Why does Uncle Tom Say: Only YOU Can Prevent Ghetto Fires?
January 19, 2009 5:47 PM   Subscribe

Why does Uncle Tom say: Only YOU Can Prevent Ghetto Fires?

Last (2008) summer I read Yvon Chouinard's "Let My People Go Surfing." On page 27 of that book is a photograph of the interior of a shop, a dog in the foreground, and two men working (note the date "C. 1970). The man in the back of the shop is standing in front of this poster (click on the image to zoom). It's a slightly caricatured cartoon drawing (almost in the vein of R. Crumb) of an elderly black man, holding a hoe in his left hand, pointing directly at the viewer with his right. It appears there are charred remains, embers of a building in the background. The text "Remember..." is emblazoned across the top of the poster, the bottom half reads "Uncle Tom says only you can prevent ghetto fires."

I'm aware of the Stowe novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and also the various references to the term Uncle Tom but what does this poster mean? My first reaction was the events around the organization MOVE but that was the later 70s. I've googled various parts of the poster text and get some cryptic references but no clear explanation. I wish I'd stayed in touch with my Black History prof from college.

Please Hive Mind, help!
posted by ezekieldas to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The Watts Riot.

"Burn, baby, burn!"
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:59 PM on January 19, 2009

A History of the African American People contained reference to the poster, with a caption stating, "Feelings ran high in the black urban areas during the late 1960s. Moderates were accused of being Uncle Toms..."

Additionally, several poster sites (and an ebay auction) list Ron Cobb as the copyright holder, the year of first printing as 1967, and the original publisher as Sawyer Press. Link to ebay auction.
posted by terranova at 6:07 PM on January 19, 2009

Thanks CP --those are both good but it doesn't solidly confirm the connection.

I suppose I should've noted in the question, who is the character addressing? And why is it Uncle Tom making the statement? Why not Mickey Mouse?

Also, going back to the text where I first saw this, Chouinard and friends were a sort of radical hippie (but there were many variations to this culture at the time) --but they're mostly white. Why do they have this poster hung in their shop?

I don't mean to digress...
posted by ezekieldas at 6:07 PM on January 19, 2009

Also the Harlem Riot. And there were others (Newark, Chicago, Baltimore...). Lot of that happened in the 60's, and there was a lot of arson during those riots.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:09 PM on January 19, 2009

Among young blacks in the late 1960's (and even today) "Uncle Tom" was an insult, indicating that a black person was thought to be bending knee to the white power structure. So "Uncle Tom says don't start fires" means "Do start fires".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:11 PM on January 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

Of course, the poster is also a take on Smokey the Bear. ("Only you can prevent forest fires")
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:13 PM on January 19, 2009

big thanks. All of these responses must be marked "best."
posted by ezekieldas at 6:13 PM on January 19, 2009

Ron Cobb was a political cartoonist for the L.A. Free Press in the late 60's. He has a site.
posted by smackfu at 6:16 PM on January 19, 2009

From an email exchange with Ron Cobb:

The cartoon/poster was paraphrasing a widely circulated public service poster put out by the National Forest Service. It had a picture of Smokey the Bear who wore a ranger's hat (Smokey was a widely recognizable icon/mascot of the forestry service) admonishing citizens with a pointing finger, under the caption "Remember, only you can prevent forest fires".

The commentary was in reference to the Watts Riots in south central LA, with Smokey being replaced by Uncle Tom. The commentary of course was poking fun at moderate blacks who didn't share the militant outrage of the younger blacks who were protesting the persistent racism of American society.
posted by ezekieldas at 6:23 AM on January 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have been given to understand that what the original Smokey the Bear posters actually meant, in saying "Only you can prevent forest fires", was that transient unemployed men should refrain from deliberately setting fires so that they might subsequently be paid, as day labourers, to put out said fires. If this is true, then even the original posters are fairly complex in terms of subtext.
posted by onshi at 6:47 AM on January 20, 2009

« Older The best in ESL dictionaries / thesauri   |   Tears of Joy Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.