Black Father: The Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris
Cochran, Robert, African American Review
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). Turner's response to this outrageous misuse of both logic and language is rightly contemptuous: "It is ironic to use the term 'university' to describe the practices of a system which legally prohibited the formal education of slaves. It is presumptuous to praise slavery for giving religion to the Africans, who observed a religious faith long before they became American slaves" (Bickley, Critical 126). It's impossible to withhold assent from Turner's critique, and tempting to add that the inclusion of Providence sneaks in the appalling idea that the human institution of slavery enjoyed divine support, that apprenticeship is by definition a temporally limited contract, and that the savage in any slavemaster relationship is surely the master. Shoddy logic, tendentious prose--this is indeed sorry stuff.
The famous Uncle Remus tales, then, combining such disparate elements, were necessarily, said the new critique, formal hashes, the black traditional tales at their center obscured by the crude racial stereotypes on their surface. Harris's work was at best a ridiculous idealization of a slave-based plantation society and at worst a bald exploitation of African American culture. By 1981 fellow Georgian (and fellow Eatontonian) Alice Walker was working him over for cultural theft: "As far as I'm concerned, he stole a good part of my heritage" (32).
The attack was thus two-pronged at its heart: Harris the man was judged politically incorrect at a deep level, a paternalist and genteel racist; and Harris the author was clumsy and amateurish, yoking servile Uncle Remus to unbowed Brer Rabbit in awkward union. Biography was enlisted in explanation: In 1862, Harris, an illegitimate child who never knew his father, went to work as a boy of fifteen in the printshop of Joseph Addison Turner's Turnwold plantation, near his home town of Eatonton in Putnam County, Georgia. While there he heard from slave storytellers the Brer Rabbit tales that would make him famous. Years later, in the 1870s, working as a prominent newspaperman and editorialist for the Atlanta Constitution, he developed the character of Uncle Remus for "humorous" newspaper sketches aimed at white Southern readers. Finally, in 1880, he made his name by tying the traditional black folktales to the local color "character," adding an adoring little white boy as listener. The result, despite huge popular success, was judged a failure a century later because the constituent elements were recognized as incompatible. Harris, wrote Robert Hemenway in 1982, was "an author retreating from an adult, public world of difficult decisions," attempting to project his paternalist nostalgia for a lost world "through a medium that he could mimic but never fully comprehend" (30-31). A white man, in short, was peddling a black culture he didn't understand, and he was turning it to purposes it could not serve.
Recent scholarship has swung back somewhat from this nadir. Defenders of Harris the man, insisting upon appreciation of the pressures of his position as a Southern journalist, have insisted upon his persistent liberalism, within these constraints, on racial matters. His stinging rebuke of Jefferson Davis in an 1882 Constitution editorial is cited, as are his fulsome praises of Abraham Lincoln (in the novel Gabriel Tolliver) and Booker T. Washington (in a 1904 piece for the Saturday Evening Post). Wayne Mixon describes Harris's piece on Davis as "perhaps the most withering attack of his journalistic career" (460) and notes that it "took courage for a white southerner to praise Washington publicly after 1901, as Harris did, for when news of the black leader's dinner with President Theodore Roosevelt and his family reached the South 'the cry from Dixie resembled the howl of a mob'" (479).
Scholars have also insisted on the intimacy of Harris's personal acquaintance with the Brer Rabbit stories. Bruce Bickley's 1978 Twayne study suggests that Uncle George Terrell and Old Harbert, …
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Publication information: Article title: Black Father: The Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris. Contributors: Cochran, Robert - Author. Journal title: African American Review. Volume: 38. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2004. Page number: 21+. © 1999 African American Review. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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