over the world as a call against the crime of slavery - not as a book about the stupidity of black people. In the United States the perception of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has changed, especially since the black civil rights movement of the sixties. When the black population finally abandoned the role of suppressed victim, "Uncle Tom" became an insult, usually between blacks. The critics of our front page rely on this: To call Barack Obama "uncle Tom" is the last thing to do, they say, and I agree.

But what about calling the White House a "cabin"? This is the important thing about our front page, which is why there is an extra-large picture showing the center of political power in Washington D.C.. What contrast could be greater than that between the suppressed white-pleasing slave and the candidate for the highest office in the United States? Our front page is about this great story, the gradual overcoming of racist oppression in the US, for which Obama's nomination is undoubtedly a historic milestone. "Uncle Tom" and his slave's cabin finally belong to the past.

Does a frontpage about Obama have to refer to the colour of his skin at all? Reducing the political supertalent Barack Obama to being black would indeed be racist. But we would be painting the world too rosy if we pretended that the colour of his skin doesn't matter in these elections. After all: What was all the trouble about his former pastor Jeremiah Wright about? The headline combined with the majestic picture of the White House are our way to express that Uncle Tom's cabin belongs to the past - in the time of uncle Barack everything is different. It is a pity that this could be misunderstood. BY BERND PICKERT

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