Uncle Tom's Cabin
Uncle Tom's Cabin was a popular abolitionist novel written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852. The main character is Uncle Tom, a black slave who endures undeserved hardship with a quiet dignity and grace from God.
The book was very successful, selling 300,000 copies in the first year alone. Its popularity led it to be turned into theatrical performances and eventually silent films. Its popularity also helped add fuel to the fire of the building anti-slavery movement, which culminated in the American Civil War and the removal of slavery from America, and as such is one of the most powerful books ever written.
The book (and play) was incredibly powerful and influential at the time of its writing -- to the point where President Abraham Lincoln described Harriet Beecher Stowe as "the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!"
The book conveys an unflinching Christian message. Stowe, the daughter of a minister, wrote a novel that openly called on Americans to do their Christian duty and oppose slavery. The book contains powerful Christian characters (Tom and Eva) who manage to touch others through their faith and devotion. Tom is indeed a Christ-like figure who suffers and dies for us all.
The phrase "Uncle Tom" has come to be used as a derogatory term for someone who is black, but chooses to act in a subservient manner towards powerful whites. This, however, is not an accurate depiction of the character in the novel. Uncle Tom is a tremendously strong individual, who refuses to strike back at his owners not because he is subservient to them but because he is subservient to God. At the climax of the book, he is beaten to death by Simon Legree. Tom doesn't fight back, but this is in no way an act of surrender; to the end, he refuses to betray the other slaves who have escaped. Although Legree attempts to destroy Tom's faith, he fails. Tom forgives him and prays for him even when he is being beaten to death. Although Tom dies, he is the ultimate victor--not a broken and demoralized slave, but a triumphant servant of Christ.
It is from the subsequent dramatizations of the novel that the derogatory connotations of "Uncle Tom" come. In these overly sentimental and spectacular reworkings of Stowe's book, Uncle Tom was transformed into a "stooped, obedient old fool," his strength and intelligence stripped away to fit the "image of a submissive black man preferred by post-Reconstruction, pre-civil rights America."