Joel Chandler Harris Was a Bastard

It’s true.

Joel Chandler Harris

Yesterday, I got reprimanded for saying so.

Usually I make a point of saying that Joel Chandler Harris was a bastard for several reasons:

  1. Because it’s true.
  2. Because his mother was shunned because of it.
  3. Because the word conveys the severity of their situation.
  4. Because it’s usually funny when I say it.

It wasn’t as funny yesterday when a visitor suggested that I shouldn’t say that word. And then when I tried to explain myself, things only got more and more awkward.

The visitor explained that she herself came from a single-parent home, and she didn’t think it was appropriate for me to use the word “bastard” so off-handedly. I was very polite, once again stated my case, and finally retreated by saying that I wasn’t really a tour guide, merely the director–“what do I know?!”

But at this point it was clear that I was talking waaaay too much and was engaged in something like a verbal tar baby.

Finally I simply had to concede–yes, some people might be offended, and yes because of that, perhaps I should consider not saying the word bastard.

What I wanted to do was stamp my foot and squeal in the girliest way possible: “But it’s my museum! Oooh!


Comments (12)

  • When I first became involved with the Wren’s nest I felt like it wasn’t talked about, I thought, more the shame ,because so many kids listening to the talk about him were living in single parent homes and could relate, making him more relevent to them.
    I recently heard Jeri give a tour and she told about his humble beginnings. I think you really get to appreciate his acommpishments and he insires folkswhen you know the whole story.
    Maybe Bastard is a strong word . If I were a 6 year old bastard in the audience I don’t think I would like to have it put that way. But if I heard a single Mom and a kid with out a Dad could one day grow up and be visited by a President of the United States because he liked me and what I could do . Well I think I would leave that house feeling pretty good about myself.

  • I was on a first date once with someone who claimed to be a direct descendent from the Mayflower (seriously, he said that.) Later in the evening, I happened to mention that my sister had been a single teen mom, he said “oh, so you have bastards in your family.” I was shocked that people still defined others with that term. I hadn’t really heard it used seriously since the John Jakes novel I read in high school when being a bastard meant you had no rights to claim any lineage or inheritance – you were essentially and legally considered non-existent by the father’s family.

    The only dumb-founded reply I had at the time was, “No, I have nieces and nephews.” Needless to say, things did not go beyond that first date with this guy. My nieces and nephews very much exist, thank you very much.

    It may be easy to call your dead ancestor a bastard because you know that everything came out well for him in the end and you weren’t personally witness to or impacted by the meaning of that word and you like the shock value. However, even in this day and age, things are still not so certain for others who have to bear that label.

    There’s nothing wrong with pointing out that Joel Chandler Harris may have been considered a bastard and that stigma did not interfere with his success. It would actually be a positive thing to point that out to try to address the ignorance people still exhibit. The root of the offense taken may have been the fact that you think its funny.

    And maybe saying he WAS a bastard, instead of saying he would have been CONSIDERED a bastard by many is a pretty big difference. It’s like saying that he really was a non-existent person, when obviously he wasn’t.

  • A fan and supporter of the museum

    Maybe you should go to etiquette school, that way you can talk about him being a ‘bastard’ in a, oh I don’t know… more classier way?

    Just my thoughts!

  • I say, to heck with “classy.” But if etiquette is about helping people get along better, I’m for that.

    Lain, it seems like, on the subject of JCH’s parents, you might also come upon the occasion of using the f-word. And it might be accurate, and might convey the intensity, and might be funny. But you’d hesitate, right? And not just because some classify it as “slang.”

  • Great comments so far.

    And please, don’t be shy! I posted this not because I was indignant, but because I was curious about your reactions–before yesterday I’d never heard anyone voice their opinion like that on this matter.

    Ida Beth, I certainly don’t say it to 6-year olds. Since I don’t normally give tours, the time I usually bring it up is when I’m speaking to Rotary Clubs or Garden Clubs or Daughters of the Confederacy Clubs or whatever. That is the instance where I use it for (and it continually gets) laughs.

    Susan, I should have clarified, but in this particular context I wasn’t joking around. My point in this case was that Joel Chandler Harris succeeded not despite, but perhaps because of the fact that he was an illegitimate child of Irish descent with (worst of all!) red hair in the 19th century. His somewhat painful upbringing allowed for him to eventually find a connection with the population of slaves on the plantation. Some of the slaves took on paternal roles in his life, something that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise and greatly influenced his career as a journalist and as an author.

