Uncle Remus's Cultural Afterlife
I. Background: Childhood and Race at the End of the Nineteenth Century
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a period of extreme social change in the US. The incorporation of freed slaves into the American labor force during Reconstruction, as well as the unprecedented migration of foreign immigrants and rural African Americans into urban areas, gave rise to acute racial tensions. As the US economy became increasingly industrialized, vast disparities in income arose between the upper classes and the working poor. Also during this time, while engaging Native Americans in the last of the Indian Wars, the American government simultaneously funded dozens of boarding schools charged with forcibly assimilating Native children into European-American culture, usually by renaming the children, converting them to Christianity, and preparing them for future work as manual laborers and domestic assistants.
The late nineteenth century was also a period of shifting conceptions of childhood. The belief that childhood was a special and protected period of one’s life was still new. As the middle class in the US grew, more children were freed from responsibilities of contributing to family income, allowing white middle-class families to embrace the notion of a protected childhood with discrete developmental stages. At the same time, children of African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and the working poor were not extended the same privileges, and relied upon progressive legislation to receive humane education and exemption from labor. The nineteenth century’s burgeoning numbers of middle-class children, the sharp rise in literacy rates, and the expansion of print culture all led to a rapidly growing market for literature aimed primarily at white and middle-class children at a time when conceptions of both race and childhood were undergoing significant and enduring changes.
Children were exposed to a range of mostly white middle-class responses to the racial crisis of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In what Lawrence R. Rodgers has called "a peculiar instance of agreement for theorists of Darwinian evolution and biblical fundamentalism," scientists and theologians in the late nineteenth century asserted evolutionary and scriptural evidence for the inferiority and underdevelopment of non-white people. Not coincidentally, in 1869 Jane Andrews published The Seven Little Sisters Who Live on the Round Ball that Floats Through the Air (coming soon to this archive), which personifies races in seven girls, including "the little brown baby, the youngest," a Native American of unspecified tribal affiliation, and a black girl whose head is “covered with wool, such as you might see on a black sheep." Re-issued throughout the 1920s, this popular allegory asserted to children the primitiveness of non-white children. Meanwhile, Joel Chandler Harris, a journalist in Georgia, witnessed the rise of white mob rule in the Jim Crow South and the simultaneous exodus of hundreds of thousands of African Americans to the North. In response he wrote dozens of immensely popular books, many of which projected the possibility of interracial harmony through the figures of a white boy, by implication of his youth innocent of racial injustice, and a hyperbolically loyal black servant, Uncle Remus.
Some white authors propagated more malicious racial stereotypes in their books for children. ABC in Dixie (coming soon to this archive), the collaborative effort of George Willard Bonte and Louise Quarles Bonte, was published in the US and UK at the turn of the century and included full-color racial caricatures alongside didactic language such as, “Q is fer Quentin who allus wuz free, en puts on sich airs dat it's frightful ter see." E.W. Kemble, the first illustrator of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, who would later congratulate himself for building a career drawing Southern African Americans—“the Negro being my specialty," he explained in 1930—published A Coon Alphabet in 1898. The book consists of a slapstick racial caricature illustrating each letter of the alphabet, each involving a Black person suffering pain or humiliation for intended comic effect. While it is hard to imagine an early reader learning his alphabet (the ostensible subject of both books) from texts laden with nearly inscrutable eye dialect, the ideological lesson conveyed by both primers could not be clearer.
When Ernest Thompson Seton, who would later help found the Boy Scouts of America, published How to Play Indian: Directions for Organizing a Tribe of Boy Indians and Making their Teepees in True Indian Style (coming soon) in 1903, he clarified to his white readers that only certain aspects of Native American life should be emulated. "Of course there are many bad Indians, and many bad things are done by nearly all Indians," he explained in his introduction, “but we wish to imitate the good things of good Indians." Seton’s handbook typifies much of the literature published for American children between the end of the Civil War and the first concerted efforts in the 1920s to provide a literature for minority children. In the children’s literature of this time, characters of color appear almost exclusively as either props to aid a central white character in his inner development, as with Remus for the little boy, or Jim for Huck, or the entirety of a displaced people for Seton’s white audience; or to furnish a conquerable enemy for a white character’s adventures, as with the thousands of dime novels that encouraged white boys to imagine killing Native Americans; or to provide white girls with lessons in noblesse oblige, as in Andrews’s Seven Little Sisters Who Live on the Round Ball that Floats in the Air.
