Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong (Part 2)

This is the second installment of a five-part essay.


In “Black Father: the Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris,” Robert Cochran argues that pretty much everyone — haters and supporters alike — has misread Harris and Uncle Remus for the past 130 years.  He’s persuasive, too: Cochran seems to be the only person actually examining the text itself and listening to what Remus tells the little boy.

And what Remus says to the boy is exactly what his white, southern parents wouldn’t want him to hear. Consider these ideas being eaten up by readers all over the South, not four years after the Jim Crow laws were enacted:

• In the “origin” story that Uncle Remus tells, he says, “dey wuz a time w’en all de w’ite folks ‘uz black,” and in fact, “w’en we ‘uz all n****rs tergedder.” Harris adds that: “[The little boy] thought Uncle Remus was making him the victim of one of his jokes; but the youngster was never more mistaken.”

[Aside: Harris literally could not write these stories fast enough to satiate his readership. The very same people who considered African Americans 3/5 of a person (or less, really) were reveling in this stuff. Who is the victim of the joke after all?

Ed. note: The above statement is erroneous (though not exactly misleading) — slaves were considered 3/5 of a person, not African Americans. See DHM’s comment below.]

• Remus dismisses the stories that the little boy has heard from his (white) teachers.  Remus tells his story of the Great Deluge, and when the little boy protests its lack of Noah and the ark, Remus says: ” ‘Dey mout er bin two deloojes, en den agin dey moutent.’” I love how Remus so off-handedly fictionalizes what would otherwise be gospel to the little boy: “…w’en dey ain’t no arks ‘roun’, I ain’t got no time fer ter make um en put um in dar.”

• Remus refuses to recognize the authority of the little boy’s father and continually contrasts his own wisdom with the father’s stupidity.  For example, when the boy explains that his father told him witches do not exist, Remus says, “Mars John ain’t live long ez I is.” Here and elsewhere (“Dey’s a heap er idees [from your father] dat you got ter shake off.“) Remus asserts himself as a central parent to the little boy, and Harris does nothing to let the reader think that he is anything but.

• In the same vein, Remus often alludes to a romantic relationship with the little boy’s mother. He sprinkles their conversation with little jokes for himself, referring to “me and yo’ ma” as if they’re a couple.  Remus echoes this sort of interracial relationship in the stories, when he suggests that Brer Rabbit may have married Mrs. Fox.

Suffice to say, these violations of Old South social mores would never have been tolerated had Harris instead presented these ideas in, say, a newspaper editorial.  Miscegenation was neither legal nor a laughing matter, but it occurs in different forms subtly and frequently throughout the Uncle Remus books. Importantly, Remus violates these social codes specifically for the education and benefit of the little white boy.

The opening story of Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings was originally called ‘The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox,’ when it appeared in the Atlanta Constitution. Harris retitled it ‘Uncle Remus Initiates the Little Boy‘ when the book debuted. Cochran explains:

Initiates — it may seem a small change, but it looms larger in light of Remus’s systematic undermining of Mars John’s world view and the substitution of his own in its place.”

As the little boy is initiated, so is the reader — not just into Brer Rabbit’s critter universe, with its exotic accents and amoral sensibilities, but into Remus’s universe too. Unlike other plantation romances, there’s no white plantation owner to be found, and the action takes place in a cabin light-years away from the big house. Mark Twain noted the significance of Remus in an 1881 letter to Joel Chandler Harris:

“You can argue yourself into the delusion that the principle of life is in the stories themselves and not in their setting, but […] in reality the stories are only alligator pears – one eats them merely for the sake of the dressing.”

Under the guise of storytelling and friendship, the little boy is lured into the education his father never received. Similarly, under the guise of a “plantation romance,” the reader has also been duped into an education from Uncle Remus — the former slave who has assumed the role of father and teacher. Remus has something to teach the little boy, and Harris, by extension, has something to teach his white, southern, 19th Century readership.

So far, does this sound like an inappropriate racial stereotype to you?

