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