Everything You've Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong (Part 5)

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

“Ef dez yer tales wuz des fun, fun, fun, en giggle, giggle, giggle, I’d a-done drapt um long ago. W’en it come down ter gigglin’ you kin des count ole Remus out.”

“THE ULTIMATE IRRELEVANCE OF RACE”

Wayne Mixon, in his excellent 1990 article “The Ultimate Irrelevance of Race,” explains that the last decade of Harris’s life was one of the most extreme periods the United States had seen in terms of racism, rioting, and lynching. Atlanta’s race riot occurred in 1906, and during the same year Harris published some of his last Uncle Remus tales.

One story in particular depicts Mr. Man on the hunt for Brer Rabbit with his dogs. They had him cornered, but weren’t able to “tree” him. Mixon goes on:

The little boy then asks, “Why didn’t the dogs tree Brother Rabbit? Don’t you remember how you told me that the dogs on the place here could tree ‘possums?” Remus, unable to answer, utters “a heart-rending groan, as though he was suffering some fearful pang.” The little boy comes to the rescue by saying “I reckon that was before dogs had trained to tree things.”

Remus is shaken. After nearly thirty years, it’s the first time he’s been dumbfounded by the little boy (who, by now, is the son of the original little boy). Unfortunately, this is a story Remus has heard too many times — the story of the lynch mob.

This particular exchange says so much: about the pure cruelty of lynching, about Uncle Remus’s deep connection to Brer Rabbit, about the life-and-death implications of folk tales. Remus’s initiation of the little boy is a re-education, sure, but one with a very clear intent — to foster an empathy between individuals and an empathy between races.

Just as Uncle Remus’s tales are the fictionalized reflection of a struggle between white and black, Remus’s character reflects the struggle Harris experienced during one of the most brutal time periods of the United States. He witnessed the violence and vitriol from a unique point of view at the Atlanta Constitution. Under the constraints of his audience, Harris spoke the language that was expected of him to retain his job and his ability to present his beliefs covertly to a global audience.

Despite the deepening fear and anger directed toward African Americans in the South during this time, Mixon and Robert Cochran cite clauses like these in Harris’s journalism:

• “Is it not true that a man like Booker Washington is an exception in any race?”
• “A model for the men of his race, and indeed, for the men of any race”
• “In common with the great majority of his race — in common, perhaps with the men of all races.”

Cochran picks out these kind of sentences found throughout his work at the paper, explaining that they “unveil Harris quietly but insistently pursuing an anti-racist agenda.” This agenda became louder the more he distanced himself from the paper after retiring in 1900.

Indeed, Mixon cites a 1905 letter to Andrew Carnegie that explains as much. Regarding the impetus of the new Uncle Remus’s Magazine, Harris states that “the only ambition that I have ever had, the only line of policy that I have ever mapped out in my own mind” is to “finally dissipate all ill feelings and prejudices that now exist between the races.”

The founding and very existence of Uncle Remus’s Magazine, Harris continues, is to encourage “the obliteration of prejudice against the blacks, the demand for a square deal, and the uplifting of both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing.” It’s what he could never do overtly at the Atlanta Constitution, and it’s what Uncle Remus attempted to do through the Brer Rabbit tales.

The magazine, begun in 1906 with his son Julian, quickly garnered a readership of over 250,000. Harris died two years later.

— — — — —

Let’s return to what began this diatribe:

“As the racial stereotypes of the nineteenth century are inappropriate today and may be offensive to many contemporary readers, we have eliminated […] Uncle Remus.”

This is the same story we’ve heard about Uncle Remus for the past 60 years. “Eliminated,” or hidden away in a vault. If it’s not that story we’ve heard, it’s been this one: “Irony seems lost on Harris.” Or this one: “Harris probably did not understand this part of the story.” The trouble with these stories are that they’re fiction, but fiction with consequences.

James Weldon Johnson once called the Uncle Remus tales, “the greatest body of folklore America has produced.” But what happens when you ask about Uncle Remus to someone on the street?

What do you think — would Harris, the consummate trickster, regard this as his greatest trick? Or his largest failure?

I’ll conclude (finally) with this story by contemporary author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you’ve managed to read this far, you simply must watch it. If you’ve managed to skim this far, let this be what you pay close attention to.

Don’t worry: it’s not about Joel Chandler Harris. But Uncle Remus? I think so.

