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Urban Rhythms

Say Uncle

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 3/21/2001

And so, Muhammad Ali has apologized at last to Joe Frazier for calling him an Uncle Tom before, during, and after their three heavyweight championship fights in the 1970s.

"I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn't have said, called him names I shouldn't have called him," Ali told The New York Times in a March 15 article. "I apologize for that. I'm sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight."

Frazier, who has been bitter all those years, agreed to let bygones be bygones. "I accept that," he told the Times of Ali's comments. "I'll accept it, shake his hand, and hug him when I see him. We're grown guys. This has been going on too long. It's like we've been fighting the Vietnam War. . . . Life's too short."

Put simply, Ali has done the right thing--albeit three decades after the fact. More importantly, the two heavyweight champions have set an example for us all. It is time African-Americans dropped "Uncle Tom" from our vocabulary forever.

The term is an anachronism from the late 1960s and '70s, when the illusion of African-American unity and the Black Power movement evaporated in an orgy of finger-pointing, back-stabbing, and dirty mistreating. "Uncle Tom" was--and is--one of the worst things one African-American can call another. It is akin to accusing someone of treason, of collaborating with whites by feeding their most bigoted stereotypes about other blacks. That's bad enough. But the term also connotes a sly, servile, cringing, slope-shouldered, grinning cowardice that makes "Uncle Tom" one of the ugliest, harshest insults in the English language.

You would think, given the offensiveness of the term, that it would be used to describe only the very, very worst offenders. But no--it quickly became an everyday insult. A group of students are sitting around the dorm, planning a night on the town; one says he'd rather stay home and study, and the others call him an Uncle Tom. A young man asks a woman out; she tells him as gently as she can that she's got other plans, and he calls her an Uncle Tom. You're standing on a corner when a wino lurches up and asks to borrow a dollar; you tell him you're broke, and he calls you an Uncle Tom. They're just following a decades-old tradition: Members of the Nation of Islam used the term to describe members of the Black Panther Party, who applied it to members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who used it to put down leaders of the NAACP.

You got called an Uncle Tom if you had white friends, no friends, or the "wrong" kind of black friends. You got called an Uncle Tom based on how you dressed, how you wore your hair, or the color of your skin. Old folk got called Uncle Toms just for being old. Educated folk got called Toms if they dared to put on airs. Young African-American men who somehow managed to avoid being arrested and imprisoned got called Toms by the "brothers behind bars."

Ali wasn't just "promoting the fight" when he labeled poor Frazier an Uncle Tom. He was painting Frazier as "a great white hope," which made Frazier a great villain and Ali a great hero in the eyes of many African-Americans. It sold tickets, but it was still a dirty trick, a below-the-belt blow. Frazier didn't deserve such treatment, especially as a promotional stunt. He's been trying for the past three decades to get that point across.

It was and is a form of verbal intimidation. It is worst than a put-down. It represents one person assuming moral superiority over another, daring to judge and daring to find the other person wanting.

Today, African-Americans who sign on with the Republicans are often tagged traitors to their race, as though any one person or group of people has the wisdom, the power, or even the right to define with absolute certainty what is or is not in the best interest of an entire race.

I've used the term in my column and I regret it. I will follow Ali's lead and admit that I was wrong. So, let's retire the term. Let's leave it to the dubious province of psycho-historians before deciding whether any given individual is intentionally betraying his or her race or just disagreeing with the majority. And if we must have villains to snipe at, there are enough overt traitors to satisfy us all. There are drug dealers, thieves, rapists, and murderers. There are child molesters, wife beaters, con artists, and liars. Take your pick. Despise any one of those or despise them all. Any of them is far uglier than even the most servile, cringing, grinning Uncle Tom.

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