The term ‘Uncle Tom’ conjures up harsh memories of America’s racist past. Yet to author and filmmaker Jared Brock, the phrase is something different entirely. According to Brock, who premiered his latest work at the Black History Museum & Cultural Center last night, it’s in some serious need of clarification or as he says, ‘redemption’.
In partnership with Fountain Bookstore, sympathizers and enthusiasts alike gathered to watch the screening of Brock’s documentary Josiah. To understand Josiah is to understand the origins of Uncle Tom, and see the two are interconnected. “My two missions today- Let’s reintroduce Josiah to the world and redeem the word Uncle Tom,” Brock said.
The documentary follows Josiah Henson and his 3000-mile journey from slavery to freedom to international prominence as a leader and abolitionist. Henson rescued 118 enslaved people, helped launch one of the final stops on the Underground Railroad, and was one of the inspirations for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Coined as the title and subject of Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery best-selling 19th Century novel, the book attempted to humanize the inner struggle of African Americans through the lens of one, a testimony that rang true for so many, at least at first. Then things went sour. What began as a noble effort would spur a backlash in its intentions; Stereotypes in demeanor and appearance steadily warped humans into little more than dysmorphic caricatures, all in a society where people literally paid to see blackface.
Josiah was inspired by Brock’s book The Road to Dawn, which retraces Henson’s journey from slavery to freedom and restores a hero of the abolitionist movement to his rightful place in history.
Born a slave in Maryland and after being brutally enslaved for more than 40 years, Henson managed to escape with his wife and four children, carrying the youngest two on his broken shoulders for 600 miles. He eventually settled with his family as a free man across the border in Canada. Once there, Henson advocated for racial equality and helped purchase land to build a 500-person freedman settlement called Dawn. He found international fame–including visits to Windsor Castle and the White House–as the real “Uncle Tom” in the novel that fueled the abolitionist movement and ignited the Civil War.
The Canadian filmmaker began the evening with a prelude into researching the Henson projects, and how the first string of inquiry surfaced near him in Canada, two hours away from his home at the freedman settlement in Dresden, Canada. Brock was sure not to spoil too much of his findings, letting the film deliver the message instead. Approximately 37 minutes long, the video was a preview of the upcoming documentary even still providing a well-nourished analysis of Henson’s labors during his 41 years enslaved before finally achieving freedom in Canada. The audience was still and unflinching as the glimpse into Henson’s life proved grim yet unyielding.
Brock served a stark testimony that instilled an intrinsic motivation in the audience, the packed room took every opportunity for applause. Using resources ranging from the Library of Congress and testimony from descendents of Henson’s family tree actually in attendance in the seat over, the potential power of history was apparent.
“Misinformation is key to keeping people down, the world belongs to those who understand it,” He said. “If you can keep an enslaved person from knowing where they came from or where they’re going, you have immense power over them.”
In addition to the screening, Brock held an informal discussion, answering questions from the audience that explored the uncharted realm of the abolitionist hero before turning the floor over to the guest speakers; descendents of Henson’s family that were in attendance.
The three men took the stage to answer questions, sitting in familial order almost like instinct. They explained their relation to Josiah and Matthew Henson, who come to find out was the first African American to discover the north pole. With a humble nature, the three shared stories of their ancestry while holding true to the embodiment of the Henson virtues, despite the slight persistence of the audience to hyperbolize. “It’s not something I necessarily boast or brag about- having a famous ancestor-but it is important to me,” James Henson said.
After some Q&A and several well-deserved bouts of applause, Brock led in some closing remarks before adjourning to his book signing.
“My hope is that we can redeem the term, ‘Uncle Tom,’ that we can bring it back to what it’s supposed to be, that it will mean superman, that it will mean king of Wakanda, that little black boys, that little white boys will want to grow up to be an Uncle Tom.”
I navigated through the crowd and finally made my way to the poster board on display next to the podium. With a wide assortment of paste clippings and photos, I had been eyeing this since I arrived. A certain quote stood out to me as I scanned through, a clipping from a news column.
Dated in 1989, the clipping was a brief profile on James Henson, at the time a young academia who delivered a speech to students with one stand alone takeaway. “The key to achieving greatness is to program your minds to be heirs to the future.”