[youtube D9Ihs241zeg]

FURTHER READING

Robert Cochran, “Black Father: the Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris.”  (via JSTOR or for free).

John Goldthwaite, “The Black Rabbit: a Fable By, Of, and For the People.” The Natural History of Make-Believe. (via Google Books).

Cheryl Renee Gooch, “The Literary Mind of a Cornfield Journalist: Joel Chandler Harris’s 1904 Negro Question Articles.” (.pdf via the Internatioal Association of Literary Journalism Studies).

Wayne Mixon, “The Ultimate Irrelevance of Race.” (via JSTOR)

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Spenser Simrill, Jr. is at least partially responsible for you reading this drudgery — he sent me the Cochran and Mixon articles. Please direct your complaints to him. Amelia Lerner, co-blogger and Program Director, at least ensured that you didn’t have to read too many typos. Thanks to you both.

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Comments (18)

  • Fantastic. I was with you the whole time but when the Romulus/Remus bit came in I nodded and made an audible exclamation.

  • This is fascinating stuff, and a great service to native Atlantans, like myself, who grew up with a mixture of pride and shame that Mr. Harris was so often mentioned as one of the city’s most famous products. I consider myself well-armed with the facts now, ready to participate much more critically and intelligently in any discussion of the Uncle Remus stories, and eager to make sure my own children (also Atlanta natives) understand that Mr. Harris may have been one of the biggest — and most subversive — progressives of his day. Thanks so much for this.

  • I wish we could get a world wide distribution of this essay. Of course maybe this is what we have. Would like to get thousands of hits or go viral if this is the correct term.

  • Thanks for the research & the discussion; I’m inclined to think that there are plenty of subversive elements in history that we overlook– I mean, heck, Huck Finn is openly subversive but huge chunks of America manage to overlook THAT– so I’m really interested. A fruitful discussion!

  • Well, I know how wonderful Bob Cochran is–because I work with him. But I did not know about you or The Wren’s Nest. Now I have another reason to return to Atlanta.

    Since the first time I read Harris as an adult (I was working on Stowe’s representations of dialect) I have believed Harris to be an agonizingly precise artist. This evaluation, of course, has nothing to do with cultural appropriation, but everything to do with the art of fiction. I think part of Harris’s fall from grace is the specificity of his dialect–you really have to work at it. Other more widely read dialect writers–I think of Cooper, Stowe, and Twain–wrote much more generically. Their approach has in each case fostered more or less legitimate claims of stereotyping, but has also kept them readable by a lazy reading public. If you want the full beauty and resonance of Harris’s writing you can’t skim.

    All dialect writing is cultural appropriation from the “other”–otherwise we wouldn’t use funny spelling to express it. But I also remember my great joy the first time I saw J. R. Lowell’s version of how a Swamp Yankee (my own original speech group) spoke the words of Shakespeare. Appropriate away, oh ye geniuses!

  • So enlightening. My thanks for this bit of light. So clearly put and you may be assured that it was well received.

  • Wonderful. My husband is a political theorist who’s been working with Aesop’s fables for awhile. I have an interest — personal and professional — in tricksters. This was a valuable and entertaining read for both of us. Thank you.

  • this is the most interesting article I’ve read in quite sometime, if not ever, I read every word and listened to the essay from Ms.Adichie, thank you.

  • Heya i’m for the first time here. I found this board and
    I find It truly useful & it helped me out
    much. I hope to give something back and help others
    like you helped me.

  • Thank you so much for this article! I grew up with Uncle Remus and brier rabbit, I agree wholeheartedly with everything your research has concluded. As a young child I looked forward to hearing tales of the briar patch and have raised my children with the same tales and intend to do so with grandchildren when that time comes.

  • Wonderful series on the Uncle Remus tales! I happened on this blog by accident but will surely read more. Well done!

  • Hello.

    Amazing articles on Uncle Remus, thank you very much.

    Does anybody know the name of the story about Mr. Man and the dogs chasing Brer Rabbit? Or at least in which book it is included.

    I would like to read the whole story but I can not find it.

    Thank you!

  • Great article — I found your it while searching for information on why the story narrator is named “Remus.” I had already connected it to the Romulus & Remus myth, but had thought it might have something to do with enslaved blacks being the murdered co-founders of the American nation. Thanks for your insights!

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