The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk: Race and Ethnic Images in American Children's Literature, 1880-1939

Joel Chandler Harris: Introduction

Joel Chandler Harris, once a household name in the United States, is relatively obscure today, though many readers will readily recognize his recurring character, Uncle Remus, as well as figures from African American folk traditions that he made widely known: Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and the Tar Baby. Harris’s reputation precipitously declined after Disney released Song of the South, which was based on his books. The movie was produced 38 years after Harris’s death, and has been widely criticized for idealizing slavery through its depiction of the hyperbolically happy and loyal servant, Uncle Remus. Even the film’s premiere in Atlanta underscored its racial problems: James Baskett, the African American star of the film, was prohibited from attending the viewing at the segregated theater.

Harris’s books—some of the most influential and racially complicated children’s books of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—reveal a complex picture of the sociopolitical landscape in the South and in the nation as a whole in the decades following the Civil War. Harris, a journalist in Georgia, was troubled by the rise of white mob rule in the Jim Crow South. It appears from his journalism, fiction, and correspondence that he hoped to make his white readers rethink the naturalized racial hierarchies they were exposed to every day. From a contemporary perspective, Harris’s career, examined closely, seems laden with inconsistencies: while Harris was an advocate for the improvement of living conditions and rights for black people in the South, he was also a segregationist. While he (and later, his son) spoke out against lynching and racial violence in Atlanta at the height of Jim Crow, his fiction often appears nostalgic for the antebellum South. While he was widely admired in his day for his careful attention to the sounds of the spoken stories of middle Georgian African Americans, contemporary readers often find his stories choked by phonetic spellings that seem to derogate the dignity of the African American speaker.

Throughout his career, Harris was interested in fostering tolerance (though not equality) by humanizing African-American characters to a white audience. He believed that regular exposure to pictures of interracial harmony would be more effective in convincing white Southerners of the rights of African Americans than would political rhetoric. Near the end of his life, when he founded Uncle Remus’s Magazine, he told Andrew Carnegie that his primary objective was “to fit the magazine to such gentle and sure persuasion with respect to the negro question, which is also the white man’s question, that honest people cannot resist them...” To Harris, the triptych of the Uncle Remus tales—Uncle Remus, the anonymous little boy, and Brer Rabbit—was the perfect tool for this gentle persuasion. In it, a white everychild is nurtured by a paternal servant who instructs him in the morality of the underdog.

We have collected here numerous texts related to Harris: several of his children’s books, selections from his correspondence with significant literary, artistic, and historical figures, as well as adaptations, advertisements, and other ephemera related to his work. Together, they illustrate how Harris’s stories and complicated depictions of racial difference resonated through American culture and were adapted to different ends. We also offer some editorial guidance: a biographical essay and suggestions for further readings about his life, a brief discussion of Harris’s work in the context of folklore, and suggested further readings. In coming months, we plan to add more content related to Harris, including selections from his journalism at the Atlanta Journal Constitution and excerpts from Uncle Remus Magazine).