In April TIME Magazine ran a feature on slavery and the Civil War by noted journalist David Von Drehle. It was pretty good, but I took issue with a paragraph about Southern coping mechanisms during Reconstruction:
“But people were eager to forget. And so Americans both Southern and Northern flocked to minstrel shows and snapped up happy-slave stories by writers like Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris. White society was not ready to deal with the humanity and needs of freed slaves, and these entertainments assured them that there was no need to. Reconstruction was scorned as a fool’s errand, and Jim Crow laws were touted as sensible reforms to restore a harmonious land.”
As soon as I read the article I wrote and sent in a letter to the editor. They didn’t publish it, so here you go.
David Von Drehle truly grasped of the influence of storytelling in “150 Years After Fort Sumter: Why We’re Still Fighting the Civil War,” his piece about slavery’s role in the Civil War. That’s why it’s shocking he could so casually dismiss the gravity of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus tales.
Harris’s depiction of plantation life is a far cry from “happy slaves, all faithful to a glorious lost cause,” as Von Drehle writes. The figure of Uncle Remus in particular is a subversive, developed character who tricks his audience—both the little white boy in the stories and the reader of the stories themselves—into witnessing nuanced lessons of cultural understanding and empathy. Fittingly, Uncle Remus introduced the world to Br’er Rabbit, one of literature’s greatest trickster heroes.
Harris first heard these stories while he grew up working amongst slaves on a Georgia plantation during the Civil War. Just a few years after the Jim Crow laws were enacted, he celebrated and preserved African-American culture and folklore that was widely derided and may have otherwise been lost. In doing so, he also satirized the very “plantation school” writers that Von Drehle lumps him in with.
If Von Drehle bothered to study the Uncle Remus tales, as I suspect he has not, I think he’d be delighted to find “Americanism at its best”—literature that tears down borders.
The Wren’s Nest House Museum
Historic Home of Joel Chandler Harris
For a more detailed look at this particular issue, take a look at “Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong.”