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

Bierce, Ambrose, 1842-1914?

Ambrose Bierce (1842 - c.1913) was an American satiric writer most famous for his short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Street Bridge,” and his mock reference book The Devil’s Dictionary, which was first published as a column in 1881 and appeared in irregular installments in magazines and newspapers over the course of thirty years. A veteran of the Civil War, Bierce’s military service and combat experience informed much of his work. Bierce disappeared in 1913 while traveling with rebel troops during the Mexican Revolution and the circumstances of his death remain a mystery.

Cable, George Washington, 1844-1925

George Washington Cable (1844 - 1925) was an American journalist and novelist, a native of Louisiana and known for his portrayal of Creole life in his fiction. Cable served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. His later support for civil rights and his outspoken criticism of the racism of Creole culture, especially in his 1880 novel The Grandissimes and his depiction of the legacy of racism in The Silent South in 1885 garnered resentment from Southern readers, eventually driving him to relocate to Massachusetts.

Carnegie, Andrew, 1835-1919

Andrew Carnegie (1835 - 1919), American industrialist, entrepreneur and philanthropist, earned his fortune in the steel industry. He is celebrated for his success in helping bring about the triumph of industrial capitalism at the turn of the twentieth century. A friend and admirer of Harris, Carnegie visited Harris at the Wren’s Nest in 1906. Carnegie helped fund Uncle Remus’s Magazine, of which Harris was editor.

Church, Frederick S. (Frederick Stuart), 1842-1924

Frederick S. Church (1842 - 1924) was an American artist who often illustrated anthropomorphic depictions of animals. Following his discharge from service as a Union soldier in the Civil War, Church attended Chicago’s Academy of Design with the intention of becoming an artist. He succeeded in becoming an acclaimed artist and his illustrations appeared in many magazines and periodicals. Church provided illustrations for Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1880), though privately Harris was dissatisfied with Church’s racially caricatured depictions, especially of Uncle Remus.

Clemens, Samuel Langhorne, 1835-1910

Samuel Clemens (also known by his pseudonym, Mark Twain) (1835 - 1910) was an American author and humorist, recognized as “the father of American literature.” Twain is perhaps best known for his two novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Clemens and Harris maintained professional and personal interest in each other’s lives and work. Both began their writing careers as authors of comedic sketches for newspaper publication and both were interested in preserving regional speech and culture through their writing.

Dill, Augustus Granville

Augustus Granville Dill (1881 - 1956), a former student of Du Bois’s at Atlanta University, was the business manager and editorial assistant of The Crisis and later The Brownies’ Book. He and Du Bois continued to collaborate on other projects, including four books, until Dill was forced to resign from his role at the Crisis as a result of his arrest for homosexual activity in 1928. Dill was also a talented musician and played the organ for New York City’s John Haynes Holmes’ Community Church.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (William Edward Burdhardt), 1868-1963

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868 – 1963) was one of the most important and influential leaders of the African American community in the first half of the twentieth century. He was a spokesperson for civil rights and urged African Americans to celebrate their intellectual and cultural achievements. Du Bois opposed Booker T. Washington's approach to dealing with racial inequality. Whereas Washington urged education and opportunities that accommodated the social realities of Jim Crow segregation, Du Bois advocated for the cultivation of what he termed “The Talented Tenth,” a group of highly educated African Americans who would serve as leaders of the community and help to enact social change. In 1910, Du Bois became the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and started the organization’s journal entitled The Crisis. Aware that in order to become successful race leaders African American children needed positive representations of themselves and their people, Du Bois founded The Brownies Book in 1920.

Fauset, Jessie Redmon

Jessie Fauset (1882 - 1961) was best known for her role as literary editor of The Crisis from 1919-1926, where she helped promote the careers of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay among others. Long overlooked by scholars and historians, Fauset’s contributions to the Harlem Renaissance are now recognized as essential to the movement’s success. Along with supporting the development of other artists, Fauset wrote many short stories, poems and published four novels. While serving as the literary editor for The Brownies’ Book, Fauset not only edited the works of other contributors, but also wrote many signed and unsigned pieces for the magazine.

