This is the first installment of a five-part essay.
“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.”