In the 5-part essay below, Lain Shakespeare, a descendant of Joel Chandler Harris and former executive director of The Wren's Nest, explores the question.
"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 sentence jumped out at me other day when I came across a book containing Harry Rountree's totally sweet 1906 Brer Rabbit illustrations (reprinted in 1991). Minutes later, Robert Cochran's equally sweet academic article (bear with me, y'all) from a 2004 issue of the African American Review appeared in my inbox. Here's its primary thesis:
"Uncle Remus [...] is revealed as a secret hero of [Joel Chandler] Harris's work, a figure wholly worthy of comparison with Brer Rabbit himself. In creating him, Harris put forward, covertly, by extraordinarily oblique means, a vision that would have shocked and horrified the great majority of his readers, had they understood him."
These two assessments are... different. Which one are we to believe? The conventional wisdom of the past 60 years or a rogue professor at a southern university? I read plenty of academic articles, but until now I've never been inspired to write a blog post about a single one of 'em. Cochran's article, however, inspired an essay. I mean, what if Uncle Remus, long reckoned by many scholars and readers to be a racial stereotype and a sad vestige of Old South nostalgia, was instead a remarkably nuanced character who consistently subverted white authority and Old South social codes? Wouldn't that be the opposite of a racial stereotype? Wouldn't that be nothing short of bonkers? I think so. Problem is, not a lot of people have given Uncle Remus much more than a passing, dismissive thought. And if they have, the thinking is often rooted in anger or apology. Raise your hand if you subscribed to the African American Review in 2004. Nobody? Okay. Who has a subscription to JSTOR? That's what I thought. If it took this long for me to read Cochran's work, I'm guessing "never" is how long it'll take to reach everyone else who is not the executive director of a museum dedicated to the author of the Uncle Remus tales. So, each morning this week, we'll post a section of this essay on why everything you've heard about Uncle Remus is wrong, relying heavily and unapologetically on Cochran's work. Today's should be the longest post. Before I get into Cochran's argument (tomorrow), let's briefly look at how Uncle Remus got to where he is today.
THE CRITICAL DISMISSAL OF A STEREOTYPE
Since the invention of the microwave oven, scholars have branded Joel Chandler Harris as a “nostalgic plantation romancer” who just so happened to pen nearly 200 folktales, the majority of them from a subversive African-American oral tradition. Explanations of this ideological chasm range from “irony seems lost on Harris” to “Harris probably did not understand this part of the story.” While scholars have widely divergent opinions of Harris, it seems like his reputation as a "plantation romancer" has been spun from one sentence fragment in the first Uncle Remus book's introduction:
"…a sympathetic supplement to Mrs. Stowe's wonderful defense of slavery as it existed in the South."
For most contemporary readers, this has been enough to condemn Harris and his work. Very generally, the Uncle Remus books are set-up like this:
Uncle Remus, a former slave, tells stories involving Brer Rabbit and the other critters to a little white boy after the Civil War. The Brer Rabbit stories are, for the most part, versions of African-American folk tales that Harris collected. Harris created the characters Uncle Remus and the little boy to serve as a narrative frame (think of Fred Savage and Columbo in The Princess Bride).
Uncle Remus himself has more often than not been interpreted as a stereotype of a less enlightened time — “a kindly old darkey” reminiscent of the good ole days back on the plantation when white people were kind and black people were enslaved. Illustrations of Remus didn't really help refute this stereotype. Harris -- who didn't get to choose the illustrator of the book that would become an international sensation -- considered the 1880 cover illustration to be a condescending caricature. Or, you know, a racial stereotype. The Uncle Remus tales took the world by storm almost immediately. People hadn't seen anything like them. The closest modern day equivalent would be to the frenzy surrounding the Harry Potter saga.
Consider William Morris's Brer Rabbit wallpaper, completed 18 months after the first book of Uncle Remus tales was released. Or how Rudyard Kipling memorized many of the stories with his classmates. Or how Beatrix Potter started her career illustrating Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit was bigger than Twilight. After Harris's death in 1908, "Uncle Remus" took on a life of his own. Various companies latched onto Remus's coattails, for example, using him in advertisements in an Uncle Ben / Aunt Jemima (read: racial stereotype) kind of way.