    I’ve got to agree with Bryan on the matter of etiquette. As frequent blog readers have no doubt come to understand, the staff of the Wren’s Nest under the age of 25 is a lot of things, but classy ain’t one of ’em. Clearly, I have failed whomever it was that led that pre-cottillion class in 6th grade, and I’ve come to terms with it.

  • Lain, you failed the pre-cottillion class too?

    I think your humorous intent is probably pretty clear in most instances, but yes, you should probably give second thought to using the phrase ‘bastard’ or ‘illegitimate’, and coordinate it with the modern description of ‘single parent family’. It still sounds like a good way to start talking about his life! Also, well done on using the term ‘tar baby’ so well.

  • I disagree with David in that I think saying illegitimate is fine. Single parant family is wrong, because it doesn’t convey the strong social stigma that was attached to being born out of wedlock at that time (and personally, I think the world might be a bit of a better place if people still had that attitude a little). Bastard does. Perhaps if it goes over well with groups, continue using it there. But not at the house.

  • Words are very powerful. To be called a bastard and the social stigma it carried in my youth the 50’s and 60’s was demeaning if not the ultimate insult and put down in society. Therefore with all the power vested in the board chairmanship by fiat I declare that he can not be be called a (b_ _ _ _ _d) in his own home. On the outside and in the rest of the world these terms may be used with discretion and literary license. However, be alerted your comments may be U-Tubed.

  • When my Dad was 82, the year before he died. A cousin and I were discussing tthe family tree with him and tears started down his cheeks and he said he wished I would never have to know , but his grandfather was a bastard and we were the bastard line of the family. i told him ‘Oh Daddy no one cares about that anymore”, but it had meant a terribly lot to him.

    I don’t think making a joke of a good man who we should all be proud of is funny. I’m sure it wasn’t funny to him.

    I’m just sayin’.

  • These are all terribly valid and valuable points, and I think they demonstrate (1) that Marshall is exactly right, and we shouldn’t underestimate the power of words and that (2) a lot of folks have very personal connotations and relationships with the word in question.

    I also think that there’s a bit of a age disconnect here. I don’t know if anyone is with me on this one, but having been born in the 80s mostly I think of the word as a minor insult (or swear word) or a punchline in movies. Clearly that isn’t the case with everyone.

    I’m of the opinion that “illegitimate” is just as bad as “bastard” simply because the word actually spells everything out. It’s weird to think about how “illegitimate child” is thrown around so freely when it’s such a harsh judgment call on a person that had nothing to do with their position in life.

    Finally, I just want to stress that adding a touch of humor to the situation is not merely pointing at Joel Chandler Harris and going HA! HA! I think it’s more in line with the tone of Harris’ writing (and the tone of this blog) to temper very serious subjects with a little humor. After all, the Br’er Rabbit stories did just that–replace the Critters with the slaves themselves, and all of a sudden things aren’t so funny.

    That said, I’ll certainly be more careful with what I say (and who I say it to!) in the future.

  • A fan and supporter of the museum

    I left a comment a couple of days ago – and I too was born in “the 80’s” and still see something disgusting and annoying with that word. So I don’t think it matters what age one is…

    Anyhow, I’m glad you see what some of us mean.

  • Interesting post(s)… I wish I remembered whom it was who told me that “treating others as you would like to be treated” is not as important as “treating others as THEY would like to be treated.”

    My initial reaction to such a rule was puzzlement over how I was supposed to know how other people wanted to be treated if I didnt even know them (!?!).

    Lain, you find yourself in an interesting situation, not only speaking to large groups of people, but having important and controversial information to convey (this is just one issue amoung many).

    Obviously it’s important to get the point across, otherwise it would be an injustice to many of the things that need to be told. By the law of large numbers, chances are that people will get offended from time to time.

    I did not really address the “bastard” issue, because I’m not sure of the best way to handle it, even after reading all those posts. Perhaps putting things in context of what the views were at the time, and using the word “illegitimate” would be a decent practice though.

    I guess that, even though there are a number of contoversial topics, some are easier to joke about than others.

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