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Caricatures of African Americans: Tom
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The Tom Caricature
In many ways, the Tom caricature is the male counterpart to the Mammy caricature. Tom was created during the era of American slavery in the desire to portray Black slaves as faithful, happily submissive servants, and thus slavery as a beneficial institute.  Like Mammy, Tom is presented as smiling, dark skinned, old, and completely desexualized.  He’s the loyal server: fieldworker, cook, butler, porter, or waiter. He’s a dependable worker (unlike the Coon), eager to serve and earn the approval of Whites.  If Tom was too old to work, then he was depicted as the contented retired slave, with a cabin all his own (a generous gift from the master), and he was the centerpiece of mythical scenes depicting slaves in their ease after hours, strumming the banjo, telling stories, watching the younger slaves dance. Tom’s lack of sexuality was not created to hide a lie of White sexual exploitation of Blacks, but rather as a psychological salve to ease White fear and anxiety of Black male sexuality.  On the plantation, where Blacks outnumbered Whites, that fear always
Tom
Tom
Engraving: A Tom telling stories on the plantation
Engraving: A Tom telling stories on the plantation
Uncle Tom's Cabin
Uncle Tom's Cabin
Uncle Tom & Eva, 1899 Lithograph
Uncle Tom & Eva, 1899 Lithograph
Simon Legree Whipping Tom
Simon Legree Whipping Tom
lingered just beneath the surface.

Ironically, Tom was named from the famous Harriet Beecher Stowe antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), a character intended to inspire sympathy in White readers.  Stowe's Tom is a gentle, humble, faithful Christian slave. Despite his loyalty and gentle nature, Tom is sold, cursed, slapped, kicked, flogged, worked like a horse, then beaten to death. While intended as a contrast for White brutality, Stowe’s Tom came to be seen not as a sympathetic character, but a pathetic one.  He never resists.  He never lifts a hand to hit his masters nor to stop a blow. Tom does not complain, rebel, or run away. This partially explains why the names "Uncle Tom" and "Tom" have become terms of disgust for African Americans.
 
Commercial Toms
The Tom caricature took the same route to mainstream status as did Mammy—from abolition into advertising, from minstrel shows and vaudeville into film. In the 1890s Dixon's Stove Polish used "Uncle Obadiah" in their advertisements, an elderly, frail, poorly dressed, yet smiling Tom. In the 1920s Schulze Baking Company used the image of an old banjo-strumming Tom on its advertisement selling Uncle Wabash Cupcakes. Images of Toms performing domestic service and other forms of
Dixon's Stove Polish Ad
Dixon's Stove Polish Trade Card
Uncle Wabash Cupcakes
Uncle Wabash Cupcakes (2 views)
Uncle Remus brand Syrup Cans: "Dis Sho' Am Good"
Uncle Remus brand Syrup Cans: "Dis Sho' Am Good"
Mil-Kay Vitamin Drinks tin sign, 1941
Mil-Kay Vitamin Drinks tin sign, 1941
Pabst Beer Sign, "Yes- Suh-h"
Pabst Beer Sign, "Yes- Suh-h", c.1930s
Bass Ale Ad, 1936
Bass Ale Ad, 1936
Pillsbury's Pancake Flour Ad, c.1930s
Pillsbury's Pancake Flour Ad, c.1930s
manual labor adorned many products. Mil-Kay Vitamin Drinks used a smiling Black waiter on its posters and billboards, as did Pillsbury and several American breweries.

Another common depiction of Toms was as a porter, a service laborer who carried White travelers' baggage and other items in train stations or hotels, and also performed basic cleaning services, including shoe shines. Porters were featured in advertisements for such products as AC Delco Spark Plugs, Listerine, Plymouth, and
Union Pacific. Porters, like Black waiters, are usually shown with exaggerated grins, as if there is nothing in the world these simple-minded folk would like to be doing other than serving White people. As such, they are not real people at all, but background noise. Additionally, Toms in the form of waiters and porters helped promote the notion that Blacks were suited only for menial labor. In other words, like the Mammy caricature did for women, Tom served to promote and justify economic discrimination for real Black American men.
Hires Rootbee Ad with waiter, 1938
Hires Root Beer Ad with waiter, 1938
AC Delco Spark Plugs Ad, c.1930s
AC Delco Spark Plugs Ad, c.1930s
Listerine Ad, 1941
Listerine Ad, 1941
Plymouth Ad, 1940
Plymouth Ad, 1940
Union Pacific Railroad Ad with porter, 1951
Union Pacific Railroad Ad with porter, 1951
Uncle Ben's Rice
Uncle Ben's Rice Product Box
Uncle Ben's Rice Magazine Ad
Uncle Ben's Rice Magazine Ad
Uncle Ben's Image Update
Uncle Ben's Image Update
In the 1940s Converted Rice changed the name of its major product to Uncle Ben's Brand Rice, and began using the image of a smiling, elderly Black man on its package.  Like Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben was revamped in 2007, upgraded from cook to CEO, complete with website and Flash-embedded tour of his fictional corporate office.

