For generations, American children and adults have chuckled over the adventures of Uncle Remus’s Brer Rabbit. Bernard Wolfe here suggests that Uncle Remus’s loyal white readers may not, after all, have properly understood that the joke was on them: at the heart of the merry fables was the half-suppressed revenge of a resentful minority. Mr. Wolfe was born in New Haven in 1915 and studied at Yale. His study of Uncle Remus is part of a larger work on the Negro in American popular culture which he hopes to complete in the near future.
Aunt Jemima, Beulah, the Gold Dust Twins, “George” the Pullmanad porter Uncle Remus . . . . We like to picture the Negro as grinning at us. In Jack de Capitator, the bottle opener that looks like a gaping minstrel face, the grin is a kitchen utensil. At Mammy’s Shack, the Seattle roadside inn built in the shape of a minstrel’s head, you walk into the neon grin to get your hamburger . . . . And always the image of the Negro—as we create it—signifies some bounty—for us. Eternally the Negro gives—but (as they say in the theater) really gives—grinning from ear to ear.
Gifts without end, according to the bill-boards, movie screens, food labels, soap operas, magazine ads, singing commercials. Our daily bread: Cream O’ Wheat, Uncle Ben’s Rice, Wilson Ham (“The Ham What Am!”), those “happifyin’“ Aunt Jemima pancakes for our “temptilatin”’ breakfasts. Our daily drink, too: Carioca Puerto Rican Rum, Hiram Walker whiskey, Ballantine’s Ale. Through McCallum and Propper, the Negro gives milady the new “dark Creole shades” in her sheer nylons; through the House of Vigny, her “grotesque,” “fuzzy-wuzzy” bottles of Golliwogg colognes and perfumes. Shoeshines, snow-white laundry, comfortable lower berths, efficient handling of luggage; jazz, jive, jitterbugging, zoot, comedy, and the wonderful tales of Brer Rabbit to entrance the kiddies. Service with a smile . . . .
“The Negroes,” writes Geoffrey Gorer, “are kept in their subservient position by the ultimate sanctions of fear and force, and this is well known to whites and Negroes alike. Nevertheless, the whites demand that the Negroes shall appear smiling, eager, and friendly in all their dealings with them.”
But if the grin is extracted by force, may not the smiling face be a falseface—and just underneath is there not something else, often only half-hidden?
Uncle Remus—a kind of blackface Will Rogers, complete with standard minstrel dialect and plantation shuffle—has had remarkable staying power in our popular culture, much more than Daddy Long Legs, say, or even Uncle Tom. Within the past two years alone he has inspired a full-length Disney feature, three Hit Parade songs, a widely circulated album of recorded dialect stories, a best-selling juvenile picture book, a syndicated comic strip. And the wily hero of his animal fables, Brer Rabbit—to whom Bugs Bunny and perhaps even Harvey owe more than a little—is today a much bigger headliner than Bambi or Black Beauty, out-classing even Donald Duck.
For almost seventy years, Uncle Remus has been the prototype of the Negro grinner-giver. Nothing ever clouds the “beaming countenance” of the “venerable old darky”; nothing ever interrupts the flow of his “hearty,” “mellow,” “cheerful and good-humored” voice as, decade after decade, he presents his Brer Rabbit stories to the nation.
But Remus too is a white man’s brain-child: he was created in the columns of the Atlanta Constitution, back in the early 1880’s, by a neurotic young Southern journalist named Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908).
When Remus grins, Harris is pulling the strings; when he “gives” his folk stories, he is the ventriloquist’s dummy on Harris’s knee.
The setting for these stories never varies: the little white boy, son of “Miss Sally” and “Mars John,” the plantation owners, comes “hopping and skipping” into the old Negro’s cabin down in back of the “big house” and the story telling session gets under way. Remus’s face “breaks up into little eddies of smiles”; he takes his admirer on his knee, “strokes the child’s hair thoughtfully and caressingly,” calls him “honey.” The little boy “nestles closer” to his “sable patron” and listens with “open-eyed wonder.”
No “sanctions of fear and force” here, Harris insists—the relationship between narrator and auditor is one of unmitigated tenderness. Remus “gives,” with a “kindly beam” and a “most infectious chuckle”; the little boy receives with mingled “awe,” “admiration,” and “delight.” But, if one looks more closely, within the magnanimous caress is an incredibly malevolent blow.
