Name games

What’s in a name? If it’s like mine, not much. Just words that let people get my attention, or organize me alphabetically in a classroom setting. But in rare instances, there’s a whole lot more to a name. There’s power.

Take for instance “Audubon,” as in the society dedicated to all things birds. John James Audubon, the man for which the society is named, certainly had a passion for winged creatures — he shot thousands of them over the course of his career in a crude, if effective, method of cataloging the various species. Yet because of the reputation the Audubon Society has built, his name shares rarefied air in naturalist circles with the likes of John Muir and Aldo Leopold.

Mention the name “Tommy John” in a baseball locker room, and you’ll likely send more than a few shudders through the pitching staff. Forget that John won 288 games on the mound; most associate his name with the revolutionary arm ligament surgery that bisected his career. News of a pitcher requiring Tommy John surgery generally poses two sobering considerations: a lengthy rehab, followed by an uncertain future. Although John went on to pitch in three World Series after the procedure, the surgery that bears his name carries the weight of an athletic death sentence. That’s power.

And then there’s “Uncle Tom.” Few names conjure up such cultural baggage as the protagonist from the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel. The association of Uncle Tom, particularly among black people, is not a positive one: he’s seen as happily deferential to whites, accepting of his subordinate position and, possibly most harmful, bereft of any sense of racial pride. However, it’s been noted and it bears repeating that anyone who assigns those traits to Uncle Tom isn’t likely to have read the book. Do so and you’ll find a surprisingly different man. True, he accepts his lot as a slave, but only because his deep, unyielding religious faith carry his spirit to a higher plain. His belief in the glory of God and a greater reward allow him to submit to varying levels of bondage, from the relatively benign Kentucky farm to Louisiana and the geographically and spiritually forsaken plantation of Simon Legree.

A high school English class can easily identify Tom as a Christ figure, both through his emboldened expression of faith and the increased suffering it brings upon him. Through gentle persuasion, he rises, Christ-like, above his mortal surroundings to become a beacon, for his tormenters as well as his fellow sufferers. In the process his character demonstrates a superior standing among his antebellum contemporaries that defies the conventional “inferior” Uncle Tom characterization that society since has come to embrace.

Yet embrace it we have. “Uncle Tom” is not a name thrown around in good cheer among black people, and it probably never will be. Though he desperately wished for his freedom, he never acted upon those wishes, even when given chances by indulgent masters. Why? He was too honest (a quality distinctly lacking among the white people in the novel). It’s possible that by standards of subsequent generations of both blacks and whites, that’s viewed as a moral failing. All the high-minded religious devotion he brings to the table doesn’t make up for his unwillingness to fight back, thus giving the negative “Uncle Tom” connotations the edge in the court of public opinion. Judgment has been passed, incorrectly or not, and that’s where the name derives its power.

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