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Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong (Part 1)


Written on April 19, 2010 at 9:07 am, by Lain

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

Uncle Remus and the Little Boy from Song of the South

“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.

William Morris Brer Rabbit Wallpaper

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.

Uncle Remus Syrup

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.

YouTube Preview Image

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.”

Click here for Part 2

24 Comments to Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong (Part 1)

  1. james fletcher says:

    It is so sad that history is rewritten to accomodate the sensibilities of any one or group of persons. While I absolutely abhor that slavery existed and sypathize with those who were enslaved and are descended from slaves, I also deplore destroying or undermining any view from the past that does not fit that groups present understandings or mores. The facts of our past on both sides need to be embraced and saved and read and understood for ALL their potential meanings. Not hidden away or destroyed because we may disagree with an interpretation. We look at ancient history and wonder at its accuracy. Look at how we rewrite history right now and understand that is very little true history. It’s all just someones ACCEPTABLE view. Oh..I grew up in Mississippi in the fifties, loved the disney movie and never saw Uncle Remus as anything other than a wonderful wise man who I loved for his truths that all the whites just couldn’t see. I respected him as a man..not as black, negro, ex-slave or any other derogatory character.

  2. Wayne says:

    Every year I read Uncle Remus to my high school students. Every Year we watch Song of the South and the students group together and try their hand at delivering a Brer’ Rabbit tale. Every year I ask the students if they found anything racist or stereotypical. I’ve never had one negative comment. In fact, most of the kids have never heard of Uncle Remus until the class. They all learn about their personal briar patch, and their own ‘laffin’ place’. Everybody comes out of it with something that makes them a little more uniquely American, and they have fun doing it.
    Mr. Harris knew exactly what he was doing, and we love him for doing it.

  3. Steve Fernandez says:

    I share james fletchers’ basic view.

    I grew up in Europe and then in fairly conservative Northern Virginia. As a child my impression of Uncle Remus was that of a strong, wise, likable and gentle man.

    Whatever Harris’ motive, whether you like the face on the cover, or the storyteller in the book that serves as the device to convey the stories to the immature white audience – (as a Hispanic where am I supposed to be in this scenario?) – as an adult I am less interested in Uncle Remus and more interested in hearing and understanding the stories in their clearest context.

    Listening to it – free – on my audio books phone application – also free – I do think if the story is going to be conveyed via a telling, the most authentic and respectful re-telling per the era is certainly something I think everyone would want. I’m not an expert on the dialect of the era. Who is really? To me that also is an important historical aspect of these stories.

  4. R. K. Arnett says:

    I grew up in Louisiana in the 60′s and Uncle Remus was part of what we learned in elementary school just as learning to sing Hank William’s “Jambalaya” and Jimmy Davis’ “You Are My Sunshine.” He was something quite charming and culturally significant to us–a wise old man telling a child stories that had as much lesson as any bible story and an implied local color that made them OUR stories.
    By ‘our’ I mean all students, black, white and other, listening to the teacher read about B’rer Rabbit and the Tar Baby.
    The people denigrating Chandler’s stories never asked a child for an opinion. Kids get it–the fun of the story, the magic of talking animals, the wisdom of elders and the message and moral contained in tales that gave us a little better understanding of the world we live in and how to get along in it. Accusations of racism and some ridiculous perception of a call to return to legal slavery are the manifestations of uptight, insecure people with nothing better to do than take pernicious pot shots at innocence. Probably because it can’t hit back.

  5. Scoops says:

    DUDE, I LOVE YOU. I’m writing a paper based on this exact same topic, you’ve given me some fantastic source material (And some Gggrreeatt scholarly counter-arguments) That’ll really reinforce this crapshoot of a paper.

    I can’t thank you enough!

  6. Vonda says:

    Can we not just say we will the stories or we dont like them and leave it at that? They are children stories and they are good stories just like Alice in Wonderland, etc. That’s my two cents and now I am going to leave it alone.

    • Lain says:

      Vonda, I think you’re missing a word in there, so I’m not exactly sure what you mean. Can you give us one more of your cents, maybe?

  7. Rebecca says:

    My sister spent 14 years in Suriname, South America, working with the decedents of escaped slaves. She said that the people in the villages told stories similar to the Br’er Rabbit stories, much like they had been told in Africa, generations earlier. But surprisingly, the stories were not primarily for children, they were told by adults, FOR adults, on occasions of celebration or grief. They were to provide a sense of community and continuity to the culture. Many of the nuances of the stories are lost on children who don’t recognize or appreciate the complexities of the characters.
    Personally, I like Julius Lester’s versions of the stories, and read them to my children. They were easier for me to read and pronounce.

  8. Patricia Elton says:

    As a writer and as the grand-daughter of Maude Lay Elton, Georgia poet, I was introduced to the Art of Storytelling through the Uncle Remus books. The author, as I was told years ago, was a compilation of many of the local black storytellers. This captivating artform gave the ears as much pleasure as the mind’s eye.

  9. [...] as much as I like getting folks to think about the Uncle Remus stories, I can’t say that I’m thrilled that this dimension of Song of the South is being [...]