II. Toys, Ephemera, and Other Material Derivations of Children’s Literature
Though born in the pages of children’s literature, non-white characters were sometimes refashioned into popular culture materials that were produced and marketed often without the sanction of their original creators. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Topsy, Joel Chandler Harris’s Remus, and Helen Bannerman’s Sambo, all of which spoke to white America’s racial imagination at the turn of the century and were in most cases freely available to manufacturers due to the sloppy management of authorial copyright, provided evocative content for all sorts of products: derivative performances and publications, instructional materials, diner menus, bric-a-brac, toys, games, jewelry, and much more. In fact, Washington University in St. Louis recently acquired a collection of ephemera related to Little Black Sambo that numbers some 90 items, most of which were produced in the United States for the consumption of American children. (We hope to include many of these items soon.) Similarly, at the turn of the century, companies such as Abercrombie and Fitch were producing prefabricated wigwams and artificial scalps for American boys to reenact episodes from adventure stories. These materials show us quite powerfully how children’s literature provided ideological fodder for children’s imaginations and served as an incubator for industries appealing to children. Characters from commercially successful children’s literature provided merchandisers with a surer investment: already approved by parents and beloved by children, the characters from children’s literature—especially when they came copyright-free—were a low-risk investment.
To fully understand the influence of children’s literature, we must consider not the children’s literature itself, but also how the literature spread into the larger culture and across its material record. Indeed, this material afterlife is perhaps the most important evidence of how these texts shaped American racial consciousness. As Joseph Grigely has put it, the “post-textual reconfigurations of a work tell us something about the personality of a culture."[note]
A closer look at some of the adaptations, ephemera, and merchandise inspired by the works of Joel Chandler Harris can demonstrate how some characters and scenes so strongly spoke to the American imagination during Jim Crow that they permeated through classrooms, grocery shelves, toy aisles, restaurants, and advertisements, and how, when the country began to reject Jim Crow, these characters and scenes also became casualties.
At the time of his death in 1908, Harris was widely regarded as a great
American author. Theodore Roosevelt published a letter mourning the loss of
a national treasure, declaring Harris’s fiction the most likely of American
works to endure. [note] In the 1920s, over a decade after Harris’s death, a
survey of U.S. high school and college teachers showed that Harris was
considered one of the five most important authors in the United States. In
1924, even in The Crisis, the African American periodical founded
by W. E. B. Du Bois, a contributor praised Harris as “one of the five social
historians of America" who had done us the “inestimable service" of
preserving the “proverbs of ‘Uncle Remus.’" Even as late as 1941, a critic
reviewing a new biography of Harris opined next to this photograph that “Any
man who can create an immortal character will himself be immortal, and it is
impossible to even imagine a time in the future when Uncle Remus will be
But by 1955, when Jet Magazine published this picture of an Uncle
Remus impersonator at the Atlanta airport, whom black travelers deemed
“disgusting," public sentiment toward Harris had begun to change radically
02 . Not only had the Civil Rights movement begun to transform the way Uncle Remus was viewed, but the previous decade had seen Harris’s Uncle Remus reimagined by Walt Disney in Song of the South. The film certainly didn’t shy away from Harris’s paternalism, and the film’s debut in Atlanta, which barred the star, James Baskett, from attending, added insult to injury.
Disney’s film adaptation of Harris’s stories complicated the stories’ legacy, and after its release in 1946 and subsequent merchandising, much of the Harris-themed materials on the market were specifically based on Song of the South. However, even before the Disney release, Harris’s characters were appropriated in a variety of commercial contexts. While Harris wrote over a dozen children’s books in his lifetime, including six collections of Uncle Remus tales, none were as singly influential as his first, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings: Folklore of the Old Plantation, published in 1880. This volume included Uncle Remus, who had been born in Harris’s column in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, as well as the famous characters adapted from African American folk stories, Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit, the Tar Baby, Uncle Remus and the unnamed white boy who listens to the tales, along with Harris himself, would be the figures that most resonated with the public over the following six decades. Though Harris has fallen into obscurity in the last 60 years, the material afterlife of his books shows us how his characters were put to different purposes in the American marketplace, and how they were reconfigured to help fit the contours of early 20th-century conceptions of racial difference.