Perhaps  the most famous commercial Tom is "Rastus," the Cream of Wheat cook. Rastus was created in 1893 by Emery Maples, who wanted a likable image on packages of "breakfast porridge." Maples first used the image of a Black chef from an old printing block, and
eventually settled on an image based on a real waiter he encountered in Chicago, with the chef's hat and jacket. Rastus, like Aunt Jemima, became something of a cultural icon, and Cream of Wheat magazine ads are still collectible. Rastus is marketed as a symbol of wholesomeness and reliability. The toothy, well-dressed Black chef happily serves breakfast to a mostly White nation. Many Cream of Wheat advertisements are, by today's standards, racially problematic.

For example, a 1921 ad shows a young White boy sitting in a rickshaw that is being pulled by an elderly Black man. The man has stopped to smoke. The boy, waving a whip-like stick, says, "Giddap, Uncle." Often Rastus is portrayed as barely literate, as well as ignorant outside of his expertise in preparing Cream of Wheat. In a 1921 ad, Rastus holds a sign on which he speaks in stereotypical dialect:
1921 Ad: Giddap Uncle
1921 Ad: Giddap Uncle
1921 Ad
1921 Ad: Rastus speaks in stereotypical dialect
Maybe Cream of Wheat
aint got no vitamines.
I dont know what them
things is. If they's bugs
they aint none in Cream of
Wheat but she's sho' good
to eat and cheap. Costs 'bout
1¢ fo a great big dish.


Additionally, while there are a few hints that Rastus has family and relationships within the Black community, the preponderance of ads suggest that he "belongs" to the White community and family, as a kind of personal servant. Especially common are ads which depict a special relationship between Rastus and White children,
a characteristic of the Tom caricature since the days of slavery. While some might be tempted to interpret these images as "positive", that they are showing Black men as kind and trustworthy, one must remember that the intent of these images was to provide psychological comfort to Whites, not to praise Blacks. Tom was created not only to justify slavery (by showing Blacks as happy, content, and so child-like that they required the paternal security of slavery), but to reassure Whites that the intimate confines in which they lived with their slaves was not physically dangerous. The physical aspect of Black males most feared by Whites was their sexuality. Tom provided an image of the Black man who was old, feeble, loyal, and totally desexualized. In fact, Rastus is so desexualized that he is rarely shown from the waist down. When he is, something is usually blocking any view of his groin area, or he is in the background of the image where that part of his physique would not be so distracting. Thus, Rastus isn't just nice to White children, he's safe--a psychological salve for Whites to ease their fear that their families will be raped by free Black men.
Rastus and his special relationship with White kids, 1914
Rastus and his special relationship with White kids, 1914
Rastus's private parts are usually blocked, such as in this 1912 Ad
Rastus's private parts are usually blocked, such as in this 1912 Ad
| Jump to Cream of Wheat Advertisements Gallery |
 
Uncle Tom in Film
The first "Toms" in film were portrayals of the actual Stowe character in various movie versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1903, Edwin S. Porter directed a twelve-minute version of the novel, with the title character played by a white actor in blackface. Porter's Uncle Tom was a childlike, groveling servant. In 1914, a 72-year-old Black actor named Sam Lucas played Uncle Tom on film. In 1927 Universal Pictures remade Uncle Tom's Cabin and used the Black actor James B. Lowe in the title role. The Toms played by
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903)
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903)
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1914)
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1914)
Lucas and Lowe, like the many Toms played by White actors in blackface makeup, were genial, passive, happy servants.