  10. Lawanda Greeson (Williams/Young by birth) says:

    I was adopted and by the time I was 5 Iknew for sure I was different, the other kids in the family told me so, I was devistated, and so on became a problem child, luckily I had some people in my adopted family who understood racial issues as I was born Native American, so I spent a lot of time in Atlanta Georgia as a child on up in to my early teen years, and during that time UNCLE REMUS STORIES SHAPED MY MORALITY AND LIFE STANDARDS a lot of the stories told had a lot to do with morality and survival in a harsh world, and I thank God every day for the guidance of these stories and the Afro American community who accepted me and judged me not or my real mother whom I found again when I was 17 after living on the streets from 13 to 17,…so I think the WRENS NEST SHOULD BE PROTECTED AS A PART OF THE HISTORY OF GEORGIA LIKE THE TRAIL OF TEARS WE FOUGHT SO HARD TO PRESERVE,the stories gave guidance to the ones who felt defeated in a childs point of view, it taught me how to laugh and how to look over others who wanted to defeat me in life, it taught me compassion, and perserverance, it taught me not to accept the state of Georgia’s insistance to be white like they put on my birth certificate, it taught me to fight for what I believed in….I was Native American and I come from a long line of Slavery myself, Uncle remus was my strength to get through an abusive childhood forced upon me by the state welfare ervices in the 60′s, now I’m 45 and I live in Australia, I am obtaining a diploma in aboriginal research and studies for community developement for the Indiginous people here in this country…SO i SAY THANK YOU MR. HARRIS FOR YOU DEVOTED LOVE OF FOLKLORE OF THE SOUTH, you gave me hope and helped form my life…….AYE YAH!!!

  11. Angela says:

    As an African American born and raised in the South I would have to agree with Black scholars such as Alice Walker. If you are going to re-tell stories belonging to a particular culture than you have to be sensitive to that culture. You can’t insult us and whether Harris realized it or not he helped to perpetuate a stereotype of Black men that we (Blacks) have been trying to eradicate since slavery.

    • Lain says:

      Did you get a chance to read the rest of the essay, Angela?

    • M says:

      @Angela: I loved the part that Rebecca shared about these stories being similar to ones still told in Africa today. I love the culture of America, it’s diversity is it’s strength. Keeping history accurate, even when it doesn’t suit us, is part of accepting our differences. The characters seem stereotypical because they were. The word to emphasize is “were”. This is in the past! It is special because as a nation, this is not who we are any more.

      The portrayal of these characters is not racism. Harris’ writings must be kept in the context of his life and times. When men in Harris’ day intended to be derogatory, they did not write children’s stories.

  12. [...] earlier this year Lauren over at Lampe-Farley read “Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong” and was all like, “Hey idiot! This is your newspaper right here.” And you know what? [...]

  13. Andrew Tweedy says:

    I actually read and cited Cochran’s article in 2009 in a paper for a Public History class – a paper about the Wren’s Nest, in fact.

    I should have sent you the link back then, but I assumed you all would have read it.

  14. [...] For a more detailed look at this particular issue, take a look at “Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong.” [...]

  15. [...] Recently in the media you might have heard a thing or two about the tar baby story or about Brer Rabbit. But what’s the deal with Uncle Remus, the character who narrates the Brer Rabbit stories? You’ll be surprised to find that everything you’ve heard about Uncle Remus may very well be wrong. [...]

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  17. Jan Potter says:

    I saw Song of the South as a very young child – very immersed in the culture of LA (lower Alabama) at the time. I thought Uncle Remus was an amazing and interesting man much like my own grandfather (we were white) except that, wow, he could talk to animals. I’ve always felt like the story got a bad rap based on the later mis(use) of the persona. He seemed very wise to me as a small child. It did a great deal for my own development in a segregated South to realize that there were smart people of any race. It reminds me of the swirl of negativity around Eudora Welty – with people wanting to deep six her writing because of the language and word use – or the more recent “rewriting” of Huck Finn.

  18. [...] situations that subvert traditional white Anglo power. For an extensive defense of Harris read this Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus is Wrong by former Wren’s Nest executive director Lain Shakespeare. I will return to this subject [...]

  19. Pelican says:

    I am working on a graduate paper on children’s literature. Thank you for this information.
    As a black person I understand the criticisms though I do not agree with all of them. It is all part of this story of becoming human- minded and not race or class minded. So I can’t dismiss Alice Walker because she is responding to a part of history that has obvious psychologicAl responses some of which are based on reflex. I do not mean that she is not thoughtful in her criticism only that her criticism has legitimacy that cannot be dismissed as oversimplistic or reverse racism as has been suggested on other sites.
    On the other hand I agree with Julius Lester and others who point out that the main thing is that the stories were preserved. I would like to add that the stories do not make me cringe. I watched Birth of a Nation a few weeks back and 20 minutes into it, I’d had enough. From what I have learned, Remus is something different–problematic and debatable–but different. To me the fact that Remus takes on the griot role and imparts history, culture, morals, and commentary to a young impressionable white boy is powerful and mind boggling for the time. The fact that the child is male in a highly patriarchal society is fascinating too. Of course the author is male and the stories were told to him, but the impressions they might have made on young male readers cannot go without consideration. I will read more of them as I am more intrigued by your essay.

  20. Denise says:

    Too much thought is being put into this. I’m white – I went to the Wren’s Nest as a child and listened to the stories. I don’t remember thinking, “oh this is a black person talking” I just enjoyed the stories and wished I had a grand- dad who could tell stories like that! I don’t think children see people and then separate them into races – then decide if they want to listen. I think children see with the heart and in their little world know when kindness is being shown – you know, innocence – duh!!! So cut the bull$@@! And enjoy the stories – stop dwelling on the negative and think or the positive and we all might just get away from this racist crap, I mean really I’m so sick of hearing it!

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