Mark Twain wrote about Joel Chandler Harris: “He visited us in our home in Hartford and was reverently devoured by the big eyes of Susy and Clara,
— for I made a deep and awful impression upon the little creatures, who knew his book by heart through my nightly declamation of its tales to them — by revealing to them privately that he was the real Uncle Remus whitewashed so that he could come into people’s houses the front way.”
– Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 2 (2013), p. 260. Dictated 16 October 1906. We are in the US post-Civil War. The slaves are freed and the white owners who tortured and used them for decades are now scared they will retaliate. Chandler Harris grew up in the South.
He set out to preserve the rich cultural traditions he was introduced to through the slaves he knew as a child. What he basically started with Uncle Remus was an anthropological project we are indebted to because without his efforts all these stories would have been lost.
What is most interesting about the Uncle Remus stories is their structure revealed in “Uncle Remus Initiated the Boy.” You can picture it as three circles. The inner most circle has Uncle Remus and the boy in it. It is a safe environment. Uncle Remus is old and non-threatening.
The boy’s mother, who is in the middle circle, sees them. The fact that she sees them and does not interrupt and then report what she heard to the narrator is further proof that this is a safe environment. The outer most circle is that of the white male narrator, who relates the stories to the mainly white audience. The fact that Chandler was a white male is meant to give further reassurance to the scared white south that the boy, and they, are safe. They are safe because freed slaves are not vengeful, bloodthirsty animals.
They are gentle and literary with a wealth of imagination and beautiful stories. With Uncle Remus, Harris tried to save not only their literary tradition, but also their actual lives. But, this narrative structure is deceiving. Brier Rabbit, who is the trickster model for, you guessed it, Bugs Bunny, is not a cute little white domesticated rabbit. He is a wild, brown rabbit that outfoxs the Fox every time! It is a very subversive narrative that slaves told their children at night and in secret because they needed to use coded language that would not get them in trouble. And isn’t that what Children Literature does best? The animals represent the black people (Rabbit) beating the southern whites out to get them (Fox and other animals) at their own game.
These are stories of resistance and rebellion. In your comments, pick one of the tales. I know they are hard to read because of the dialect (which should remind you of the way Jim spoke in Tom Sawyer and will come up again in Langston Hughes’s poetry). Read them aloud. Try to figure out where the resistance and rebellion are in the tale.