Uncle Tom was not the only example of the Tom caricature in early American cinema. In films set during the days of slavery, Toms frequently sacrificed their own needs in the performance of some duty for the master. In Confederate Spy (1909), the Tom
Hearts In Dixie (1929)
Hearts In Dixie (1929)
character of Uncle Daniel is a southern Black spy who, when caught and brought before a Union firing squad, claims that he has no regrets. Rather, he "did it for massa's sake and for little massa." In For Massa's Sake (1911), a former slave is so devoted to his former master that he sells himself back into slavery to help pay the White man's debts. Several of the classic films from the period, including D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (1915) and the all-Black musical Hearts in Dixie (1929) have numerous caricatures of Blacks, including Toms. The latter film shows Toms and their female counterparts joyously harmonizing while picking the master's cotton in the lost paradise of the Old South.
In the 1930s and 1940s Black male actors were limited to two stereotypical roles: Coons and Toms. Perhaps the most notable Tom was Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, best known as the dancing partner of child star Shirley Temple. Robinson was a vaudeville performer whose tap dancing skills were often showcased in his films. Robinson hoped that in Hollywood he might be treated with the respect his talent warranted, but he was cast only in the role of slave, doorman, or butler. Robinson appeared in 4 films with Temple, including The Littlest Rebel (1935) and, The Little Colonel (1935), both set in the Old South and replete with caricatures of Blacks. Robinson's character served the same purpose as did Rastus of Cream of Wheat--a comfort to
Robinson & Temple in, The Littlest Rebel (1935)
Robinson & Temple in, The Littlest Rebel (1935)
Robinson & Temple in, The Little Colonel (1935)
Robinson & Temple in, The Little Colonel (1935)
The character of Pork, from Gone With the Wind (1939)
The character of Pork, from Gone With the Wind (1939)
Big Sam on his way to dig trenches for the Confederates in Gone With the Wind (1939)
Big Sam in Gone With the Wind (1939)
Song of the South (1946)
Song of the South (1946)
Whites that their women-folk were not in danger around the happy, loyal, desexualized older black male. The classic Gone With The Wind (1939) included several Toms. There was Pork, a pathetic, scared, stooped man who spoke in halted speech, desiring above all to please Whites. Pork stayed on at Tara after the Yankees had ravished the South. In one scene a Tom character named Big Sam is spotted in Atlanta by Scarlet O'Hara. He is pleased as can be to be on his way to dig trenches for the Confederates, to protect the Southern way of life from the horrible Yankees. Walt Disney's Song of the South (1946) also features a Tom caricature.
Sidney Poitier, the leading Black male actor of the 1960s, also played roles that can be seen has having Tom characteristics. Poitier was a gifted actor whose talent transcended the uni-dimensional aspect of the Tom, but many of his characters were written to be White-identified. In Edge of the City (1957) Poitier sacrifices his life to help a White army deserter he befriended, and in The Defiant Ones (1958) Poitier's portrayal of a strong male character is undermined when, at the end, he gives up his freedom so that the White prisoner he escaped with might remain free. The identify of Poitier
Edge of the City (1957)
Edge of the City (1957)
The Defiant Ones (1958)
The Defiant Ones (1958)
Lilies of the Field (1963)
Lilies of the Field (1963)
A Patch of Blue (1965)
A Patch of Blue (1965)
To Sir With Love (1967)
To Sir With Love (1967)
characters often depends on their ability to help Whites. In Lilies of the Field (1963) the Poitier character helps White refugee nuns build a chapel; in The Slender Thread (1965) he works to help a suicidal White woman, and In A Patch of Blue (1965) he helps a female blind teenager who does not know he is black. In To Sir With Love (1967) Poitier tries to teach the value of education to a group of nearly all White working class youth. When some of the students racially taunt him he eventually he loses his cool. Later, he berates himself for
having lost his temper, displaying the reluctance to fight back that is a Tom characteristic. Poitier's characters, like earlier Toms, were also denied sex lives. In many of his roles there are no wives or girlfriends. When romantic relationships were a part of the story, they lacked sexual tension, passion, and fulfillment. In A Raisin in the Sun (1961) there are no romantic scenes with his Black wife. In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), a love story about an interracial couple who drop in on her parents to announce their relationship, Poitier's character only kisses his White fiancee once, and the audience sees the kiss through a cabdriver's rear view mirror during the opening credits. In A Patch of Blue he kisses the White romantic interest once, then sacrifices any further romantic possibilities by arranging for her to attend a school for the blind.
The kiss, from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
The kiss, from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
Rocky III (1982)
Rocky III (1982)
The Tom caricature faded from film during the post-Civil Rights era of the 1960s and 1970s, but made a bit of a comeback in the 1980s. In Rocky III (1982), the Black character of Apollo Creed, Rocky's nemesis in the first two films, has been replaced by the extremely negative Brute character Clubber Lang, played by Mister T. But Creed hasn't completely disappeared. Instead, he is transformed into a Tom who not only contrasts Clubber by representing the more tolerable, civilized Black male (an image which Clubber threatens), but even takes it upon himself to rehabilitate Rocky, both physically and psychologically, after Rocky suffers a beat-down at the hands of Lang.
Morgan Freeman's character Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy (1989) is reminiscent of Poitier's White-identified characters. Hoke has no life apart from Whites. The audience learns little of his experiences, his hopes and dreams, and he's completely desexualized. Hoke exists to solve the problems of the White characters. Both Hoke and Creed are preferable, however, to the character of Big George in Fried Green Tomatoes (1991). Big George is a spiritually diminutive, obedient, one-dimensional servant, a relic from the early days of the Tom's history.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
The Tom, like his female counterpart the Mammy, has mostly faded from view, but in recent years both of them have been exported back to this country through Animae produced in Japan. Physically, Mr. Popo of Dragonball Z is reminiscent of the old minstrel character, but as loyal and obedient servant to Kami, Guardian of Earth, he is very much a Tom caricature. It is likely that these images were exported to Japan from the United States in the post-war years. In 2004, Viz, the company that produced Dragonball Z, began to digitally downsize Mr. Popo's large lips in the American release of the manga, and in the 4Kids Network version of Dragon Ball Z Kai, Mr. Popo is recolored bright blue.
Dragonball Z Card: Mr. Popo's Calming, 2001
Dragonball Z Card: Mr. Popo's Calming, 2001
Dragonball Z figure: Mr. Popo
Dragonball Z figure: Mr. Popo
Mr. Popo recolored for the 4Kids version of Dragonball Z Kai
Mr. Popo recolored for the 4Kids version of Dragonball Z Kai
 