Of the several Remus collections published by Harris, the first and most famous is Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. Brer Rabbit appears twenty-six times in this book, encounters the Fox twenty times, soundly trounces him nineteen times. The Fox, on the other hand, achieves only two very minor triumphs—one over the Rabbit, another over the Sparrow. On only two other occasions is the Rabbit victimized even slightly, both times by animals as puny as himself (the Tarrypin, the Buzzard); but when he is pitted against adversaries as strong as the Fox (the Wolf, the Bear, once the whole Animal Kingdom) he emerges the unruffled winner. The Rabbit finally kills off all three of his powerful enemies. The Fox is made a thorough fool of by all the weakest animals—the Buzzard, the Tarrypin, the Bull-Frog.
All told, there are twenty-eight victories of the Weak over the Strong; ultimately all the Strong die violent deaths at the hands of the Weak; and there are, at most, two very insignificant victories of the Strong over the Weak . . . . Admittedly, folk symbols are seldom systematic, clean-cut, or specific; they are cultural shadows thrown by the unconscious, and the unconscious is not governed by the sharp-edged neatness of the filing cabinet. But still, on the basis of the tally-sheet alone, is it too far-fetched to take Brer Rabbit as a symbol—about as sharp as Southern sanctions would allow—of the Negro slave’s festering hatred of the white man?
It depends, of course, on whether these are animals who maul and murder each other, or human beings disguised as animals. Here Harris and Remus seem to differ. “In dem days,” Remus often starts, “de creeturs wuz santer’n ‘roun’ same like fokes.” But for Harris—so he insists—this anthropomorphism is only incidental. What the stories depict, he tells us, is only the “roaring comedy of animal life.”
Is it? These are very un-Aesopian creatures who speak a vaudeville dialect, hold candy-pulls, run for the legislature, fight and scheme over gold mines, compete for women in elaborate rituals of courtship and self-aggrandizement, sing plantation ditties about “Jim Crow,” read the newspapers after supper, and kill and maim each other—not in gusts of endocrine Pavlov passion but coldbloodedly, for prestige, plotting their crafty moves in advance and often using accomplices . . . . Harris sees no malice in all this, even when heads roll. Brer Rabbit, he explains, is moved not by “malice, but mischievousness.” But Brer Rabbit “mischievously” scalds the Wolf to death, makes the innocent Possum die in a fire to cover his own crimes, tortures and probably murders the Bear by setting a swarm of bees on him—and, after causing the fatal beating of the Fox, carries his victim’s head to Mrs. Fox and her children, hoping to trick them into eating it in their soup . . . .
One dramatic tension in these stories seems to be a gastronomic one: Will the communal meal ever take place in the “Animal” Kingdom?
The food-sharing issue is posed in the very first story. “I seed Brer B’ar yistiddy,” the Fox tells the Rabbit as the story opens, “en he sorter rake me over de coals kaze you en me ain’t make frens en live naborly.” He then invites the Rabbit to supper—intending that his guest will be the main course in this “joint” feast. Brer Rabbit solemnly accepts the invitation, shows up, makes the Fox look ridiculous, and blithely scampers off: “En Brer Fox ain’t kotch ‘im yit, en w’at’s mo’, honey, he ain’t gwine ter.” The Rabbit can get along very well without the communal meal; but, it soon develops, Brer Fox and his associates can’t live without it.
Without food-sharing, no community. Open warfare breaks out immediately after the Fox’s hypocritical invitation; and the Rabbit is invariably the victor in the gory skirmishes. And after he kills and skins the Wolf, his other enemies are so cowed that now the communal meal finally seems about to take place: “de animals en de creeturs, dey kep’ on gittin’ mo’ en mo’ familious wid wunner nudder—bunchin’ der perwishuns tergidder in de same shanty” and “takin’ a snack” together too.
But Brer Rabbit isn’t taken in. Knowing that the others are sharing their food with him out of fear, not genuine communality, he remains the complete cynic and continues to raid the Fox’s goober patch and the Bear’s persimmon orchard. Not until the closing episode does the Fox make a genuine food-sharing gesture—he crawls inside Bookay the Cow with Brer Rabbit and gratuitously shows him how to hack out all the beef he can carry. But the communal overture comes too late. In an act of the most supreme malevolence, the Rabbit betrays his benefactor to the farmer and stands by, “makin’ like he mighty sorry,” while the Fox is beaten to death . . . . And now the meal which aborted in the beginning, because the Fox’s friendliness was only a ruse, almost does take place—with the Fox as the main course.
