To most of us, the phrase “Uncle Tom” is synonymous with a Black person who has sold out their race. The character Stephen from Django played by Samuel L. Jackson, is a perfect example of someone commonly referred to as a “Tom.”
In actuality, the term “Sambo” better fits the characteristics we often ascribe to Uncle Tom.
The racial term “Sambo” first came to prominence in modern American culture with the publishing of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. However, the origin of the term reaches back to the 1700s according to some scholars, and there is evidence the name is a variation of a West African name as well.
Today, the term is largely derogatory but the etymology of the word appears to be “zambo,” a word that was used during the Spanish and Portuguese Empire periods to describe a mixed person that appeared more Black than white. It was also said to mean bow-legged or knock-kneed. There is also evidence that the word is derived from the West African Foulah tribal language, which translates into “uncle.”
In Stowe’s 1852 book, the character of Sambo was one of the slave overseers that work for the cruel slave owner, Simon Legree. Uncle Tom, a god-fearing slave with a compassionate heart, was tormented and beaten to death by Sambo, who regretted his act even as Tom forgave him as he was dying. Although Stowe had higher aims with her book, the depiction of Black characters as matronly and subservient further added to stereotypes that persist today
Scottish author Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo in 1899 also gave the term more of its negative connection. The tale of a dark-skinned East Indian boy helped push the narrative that the term was racist and meant to be offensive.
Other variants of the name appear throughout African and indigenous culture across the Caribbean. In several African languages, especially along the coasts, the name was rather common despite differing spellings.