Cream of Wheat Advertisements Gallery
1901 Ad: A Dainty Dish
1901 Ad: A Dainty Dish
1902 Ad: Fresh From the Fields
1902 Ad: Fresh From the Fields
Rastus with a Banjo, 1908
This 1908 image of Rastus with a banjo conjures up the mythical image of the happy, contented slave
1909 Ad: A Case of Desertion
1909 Ad: A Case of Desertion (boy chooses Cream of Wheat over stereotypical watermelon)
Rastus is given a heritage in this 1911 ad: Dat's Mah Boy
Rastus is given a heritage in this 1911 Ad: Dat's Mah Boy
Rastus's special relationship with white children, 1911 Ad
Rastus's special relationship with white children, 1911 Ad
1912 Ad: Cream of Wheat for 'sail'
1912 Ad: Cream of Wheat for 'sail'
1913 Ad: Them's My Sentiments
1913 Ad: Them's My Sentiments
1914 Ad: A Proud Day For Rastus
1914 Ad: A Proud Day For Rastus
1914 Ad: The Fortune Teller
1914 Ad: The Fortune Teller
1915 Ad: A Dainty Breakfast
1915 Ad: A Dainty Breakfast
1915 Ad: Rastus serving White couple
1915 Ad: Rastus serving White couple
1915 Ad: Well You're Helping Some; probably in reference to the poor health conditions which had prompted the first introduction of national health care legislation that year
1915 Ad: Well You're Helping Some; probably in reference to the poor health conditions which had prompted the first introduction of national health care legislation that year
1916 Ad: A Colored Supplement (a play on words referencing newspaper inserts which used color, such as the Sunday comics)
1916 Ad: A Colored Supplement (a play on words referencing newspaper inserts which used color, such as the Sunday comics)
1916 Ad: Ma Health Am Due to Cream of Wheat
1916 Ad: Ma Health Am Due to Cream of Wheat
1916 Ad: Never Mind, Plenty Left Honey
1916 Ad: Never Mind, Plenty Left Honey
1916 Ad: No Sah! Ah Don't Want No Stubstute
1916 Ad: No Sah! Ah Don't Want No Stubstute
1917 Ad: Ain't We Cute Cream of Wheat Kids?
1917 Ad: Ain't We Cute Cream of Wheat Kids?
1917 Ad: Sho' Dats De Papah I Wants
1917 Ad: Sho' Dats De Papah I Wants
1918 Ad: Opening the Case; Rastus with White children
1918 Ad: Opening the Case; Rastus with White children
1918 Ad: None But the Brave (WWI reference)
1918 Ad: None But the Brave (WWI reference)
1918 Ad: Standing Back of Uncle Sam (WWI reference)
1918 Ad: Standing Back of Uncle Sam (WWI reference)
1919 Ad: What Do You Charge For Boarder, Sir?
1919 Ad: What Do You Charge For Boarder, Sir?
1920 Ad with racial poem
1920 Ad with racial poem
1920 Ad: Some Imitation
1920 Ad: Some Imitation
1920 Ad: That's It--The Breakfast Food of the Nation
1920 Ad: That's It--The Breakfast Food of the Nation
1921 Ad: Rastus's special relationship with White Children: His Bodyguard
1921 Ad: Rastus's special relationship with White children: His Bodyguard
1922 Ad: Rastus's special relationship with White children: An Old Friend
1922 Ad: Rastus's special relationship with White children: An Old Friend
1923 Ad: Rastus's special relationship with White children: Passed By the Board of Censors
1923 Ad: Rastus's special relationship with White children: Passed By the Board of Censors
1924 Ad: Rastus serves a White family: From Sunrise to Sunset
1924 Ad: Rastus serves a White family: From Sunrise to Sunset
 