Having brutally destroyed his arch enemy, Erer Rabbit tries to make Mrs. Fox cook a soup with her husband’s head, and almost succeeds.
Remus is not an anthropomorphist by accident. His theme is a human one—neighborliness—and the communal meal is a symbol for it. His moral? There are no good neighbors in the world, neither equality nor fraternity. But the moral has an underside: the Rabbit can never be trapped.
Another tension runs through the stories: Who gets the women? In sex, Brer Rabbit is at his most aggressive—and his most invincible. Throughout he is engaged in murderous competition with the Fox and the other animals for the favors of “Miss Meadows en de gals.”
In their sexual competition the Rabbit never fails to humiliate the Fox viciously. “I’ll show Miss Meadows en de gals dat I’m de boss er Brer Fox,” he decides. And he does: through the most elaborate trickery he persuades the Fox to put on a saddle, then rides him past Miss Meadows’ house, digging his spurs in vigorously . . . . And in sex, it would seem, there are no false distinctions between creatures—all differences in status are irrelevant. At Miss Meadows’ the feuds of the work-a-day world must be suspended, “kaze Miss Meadows, she done put her foot down, she did, en say dat w’en dey come ter her place dey hatter hang up a flag er truce at de front gate en ‘bide by it.”
The truce is all to the Rabbit’s advantage, because if the competitors start from scratch in the sexual battle the best man must win—and the best man is invariably Brer Rabbit. The women themselves want the best man to win. Miss Meadows decides to get some peace by holding a contest and letting the winner have his pick of the girls. The Rabbit mulls the problem over. He sings ironically,
Make a bow ter de Buzzard en den ter de
Takes a limber-toe gemmun fer ter jump
Then, through a tricky scheme, he proceeds to outshine all the stronger contestants.
Food-sharing, sex-sharing—the Remus stories read like a catalogue of Southern racial taboos, all standing on their heads. The South, wearing the blinders of stereo-type, has always tried to see the Negro as a “roaringly comic” domestic animal. Understandably; for animals of the tame or domestic variety are not menacing—they are capable only of mischief, never of malice. But the Negro slave, through his anthropomorphic Rabbit stories, seems to be hinting that even the frailest and most humble of “animals” can let fly with the most blood-thirsty aggressions. And these aggressions take place in the two most sacrosanct areas of Southern racial etiquette: the gastronomic and the erotic.
The South, with its “sanctions of fear and force,” forbids Negroes to eat at the same table with whites. But Brer Rabbit, through an act of murder, forces Brer Fox and all his associates to share their food with him. The South enjoins the Negro, under penalty of death, from coming near the white man’s women—although the white man has free access to the Negro’s women. But Brer Rabbit flauntingly demonstrates his sexual superiority over all the other animals and, as the undisputed victor in the sexual competition, gets his choice of all the women.
And yet, despite these food and sex taboos, for two solid centuries—for the Rabbit stories existed long before Harris put them on paper—Southerners chuckled at the way the Rabbit terrorized all the other animals into the communal meal, roared at the Rabbit’s guile in winning the girls away from the Fox hy jumping Jim Crow, And they were endlessly intrigued by the O. Henry spasm of the miraculous in the very last story, right after the Fox’s death: “Some say dat . . . Brer Rabbit married ole Miss Fox . . . .”
An interesting denouement, considering the sexual fears which saturate the South’s racial attitudes. Still more interesting that Southern whites should even have countenanced it, let alone revelled in it . . . .
Significantly, the goal of eating and sex, as depicted in Uncle Remus, is not instinct-gratification. The overriding drive is for prestige—the South is a prestige-haunted land. And it is in that potent intangible that the Rabbit is always paid off most handsomely for his exploits. Throughout, as he terrorizes the Strong, the “sassy” Rabbit remains bland, unperturbed, sure of his invincibility. When he humiliates the Fox by turning him into a saddle-horse, he mounts him “same’s ef he wuz king er de patter-rollers.” (“Patter-rollers,” Harris cheerfully points out, were the white patrols that terrorized Negro slaves so they wouldn’t wander off the plantations.)
Brer Rabbit, in short, has all the jaunty topdog airs and attitudes which a slave can only dream of having. And, like the slave, he has a supremely cynical view of the social world, since he sees it from below. The South is the most etiquette-ridden region of the country; and the Rabbit sees all forms of etiquette as hypocritical and absurd. Creatures meet, address each other with unctuous politeness, inquire after each other’s families, pass the time of day with oily clichés—and all the while they are plotting to humiliate, rob, and assassinate each other. The Rabbit sees through it all; if he is serene it is only because he can plot more rapidly and with more deadly efficiency than any of the others.
