- The Uncle Remus Travesty, Part II:Julius Lester and Virginia Hamilton
Part I of this article provided a study of Joel Chandler Harris and the development of his fictional character, Uncle Remus. Our intention was to establish a basis for understanding the original impetus for the creation of Remus, and the ways in which his origins and uses continue to corrupt the tradition of black storytelling. As Zora Neale Hurston's biographer, Robert Hemenway, states: "Joel Chandler Harris had fictionalized animal tales in his Uncle Remus stories. . .but the plantation context for the tale-telling made the folklore seem a childish pastime" (91). Harris' reductionism fettered the tales, disallowing them their complexity, historical weight, and the cultural interaction that promotes a meaningful, rather than a token, survival.
Negroness is being rubbed off by close contact with white culture.—Zora Neale Hurston (Hemenway, 87)
In his admiration of the work of Joel Chandler Harris, Mark Twain elevated the figures of Remus and the little boy, referring to them as "bright, fine literature worthy to live for their own sakes." He dismissed the black folk material as "only alligator pears. . .one merely eats them for the sake of the salad dressing" (Bickley, 41). Twain's assessment epitomizes the persisting controversy over the Remus tales. That Remus is a false arbiter for the stories and damaging to their cultural importance is a fact acknowledged even by some Harris advocates, but often shrugged off as a minor loss compared to what is considered the "charm" in the figure of Remus and in the precocity of the little boy.
The question then remains as to the relative importance of Uncle Remus, a literary artifact, and the folktale as a legitimate cultural expression.
The answer is suggested in the observations of Roger D. Abrahams in his extensive introductory material in African Folktales, a collection of the folklore of modern Africa. He states that
The very act of collecting and codifying. . .invariably distorts the 'meaning' of a story. . . . Too often we forget that as Westerners, we learn these stories through books that underscore their imaginative and imaginary qualities. Equal emphasis should be placed on their effect on and importance to human interaction.(18)
Abrahams' emphasis upon preserving within the folktales the "wisdom of the [African] ancestors", while difficult to accomplish for the African tale, is more difficult still for the African-American stories which have fallen out of active use in the community. Also, the context of the African tales, ancient or modern, is not likely to impinge upon or threaten the self-concept of an American reader. Although Abrahams expresses a degree of concern for "accuracy" in the tales of black America, the stress on authenticity is qualified because of a persistent reticence towards that subject of American slavery. For example, in his introduction to Afro-American Folktales, Abrahams bemoans the loss to black American lore of "grand recitations of genealogies. . . the chants accompanying the casting of cowry shells. . . the epic accounts of great heroes and and leaders of the people. . .," vaguely concluding that "most of the political and philosophical dimensions of African story were lost to us in the Middle Passage" (18). Despite his concern for "equal emphasis" of the folktale to the black American—slave or free—Abrahams suffers from editorial blind spots. Such blind spots are shared by many other editors; one of them is the determination to present Joel Chandler Harris, the man, "more sympathetically."
Sympathy aside, if the Harris tellings are restored as the superlative mode for the black folktale, there are consequences: the tales themselves become subordinate to the entertainment quotient of Remus, "the quaint darky of the South's affections" (to use Twain's phrase). The "political and philosophical" possibilities are supplanted by the fiction of Remus; the stories become static antiques relevant only to the plantation setting; the value-teaching aspect of the tales is negated, both by the setting and by the passive voice of Remus as narrator; and the little white boy becomes, not in fiction, but in fact, the ideal or target audience in place of the black American for whom the tales were created. The Remus factor, so precious...