Thursday, June 05, 2008

"Uncle Barack's Cabin"

That's the headline of the German left newspaper Die Tageszeitung, or Taz for short. The editors claim that it's satirical. But Der Spiegel notes that Taz has played the "Uncle Tom" card before:

Back in 2004, the paper ran a story about Condoleezza Rice's appointment as US secretary of state under the headline "Uncle Tom's Rice."
The Taz has even sparked diplomatic incidents with its irreverent approach. Its depiction in 2006 of the Kaczynski twins, who were then prime minister and president of Poland, as potatoes caused a tiff between Poland and Germany (more...).

Although "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is well-known in Germany, ordinary Germans are not always aware of the controversy which surrounds the book. Visitors to Berlin are often surprised to find there is even a subway station in the city called Onkel Toms Hütte, after a residential district which was named in tribute to the novel.

I actually think the "Uncle Tom" insult is overused and misunderstood. In its original sense, which hews closer to the Stowe novel, an "Uncle Tom" isn't an accomodationist or sellout, but someone who is willing to endure suffering without complaint or resistance, neutered of any threatening capacity for violence, sexuality, or thought. James Baldwin's "Everybody's Protest Novel" (even though it's really more of an attack on Native Son than Uncle Tom's Cabin) remains the essential text. In fact, if you haven't read all of James Baldwin's Notes of a Native Son, you need to clear a day and hit your local library immediately.

If any other European papers are looking for a rare, mid-19th-century way to caricature Barack Obama, I'd suggest George Harris -- Eliza's idealized, too-good-to-be-true, light-skinned (of course) husband.

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