The world, in Brer Rabbit’s wary eyes, is a jungle. Life is a battle-unto-the-death for food, sex, power, prestige, a battle without rules. There is only one reality in this life: who is on top? But Brer Rabbit wastes no time lamenting the mad unneighborly scramble for the top position. Because it is by no means ordained that the Weak can never take over. In his topsy-turvy world, to all practical purposes, the Weak have taken over. In one episode, the Rabbit falls down a well in a bucket. He can get back up only by enticing the Fox to climb into the other bucket. The Fox is duped: he drops down and the Rabbit rises, singing as he passes his enemy:
Good-by, Brer Fox, take keer yo’ cloze
Fer dis is de way de worril goes
Some goes up en some goes down
You’ll git ter de bottom all safe en soun’.
This is the theme song of the stories. The question remains, who sings it? The Rabbit is a creation of Uncle Remus’s people; is it, then, Uncle Remus singing? But Uncle Remus is a creation of Joel Chandler Harris . . . .
There is a significant difference in ages—some hundreds of years—between Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit. The Rabbit had been the hero of animal stories popular among Negroes from the early days of slavery; these were genuine folk tales told by Negroes to Negroes and handed down in oral form. Uncle Remus was added only when Harris, in packaging the stories—using the Negro grin for gift-wrapping—invented the Negro narrator to sustain the dialect.
Harris, then, fitted the hate-imbued folk materials into a framework, a white man’s framework, of “love.” He took over the animal characters and situations of the original stories and gave them a human setting: the loving and lovable Negro narrator, the adoring white auditor. Within this frame-work of love, the blow was heavily padded with caresses and the genuine folk was almost emasculated into the cute folksy.
Almost, but not quite. Harris all his life was torn between his furtive penchant for fiction and his profession of journalism. It was the would-be novelist in him who created Remus, the “giver” of interracial caresses; but the trained journalist in him, having too good an eye and ear, reported the energetic folk blow in the caress. Thus the curious tension in his versions between “human” form and “animal” content.
Before Harris, few Southerners had ever faced squarely the aggressive symbolism of Brer Rabbit, or the paradox of their delight in it. Of course: it was part of the Southerner’s undissected myth—often shared by the Negroes—that his cherished childhood sessions in the slave quarters were bathed in two-way benevolence. But Harris, by writing the white South and its Negro tale-spinners into the stories, also wrote in its unfaced paradoxes. Thus his versions helped to rip open the racial myth—and, with it, the interracial grin.
What was the slippery rabbit-hero doing in these stories to begin with? Where did he come from? As soon as Harris wrote down the oral stories for mass consumption, these questions began to agitate many whites. The result was a whole literature devoted to proving the “un-American” genealogy of Brer Rabbit.
Why, one Southern writer asks, did the Negro pick the Rabbit for a hero? Could it be because the Rabbit was “symbolic of his own humble and helpless condition in comparison with his master the owner of the plantation”? Perhaps the Rabbit represents the Negro “in revolt at . . . his own subordinate and insignificant place in society”?
But no: if the Negro is capable of rebelling against society—American society—even symbolically, he is a menace. The Negro must be in revolt against Nature, against the “subordinate and insignificant place” assigned to him by biological fate, not America. The writer reassures himself: the Negro makes animals act “like a low order of human intelligence, such as the Negro himself [can] comprehend.” The Negro naturally feels “more closely in touch with [the lower animals] than with the white man who [is] so superior to him in every respect.” No threat in Brer Rabbit; his genealogy, having no American roots, is a technical matter for “the psychologist or the student of folklore.”
However, uneasy questions were raised; and as they were raised they were directed at Harris. Readers sensed the symbolic taunts and threats in the Rabbit and insisted on knowing whether they were directed against white America—or against “Nature.” Harris took refuge from this barrage of questions in two mutually contradictory formulas: (1) he was merely the “compiler” of these stories, a non-intellectual, a lowly humorist, ignorant of “folkloristic” matters; and (2) Brer Rabbit was most certainly, as Southerners intuited, an undiluted African.