Harris-themed toys produced between 1881 and 1946 include a playset of “Uncle
Remus and His Critters" and an Uncle Remus Bank. Uncle Remus was actually a
brand or series name put on several models of mechanical banks featuring
racial caricatures, including this one that is typically associated with
early twentieth-century lawn jockeys, and together with the policeman depict
no scene in any text by Harris
03 (figure 04)
04 (figure 05)
05 (figure 06)
IV. Musical and Theatrical Adaptations
This marionette show, along with a playbill, sheet music and advertisement
for performances, show how Uncle Remus was appropriated for the minstrel stage
much like Uncle Tom was
07 (figure 08)
08 (figure 09)
09 (figure 10)
10 (figure 11)
11 . In both cases, a paternalistic but well-intentioned white author's black characters were subjugated to the more malicious racism of the minstrel stage. The proliferation of Uncle Tom and Uncle Remus in bric-a-brac and blackface performances was enabled by an early copyright case decided by a slave-owning judge against Harriet Beecher Stowe. The judge concluded that when an author creates a character who becomes part of the cultural consciousness, he or she can no longer lay claim to intellectual property. This decision meant that for decades in the mid to late nineteenth century, any author whose characters lent themselves to racial caricature could not find reliable recourse in court.
V. Textual Adaptations
Early textual adaptations of Harris’s works show that his stories were more
likely read to children than by them. This adaptation published in the
1895 Pacific Educational Journal was meant to retain the spirit of the
originals while delivering them in text that grade school children would
find easier to read on their own than Harris's prose (figure 12)
12 . Similarly, this card for classroom use from the 1920s retells the stories in standard spelling (figure 13)
The earliest adaptation, which may be more accurately called an
appropriation, emerged in London within two years of Harris's initial
publication of Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings
14 . The pamphlet is titled "Darkey Drolleries" and purports to be by Uncle Remus. (Click here to view the entire text.) However, very little of the text and none of the illustrations come from anything Harris authorized, and the whole publication is an assortment of racist jokes, vignettes, and cartoons culled from U.S. joke books, newspapers, and now unknown sources. The book is fascinating evidence of how rapidly Harris's creation was subsumed into the relentless lampooning of black people both in the U.S. and abroad.
Unsurprisingly, Harris's popular characters were viewed as effective bases
for advertising campaigns. Sometimes the characters are targeted at
children, as with this Coca-Cola ad for cut-out Harris characters (figure 15)
15 (which, incidentally, was found in court to not violate the Harris estate’s copyright in 1932), or this ad from Ralston wheat cereal that allows children to draw their own Harris pictures by tracing them on provided rice paper (figure 16)
16 . (Click here to view the entire booklet.) Other ads target adults, such as this one for Atlanta Gas Light Company (figure 17)
17 , which uses Harris to invoke nostalgia, or this one from Pennsylvania Railroad, advertising a train called "Uncle Remus." This ad demonstrates some common trends in early 20th-centry advertising that we can see echoed in other Uncle Remus themed products. The ad is presumably seeking investors for a cargo train that brings produce from Southern states to the North. The actual connection to Harris's character is tenuous at best. We are told that the Uncle Remus rushes produce to "fastidious Northern housewives," which firmly places the "Uncle Remus" train advertisement within the larger advertising trend that gave rise to Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima, and the ubiquitous Mammy imagery on household products in the first decades of the twentieth century. Like these other advertising figures, Uncle Remus is here used as a friendly, asexual surrogate servant, allowing Northern white consumers to imagine themselves head of a household wealthy enough to employ or own their own servants. And not just any servants, but servants who reminded the consumer of a romanticized antebellum south, where white housewives belonged to a leisure class with clear, racially demarcated dominion over the help--a fantasy that held wide appeal to the white Northern consumers who believed themselves economically displaced by the influx of a half million black Southern laborers to northern industrial cities after WWI.