Disney's Song of the South, the 1946 adaptation of the Brer Rabbit stories, cemented the idea of Uncle Remus as stereotype in the public imagination. Critics claimed that Uncle Remus is nothing more than a happy slave who exists to please and entertain the little white boy and not cause too much trouble. In other words, Remus became what Spike Lee called the "super-duper magical negro." In 1980, Alice Walker put the nail in the coffin. In her searing, oft-cited essay, "The Dummy in the Window: Joel Chandler Harris and the Creation of Uncle Remus," Walker contends that Harris stole a part of her heritage.
"I think he understood what he was taking when he took those stories and when he created a creature to tell those stories."
Ouch. No matter that Walker's criticisms in the essay almost exclusively rest with Disney's interpretation -- the damage to Uncle Remus in the public imagination was done. Even John Goldthwaite, a scholar who in 1996 seemed to be alone in his recognition of Brer Rabbit’s overwhelming influence on popular culture, considers Uncle Remus unfortunate:
“We can regret that the best of all American books ever handed down to children is a book we cannot in good conscience read them.”
THE ARGUMENT FOR UNCLE REMUS, THE TRICKSTER
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."
• 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?
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.
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.
REMUS, THAT OTHER FELLOW
For a white southern newspaper editor in the 19th century, duping white folks into delighting in an African-American worldview sounds pretty unlikely. Yet considering Joel Chandler Harris’s personal history, it’s not so far-fetched.
Harris was born out of wedlock and never knew the identity of his father. The shame and consciousness of illegitimacy followed him throughout his life.
As a teenager Harris helped support his mother for four years by working on Joseph Addison Turner's Turnwold Plantation. Turner was an eccentric intellectual, a pro-slavery plantation owner, and a newspaper publisher. Under his tutelage, Harris served as a printer's devil, learned the newspaper trade, and read the classics.
At the same time, Harris looked up to the slaves on Turnwold Plantation. Slaves like George Terrell exposed Harris to the Brer Rabbit stories and took him in under their wing.
These contradictory influences -- plantation owner Turner and enslaved Terrell -- served as dual father figures to the fatherless Harris. Their guidance shaped his work for the rest of his life, both at the Atlanta Constitution and within the Uncle Remus stories.
Cochran points out that when Harris talks about his inspiration, he refers to the “other fellow” who “takes charge” whenever “I hold my pen in my hand.” This other fellow sounds kind of like a literary imaginary friend who does all the work. (This isn't exactly uncommon: Borges, for example, was also very aware of his other fellow.)
Strangely enough, Harris's other fellow often regards Harris “with scorn and contempt.” Indeed, Harris's internal twin undermines the "prevailing segregationist orthodoxy" of the time and place that Harris lived and succeeded in. It's like the voice inside this successful white guy was that of a defiant black man.
Is it any wonder then that Harris named this other fellow "Remus"?
Birthed from myth and suckled by a She-wolf, Romulus and Remus are fitting complements to Harris’s contrary alter-egos. After all, Harris's dual personalities arose from the influence of mythical animal stories.
That Remus is named after one of the most famous twins in mythology is significant -- both because Harris considered Remus an equal, but also because Remus's existence allowed the two to usher in a new literary era, one that challenged Southern social codes and Victorian literary standards. Remus's dialect, composed with great accuracy and care by Harris, flew in the face of both the sloppy, demeaning minstrelsy of the day and Standard English. Half a century later, its audacity still resonated with T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
A new Rome it ain't. But what Harris and Remus did create was a remarkably new opportunity for storytellers around the world.
Scholar John Goldthwaite points out that before Uncle Remus, there weren't really narrative serials for kids (think: television shows as opposed to movies), nor were there animals that walked, talked, and had sass like humans. Brer Rabbit is an original (Signifyin') gangsta.
Consider the next generation of storytellers who worked within a serialized narrative of talking animals: Potter, Milne, Kipling, and Grahame. Now consider -- was there anything like this before 1880?
Without his "other fellow," Harris would have "swiftly subsided into the fifth rank," as H.L. Mencken put it. The struggle between the white and black voices that echoed in Harris's brain -- the one half generally informed by plantation owner Turner, the other by enslaved Terrell -- allowed Harris to incarnate these stories. These are the same stories, mind you, that had been shaped by the struggle between white and black on plantations for centuries prior.
Remus is no "racial stereotype." And he's not a "creature" created by Harris. Remus is Harris, or at least a significant part of him, by design and by virtue of his upbringing. Says Cochran:
"Joel Chandler Harris didn't 'steal' Alice Walker's inheritance. It was given to him. And it was given to him as it was given to her, orally, by older people with lessons to teach speaking to younger people with lessons to learn. It was the closest thing he had to an inheritance of his own."
"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.
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)
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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