Click here for Part 3

Joel Chandler Harris, Robert Cochran, Stereotypes, Tricksters, Uncle Remus

Comments (11)

  • I have started to read through that article… quite an undertaking to digest that much literature. Good stuff.

    • Oh, and I’m so glad you’re reading that article, Joe. I hope you’re not alone. The formatting, or lack thereof, is a little scary.

  • Thank you for sharing this. As an avid fan of Joel Chandler Harris and his writings, I have often argued that behind the dialect, which seems to superficially stereotype ethnicities, lies a great deal of wisdom, carefully doled out by an old slave. There is no question where the greater intellect lies, and I’ve long held to the belief that the slaves in the stories, especially Uncle, Remus typify human strength and ingenuity. It is the Caucasians in the stories, instead, who do not come out smelling so sweet.

  • Lain, maybe instead of re-releasing Song of the South, you could get them to reMAKE it in this new image. Also in 3-D.

  • i’m reading this and thinking that, no, none of this makes it any better. this sounds like present day! i work in a barnes and noble. i used to be lead of the kids department and am still the story time lady. do u know how many black nannies i see doing what uncle remus did to this little boy? it’s not gratifying, it’s a f’ing shame!
    i’m not one to pull the race card, but sometimes i cringe at the fact that the nannies are there more than the parent and that is how the kids learn…when the kid is with the parent, they don’t know how to act or think. yes uncle remus was sly in some of the things he said and did, but blacks, it seems, have always had to be that way. it’s not heroics, its a survival tactic.

  • This is very interesting, but this error was a bit jarring:
    “The very same people who considered African Americans 3/5 of a person (or less, really) were reveling in this stuff.”

    First of all, black weren’t counted as 3/5 of a person, *slaves* were- and the people who wanted to have them counted individually were the slave owners- because it gave the slave owners more political power.

    The North didn’t want slaves counted at all because it was obviously unreasonable to use the number of slaves in a state as part of the base number for determining the number of Congressional representatives the slave states got- after all, those keeping them enslaved were hardly representing the interests of the enslaved people in Congress.

    The 3/5 count for slaves was a compromise – but the country and the slaves themselves would have been better off if the northerners had won their objections and the slaves hadn’t been counted at all, given the purpose for which they were being counted.

    • Duly noted, DHM. Great explanation and thanks for it. Clearly (now) the statement is erroneous and out of context, but I think the “spirit” of the matter is still accurate. I’ll add to the editor’s note up there to direct folks to your comment.

  • Hello there! I know this is kinda off topic however I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe guest authoring a blog article or vice-versa? My website goes over a lot of the same subjects as yours and I feel we could greatly benefit from each other. If you are interested feel free to shoot me an email. I look forward to hearing from you! Fantastic blog by the way!

  • “The very same people who considered African Americans 3/5 of a person (or less, really) were reveling in this stuff.”

    Slaves were not considered 3/5ths of a whole person. Only three-fifths of the slave population was counted for the purpose of taxation and representation in Congress. Counting slaves as part of the population rather than as property would give the Southern states more political clout. Most of the Northern states did not want to count slaves at all, arguing that they should be treated as property, since they didn’t have votes or any other power. The Southern states, however, wanted to count slaves as people so that they would get more representation in Congress, solidifying their political power. The North resisted this, fearing that counting slaves in this way would increase the Congressional seats apportioned to the South, thereby making the South extremely formidable.

    In the end, two representatives, James Wilson and Roger Sherman, came up with the three-fifths compromise, which was designed to meet the demands of both sides.

    This had nothing to do with humanity but money paid for taxes, and control and power in creating laws.

    We are Americans. No matter our color or creed we need to focus on what we have in common. We have learned from history that divided we fall. We need to not divide ourselves because of color. All our backgrounds serve to enrich our country by adding knowledge, experience, and depth. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and I was taught to judge people based on the way they live their life and treat other people. Especially those in positions that give service. We should stay far away from those people, places, and things that seek to divide us.

    Learn from history and its facts. So many lessons we need to learn. We need to stand together to be the best neighbors and fellow Americans.

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