VII. Household Products and Menus
The appeal of the image of the black servant to the white consumer is echoed
in household products such as Uncle Remus syrup, cigars, and candies, or in
the menus that employed Uncle Remus imagery. For example, this menu for a
passenger train on the East Coast included pages of offerings illustrated
with images of Uncle Remus, the Tar Baby, and other Harris characters, and
as the back page implies, doubled as a travel souvenir
18 (figure 19)
19 (figure 20)
20 (figure 21)
21 (figure 22)
22 . This menu for a cafeteria includes "Uncle Remus appetizers", though it only includes images of the animal characters (figure 23)
23 (figure 24)
24 (figure 25)
25 . Finally, the cover of this menu for a banquet in Cleveland, Ohio, strangely blends Uncle Remus with Harris himself (figure 26)
26 . This menu isn't the only place where Uncle Remus’s identity was confused with his author’s. We can see it here in a memorial postcard of Harris: (figure 27)
27 or in this one marking Harris's death by claiming "Uncle Remus has passed away": (figure 28)
28 . Harris himself was familiar with this metonymy, as Theodore Roosevelt frequently addressed him as "Uncle Remus" in their correspondence. For Roosevelt, who himself believed in the general inferiority of African Americans and ultimately did little to support the advancement of poor Blacks in the South, Uncle Remus was a pleasant and quasi-progressive emblem for the improvement of race relations. Conflating Harris with his black narrator bespoke the possibility of interracial harmony in the New South through gentle white paternalism and black humility.
Uncle Remus was further used as an emblem of nostalgic race relations in the
postcards bearing his name that were produced in the South around the turn
of the century. In this one, “Uncle Remus" is in North Carolina, which was
not the setting for any of Harris's books: (figure 29)
29 . Here "Uncle Remus" emerges from a cotton boll to bring greetings from the South: (figure 30)
30 . And here we are shown "a characteristic scene from the South," in which "Uncle Remus brings his one bale to market": (figure 31)
31 . None of thee postcards illustrate any actual scenes from Harris's books, but instead show that the name "Uncle Remus" was being used to name a general type of Southern black man—one who was friendly, past his sexual prime, and industrious—toward whom the white viewer could feel friendly.
IX. The Tar Baby
So far this essay has offered quick overviews of categories of Harris-themed
products that were produced before Disney's Song of the South, but
there are other ways that we can conceptualize and organize these materials.
This is a chronologically arranged selection of artists' renderings of the
Tar Baby, a character that predated Harris in African American folklore but
was popularized by him. Over the last century the term "tar baby" has
shifted from meaning a sticky situation to functioning as a racial slur, and
the history of the tar baby in illustration reflects America's shifting
attitudes toward the term. This is the first illustration from the 1881
edition, drawn by James Moser (figure 32)
32 . And here it is drawn by a French artist in a children's abridgment from 1895 (figure 33)
33 . In 1904 Harris published The Tar Baby and Other Rhymes of Uncle Remus, which reprinted the story with three new illustrations, including an uncredited ornament, a drawing by Harris's favorite illustrator, A.B. Frost, and another by an illustrator he despised, E.W. Kemble, who had published The Coon Alphabet six years earlier. Interestingly, of the tar baby illustrations to this date, Kemble's is the one that seems most to make the Tar Baby look like a caricatured black child (figure 34)
34 (figure 35)
35 (figure 36)
Over the next decades illustrators produced more depictions of the Tar Baby,
including this one made in the early 1940s by Gustaf Tenggren: (figure 37)
37 . Tenggren worked for Disney studios but produced a very different looking Tar Baby than this one, the iconic image that was released in Song of the South in the same decade as Tenggren’s: (figure 38)
38 . The Tar Baby was adapted to the late 1960s and reimagined, face conveniently obscured, by Barry Moser in the 80s before it finally occurs to anyone that the Tar Baby need not be drawn as a human child (figure 39)
39 (figure 40)
40 (figure 41)
41 . Leo and Diane Dillon produced a set of illustrations reimagining the Tar Baby as a rabbit in a retelling of the Brer Rabbit stories that won the Coretta Scott King award in 1986 for promoting an appreciation for multiculturalism. More recently, in 1999, an artist made the Tar Baby a ghoulish green instead of black, presumably to avoid any racial implications: (figure 42)
42 . Today the Tar Baby continues to appear in advertising and marketing campaigns. It features prominently in this sign for a restaurant in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: (figure 43)
43 . It has also been reproduced on bars of soap sold by a purveyor of reproductions of racist historical imagery, Old Time Collectibles, which at the time of writing is going out of business (figure 44)
44 . These currently circulating images demonstrate on of the ways the Tar Baby now functions in American culture, as a defiant embrace of Jim Crow.