Frost, A. B. (Arthur Burdett), 1851-1928

Arthur Burdett Frost (1851 - 1928) was an American illustrator and painter, and a pioneer of comic strips and comic books. Frost illustrated several of Harris’s works including Uncle Remus and His Friends (1892) and the fifteenth anniversary edition of Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings (1895). He became Harris’s preferred illustrator.

Garland, Hamlin, 1860-1940

Hamlin Garland (1860 - 1940) was an American writer most known for his depiction of Midwest farm life, particularly his collection of short stories entitled Main-Travelled Roads (1891) and his autobiography, A Son of the Middle Border (1917). Garland befriended Harris during a trip to Atlanta where he visited Harris in his office at the Atlanta Constitution.

Harris, Joel Chandler, 1848-1908

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).

Howells, William Dean, 1837-1920

William Dean Howells (1837 – 1920) was an American realist author and literary critic. He began his literary career by contributing poetry, short stories, and reviews to magazines including the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Magazine. As first the assistant editor (1866-71) and later the editor of the Atlantic Monthly (1871-1881), Howells wielded enormous influence over American literary taste. He helped advance proponent of American realism. Howells most famous novel is The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885).

Hughes, Langston, 1902-1967

Langston Hughes (1902 - 1967) is arguably the most celebrated African American writer of the Harlem Renaissance. In July 1920, The Brownies’ Book printed notice of Hughes’s high school graduation and his photograph as part of the magazine’s tribute to African American graduates. The Brownies’ Book would go on to publish an assortment of Hughes’s writings and helped launch his career. Hughes worked in many different genres including poetry, novels, short stories, and plays. His contributions to the creation of African American children’s literature can be found in The Brownies’ Book and in later collaborations with Arna Bontemps.

Kipling, Rudyard, 1865-1936

Rudyard Kipling (1865 - 1936) was a British writer of short stories, poetry, and novels and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907. Kipling is arguably most remembered for his contributions to children’s literature, including The Jungle Book (1894) and Kim (1901). Kipling’s celebration of British imperialism, pervasive in the writing he produced, has left him a controversial figure in the twenty-first century. Kipling was a long-time admirer of Harris’s Uncle Remus stories whose anthropomorphic animal characters Kipling cited as inspiration for his own writing.

Montgomery, Frances Trego

Frances Trego Montgomery, who also published under the name of F. G. Wheeler, was a Midwestern author of children’s books in the early twentieth century. She is most famous for her books about a mischievous goat, called “Billy Whiskers"; the series was a favorite of a young John F. Kennedy.

Newsome, Effie Lee, 1885-1979

Mary Effie Lee (later Effie Lee Newsome) (1885 - 1979) was an important figure in the emergence of African American children’s literature in the early twentieth century. She was a frequent contributor to the The Brownies’ Book and later served as editor of the children’s column of W. E. B. Du Bois’s magazine, The Crisis, submitting works of both poetry and illustration. Lee’s works were often shaped by an emphasis on the natural world. An anthology of her selected works for children, entitled Gladiola Garden, appeared in 1940.

Page, Thomas Nelson, 1853-1922

Thomas Nelson Page (1853 - 1922) was an American writer, lawyer, and ambassador to Italy during the First World War. As a writer, Page popularized the plantation tradition of Southern writing which depicted a romanticized vision of plantation life and the institution of slavery prior to the Civil War.



Roosevelt, Theodore, 1858-1919

Theodore Roosevelt (1858 - 1919), the 26th President of the United States, was famed for his military and political leadership, as well as his work as a naturalist and explorer. A vocal admirer of Harris and the Uncle Remus tales, Roosevelt invited Harris to a private dinner at the White House in 1907.

Waring, Laura Wheeler, 1887-1948

Laura Wheeler Waring (1887 - 1948) was a successful and influential artist of the Harlem Renaissance. Waring was among the artists displayed in the country’s first all African American art exhibit in 1927. She was especially known for her portraits of exemplary African Americans. Her illustrations appear extensively throughout The Brownies Book. Waring worked as director of the art department at Pennsylvania's Cheyney State Teachers College until her death in 1948.