This is the third installment of a five-part essay.
JOEL CHANDLER HARRIS: SIGNIFYING TRICKSTER
In 1879, the year before the first Uncle Remus book debuted, Joel Chandler Harris wrote how he admired William Thackeray’s ability to “satirize the society in which he moved and held up to ridicule the hollow hypocrisy of his neighbors.”
For white reading audiences to let Uncle Remus into their homes so he could tell their children that everyone used to be black, Harris had to cloak Remus’s worldview. Without distraction and narrative layering, Harris notes that “the Southern Thackeray of the future” would be expelled from “our Southern clime astraddle of a rail.” In other words, Remus would never have had a chance, and Harris would have been out of a job.
As we know, Remus was an overwhelming success not just in the South, but the world over. Robert Cochran explains that Remus’s “smiling surfaces and apparent orthodoxy may have misled nineteenth-century readers, leading to their complacency, just as the author intended.”
Cochran compares Harris’s achievement to Thackeray’s, though with an African-American twist:
“Harris went to the world as the trickster Brer Rabbit, and in the trickster Uncle Remus he projected both his sharpest critique of things as they were and the deepest image of his heart’s desire. He was, like Remus with his alternative “deloojes” and crowds of “merlatters,” Signifying.”
Signifying, in the definition given by Cochran, is dialogue that includes an “implicit content…which is potentially obscured by the surface content.” The technique hails from African American vernacular and folklore. Signifying is a super-complicated term, but it kind of boils down to an inside joke based on rhetorical flourish.
A good example of Signifying is when Brer Rabbit convinces Brer Fox to throw him in the Briar Patch — “Briar Patch” has vastly different meanings for each character, and Brer Rabbit exploits the gap in connotation.
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Brer Fox is unsuccessful because while he and Brer Rabbit are speaking the same language, they’re deriving completely different meanings from that language. Y’all feel me?
So, meanwhile, Cochran claims that Harris is Signifying too. All the instances of mixing races and subverting authority that we talked about yesterday are “beyond coincidence.” In fact, they’re a “deliberate, though covert, subversion of the “Plantation School” values [his work] ostensibly supported.”
In other words, Harris put forth the Uncle Remus his white, southern, 19th Century audience expected of him — i.e. the “kind old darkey” — but covertly made Uncle Remus the boss. As Cochran puts it: “The familiar plantation romance is turned upside down […] Uncle Remus is Daddy. The slave is the master.” Joel Chandler Harris, like Brer Rabbit in the African American tradition of Signifying, actively exploits the difference between “what Remus means” and “how the audience interprets the text.”
Take, for a bawdy example, Miss Meadows and the Gals, who appear in numerous stories. Brer Rabbit loves Miss Meadows and the Gals! You know why? Because they’re sex workers at a flophouse!
Harris obscures their profession for the kids reading at home. But the storytellers, Uncle Remus and Daddy Jake, are fully aware of Miss Meadows’ relationship with the critters. They don’t say “Miss Meadows runs a brothel,” but their language does, as scholar John Goldthwaite points out.
When Uncle Remus, “looking at [fellow storyteller] Daddy Jake and smiling broadly,” says, “de creeturs wuz constant gwine a-courtin’. Ef ‘twa’n’t Miss Meadows en de gals dey wuz flyin’ ‘roun’, hit uz Miss Motts,” Daddy Jake knows what’s up. (Namely, that the critters in the stories habitually visit the houses of ill-repute belonging to Miss Meadows and Miss Motts.)
“Dey wuz dat flirtashus,” continued the old man, closing one eye at his image in the glass, “dat Miss Meadows an de gals don’t se no peace fum one week een’ ter de udder.”
Kids reading this story have no idea. And their parents, not expecting to see prostitution in children’s literature, don’t always pick up on it either. You wonder (as Goldthwaite does) if the publishers of 1948’s The Favorite Uncle Remus were in on the joke or not:
Indeed, Miss Meadows isn’t the only one turning tricks. These are trickster tales, after all, and Harris’s presentation of her and the gals parodies the feminine ideals of polite society, the very kind you might find upheld in the popular plantation romances of the day.
As Walter Hines Page noted in 1881 (before everyone forgot about it), “Harris hardly conceals his scorn for the old aristocracy.” By making his main female characters sex workers, Harris derides polite society’s ideal of the fairer sex, painting them in a way his readership would under normal circumstances abhor.
Yet in Brer Rabbit’s eyes, the Gals are revered like nobody else within the Uncle Remus tales. Harris elevates them in the same unexpected, covert way he elevates Remus. He’s Signifying, and your interpretation of the Gals depends on how deep you read into the text. While Harris speaks the language of the plantation romancer, he’s fluent in tricks. And his universe, as presented in the Uncle Remus Tales, looks a lot more like a Briar Patch than it does the Plantation House.