A quick timeline of Tar Baby imagery reveals how a character born in African-American folklore and popularized by a white author can work as a sort of cultural Rorschack test, through which some artists have imagined a figure stripped of negative racial connotations and others have employed it as a means to historically legitimize the continued dissemination of racist imagery.
X. Editorial Concerns
Editing these materials presents unique challenges, and we have only begun to collect and organize the material artifacts associated with the children’s literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Unfortunately, few developed methods available to digital literary scholarship support this kind of approach to textual study. We have good methods available for encoding formalist aspects of literature and tracking geospatial data about texts. We even have some models for representing the relationships among different exemplars of the same work, or for recording data about the creation and provenance of material objects. However, none of the methods or models currently available are optimal for tracking the cultural dissemination of texts, which is of keen importance for a study of racial content in children’s literature, but could be widely applicable to countless other texts. One need not pause long to think of works that have enjoyed a cultural afterlife and material reincarnations far exceeding their author’s reach: Frankenstein, Tarzan of the Apes, A Christmas Carol, Dracula, and Sherlock Holmes all stand out as cases in which a character is more likely to be encountered in one of its post-textual reconfigurations than through the original text. However, if we wanted to collect and represent these reappropriations methodically, we would not find any currently available digital standards or methods up to the task.
The problem is that these materials are a hybrid of material object and text—their cultural significance depends upon their textual roots and their post-textual forms. To treat them simply as visual objects or collectibles does not adequately capture their textual histories. Textual editing not only does not offer methods for accommodating these materials, but is in fact built on a history that explicitly dismisses them.
The scholarly editing of modern literature arose specifically from the scholarly editing of Renaissance English books, which was itself born of methods developed for Biblical editing. Biblical editors were of course primarily concerned with forensic study of texts that would lead them to the most authoritative—which almost always meant the earliest—textual variants. Editors of early modern literature found this premise well-suited to their own aims of backtracking through the dizzying variants produced by the handpress production process to discover which textual forms were most likely to have been sanctioned by the author. Even when these methods were more widely adopted by large-scale editorial projects in the mid twentieth century, the goal was always to sort through the textual trail backwards, to discover what sequence of words was the one that best expressed the author’s final intentions for the text before he died.
Literary editing has long held authorial intent as sacrosanct and later variants as corruptions to be purged from the textual body. Even when Jerome McGann influentially challenged this view in the late 1980s, he did so by suggesting that publication is inherently collaborative and historicized, that it is impossible to have an unmediated edition in which reader and author commune without some historicized interface. He argued that the processes of literary production are themselves legitimate aspects of books that should be examined, so that editorial changes, censorship, and book layout are all, in McGann’s view, important evidence of how a book was produced and received.
McGann’s interest in the social literary production has rightfully undergirded most serious digital editorial undertakings. Freed from the restrictions of the printed page, digital editions are capable of showing multiple textual forms alongside images of the physical book, allowing readers to examine the historicized product not just as a text but also an object. However, to date, even projects that have taken the McGannian turn have still mostly limited their focus to the text or the book itself. The developed practices for digital editing allow us to richly describe a text’s relationship to earlier manuscript drafts, how it references other texts, or how it relates to variant forms. We don’t have a way to methodically describe or study textual content that jumps from the page to an illustration, a diner menu, a mechanical bank, or a train advertisement. As our work on The Tar Baby and the Tomahawk shows, such a methodology is essential to developing interdisciplinary literary historical projects whose object is not the canonical text or its author but instead the culture that a text helped shape. As our project expands, we will work on developing editorial methodologies that would better accommodate interdisciplinary work and a more expansive view of the text.