Additional Tom Imagery
Rising Stove Polish Trade Card
Rising Stove Polish Trade Card
Durkee's Salad Dressing Ad, 1899
Durkee's Salad Dressing Ad, 1899
1920s postcard: What a Palm Garden This Place Is
1920s postcard: What a Palm Garden This Place Is
1924 postcard: A Row of Palms in Florida
1924 postcard: A Row of Palms in Florida
Porter Pencil Holder, c. 1930s
Porter Pencil Holder, c. 1930s (2 views)
Black Joe Juice Grapes Fruit Crate Label, c.1930s
Black Joe Juice Grapes Fruit Crate Label, c.1930s
Halloween Mask, c.1940s
Halloween Mask, c.1940s
Halloween Mask, c.1940s
Halloween Mask, c.1940s
Cadie Polishing Cloth in Box, 1940s
Cadie Polishing Cloth in Box, 1940s
Saturday Evening Post, 1937
Saturday Evening Post, 1937
Natural Chilean Soda Sign: "Yassuh!" --Uncle Natchel
Natural Chilean Soda Sign: "Yassuh!" --Uncle Natchel
Figurine of Porter Carrying Luggage (2 views)
Figurine of Porter Carrying Luggage (2 views)
Porter Cigar Box
Porter Cigar Box
1916 cartoon featuring porters
1916 cartoon featuring porters
Bermuda Ad with porter, 1939
Bermuda Ad with porter, 1939
Ivory Soap Ad with porter, 1930s
Ivory Soap Ad with porter, 1930s
Postcard with porter, c.1930s
Postcard with porter, c.1930s
Budd Trains Ad with porter, 1945
Budd Trains Ad with porter, 1945
Carnation Milk Ad with porter, 1946
Carnation Milk Ad with porter, 1946
General Tire Ad with porter, 1946
General Tire Ad with porter, 1946
Postcard: Guess I'll Git a Good Tip From Dis Guy
Postcard: Guess I'll Git a Good Tip From Dis Guy
Roblee Shoe Ad with porter
Roblee Shoe Ad with porter
Real photo postcard: Uncle Warren the Garbage Man, Crystal Springs, MI, c.1900s
Real photo postcard: Uncle Warren the Garbage Man, Crystal Springs, MI, c.1900s
Real photo postcard: Uncle Tom Cotton, Country Club House, Pinehurst, NC, c.1900s
Real photo postcard: Uncle Tom Cotton, Country Club House, Pinehurst, NC, c.1900s
Lawn Jockey
Lawn Jockey (4 versions)
 
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Last modified November 25, 2012