Black Father: The Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris

Article excerpt

Fer all I kin tell you, de man mought er bin ez w'ite ez de driven snow, er he mought er bin de blackes' Affikin er de whole kit en b'illin'. I'm des tellin' you de tale, en you kin take en take de man en w'itewash 'im, er you kin black 'im up des ez you please.--Joel Chandler Harris, "The Adventures of Simon and Susanna" (Complete Tales 459)

A century ago Joel Chandler Harris was famous. His first and best known book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, sold more than 7,000 copies in its first month in 1880. It's been in print ever since. Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit, the stars of his stories, took their place in the nation's cultural lexicon, and Harris himself was much celebrated. Teddy Roosevelt invited him to dinner at the White House and Mark Twain tried to interest him in a joint lecture tour. Children clamored for Uncle Remus and were shocked to find that Harris was white. Harris was much too shy to lecture--he couldn't even bring himself to read for children--but he was a prolific writer, churning out seven additional Uncle Remus collections, a fictionalized memoir called On the Plantation, and various shorter and longer fictional works. But Joel Chandler Harris claimed his fame as the creator of gentle Uncle Remus, the teller of Brer Rabbit's triumphant underdog tale. They were the ones who made him, in Twain's admiring phrase, the "oracle of the nation's nurseries."

But then, no surprise, the long honeymoon ended. Harris's stock began to fall. Critics took his world apart, separated storyteller Uncle Remus from story hero Brer Rabbit to the disadvantage of the former. Brer Rabbit was in fact elevated in this revision, recognized as "a revolutionary black figure" from African American traditional lore, the black core of an otherwise white work (Songs and Sayings 29). He is, and this is one of the deep roots of his power, a Signifying Rabbit, in the fullest sense of that term as carefully described by Claudia Mitchell-Kernan and situated in African American literature by Henry Louis Gates. His situation is understood as echoing that of his anonymous black creators, and his antics are not at their root comic at all, but deadly serious maneuvers allowing his survival and even triumph in a world ruled by enemies bent upon his destruction. When Brer Rabbit outwits and eventually destroys Brer Wolf, Brer Bear, and Brer Fox, his victories are interpreted as supplying at least vicarious pleasure and at most pragmatic advice to black audiences whose position in the world is appreciated as deeply analogous.

Uncle Remus, however, the teller of Brer Rabbit's subversive tale, went down with his author. He was a cartoon, an offensive stereotype, an Uncle Tom, the literary creation of a white author with an obvious regional agenda. "Uncle Remus, the creation of Joel Chandler Harris, is one of many masks employed by the Plantation School to justify the restoration of white supremacy," according to Robert Bone's 1975 analysis (Bickley, Critical 139). The old man, it was noticed, was so much a creature of his author's nostalgias that he was presented in the first collection's introduction as possessing, preposterously, "nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery" (Songs and Sayings 47).

Meanwhile Harris himself fell from grace even more precipitously, and much more completely, than Remus. Harris's editorials, and more especially his popular magazine articles, were bursting at the seams with paternalist nonsense and irritating defenses of Southern racial mores. Darwin Turner, in a lengthy, meticulous, scrupulously fair, and influential 1968 study, was especially dismayed by the attitudes put forward in Harris's three-part "Observations From New England," published in the Atlanta Constitution in 1883. If slavery is muted to a benign "discipline" in the introduction of Remus, Harris in his own voice describes slavery as "an institution which, under Providence, grew into a university in which millions of savages served an apprenticeship to religion and civilization" (Editor and Essayist 166). …