“All that I know—all that we Southerners know—about it,” Harris protested, “is that every old plantation mammy in the South is full of these stories.” But, a sentence later, Harris decided there was one other thing he knew: “One thing is certain—the Negro did not get them from the whites; probably they are of remote African origin.” And if they come from the Congo, they offer no symbolic blows to Americans; they are simply funny. So Harris warns the folklorists: “First let us have the folktales told as they were intended to be told, for the sake of amusement . . . .”
But if the folklorists should find in them something “of value to their pretensions”? Then “let it be picked out and preserved with as little cackling as possible.”
The South wavered; it could not shake off the feeling that Brer Rabbit’s overtones were more than just funny. And Harris, too, wavered. To a British folklorist editor he wrote, suddenly reversing himself, that the stories were “more important than humorous.” And in the introduction to his book he explains that “however humorous it may be in effect, its intention is perfectly serious . . . . It seems to me that a volume written wholly in dialect must have its solemn, not to say melancholy features.”
What was it that Harris sporadically found “important,” “solemn,” even “melancholy” here? It turns out to be the Americanism of Brer Rabbit: “it needs no scientific investigation,” Harris continues in his introduction, “to show why he [the Negro] selects as his hero the weakest and most harmless of all animals . . . . It is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness . . . . Indeed, the parallel between the case of the ‘weakest’ of all animals, who must, perforce, triumph through his shrewdness, and the humble condition of the slave raconteur, is not without its pathos.”
A suggestive idea. But such a “parallel” could not have been worked out in the African jungle, before slavery; it implies that Brer Rabbit, after all, was born much closer to the Mississippi than to the Congo . . . . This crucial sentence does not occur in later editions. Instead we read: “It would be presumptious [sic] in me to offer an opinion as to the origins of these curious myth-stories; but, if ethnologists should discover that they did not originate with the African, the proof to that effect should be accompanied with a good deal of persuasive eloquence.”
In this pressing sentence we can see Harris’s whole fragmented psyche mirrored. Like all the South, he was caught in a subjective tug-of-war: his intelligence groped for the venomous American slave crouching behind the Rabbit, but his beleaguered racial emotions, in self-defense, had to insist on the “Africanism” of Brer Rabbit—and of the Negro. Then Miss Sally and Mars John could relish his “quaint antics” without recognizing themselves as his targets.
Against the African origin of Brer Rabbit one may argue that he is an eloquent white folk-symbol too, closely related to the lamb as the epitome of Christian meekness (the Easter bunny). May not the Negro, in his conversion to Christianity, have learned the standard Christian animal symbols from the whites? Could not his constant tale-spinning about the Rabbit’s malevolent triumphs somehow, in some devious way, suggest the ascent of Christ, the meekness that shall inherit the earth; suggest, even, that the meek may stop being meek and set about inheriting the earth without waiting on the Biblical timetable?
But, there is more definite evidence as to Brer Rabbit’s non-African origins—skimpy, not conclusive, but highly suggestive. Folklore study indicates that if the Negro did have stories about a rabbit back in Africa, they were not these stories, and the rabbit was most decidedly not this rabbit. Brer Rabbit’s truer ancestor, research suggests, hails from elsewhere.
“Most of these Negro stories,” reported a Johns Hopkins ethnologist—one of the “cackling” folklorists—“ . . . bear a striking resemblance to the large body of animal stories made on European soil, of which the most extensive is that known as the Roman de Renard. The episodes which form the substance of this French version circulated in the Middle Ages on the Flemish border . . . . The principal actors . . . are the fox, who plays the jokes, and the wolf, most frequently the victim of the fox.”
In incident after incident, the Brer Rabbit situations parallel the Reynard the Fox situations: the same props appear, the same set-to’s, the same ruses, the same supporting characters, often the same dialogue. But there is one big difference: “In Uncle Remus the parts are somewhat changed. Here the rabbit, who scarcely appears (under the name Couard) in the Renard, is the chief trickster. His usual butt is the fox . . . .”
In Christian symbolism, then, the rabbit is the essence of meekness and innocence. And in an important part of white folk culture he stands for the impotent, the cowardly, as against the cunning fox. Suddenly, with the beginning of slavery, the Negro begins to tell stories in which the rabbit, now the epitome of belligerence and guile, crops up as the hero, mercilessly badgering the fox.
Could the Negroes have got the Reynard fables from the whites? Not impossible. The stories originated among the Flemish peasants. During the 12th century they were written down in French, Latin, and German, in a variety of rhymed forms. The many written versions were then widely circulated throughout Western Europe. And more than a few of the first Negro slaves were brought to France, Spain, and Portugal; and some of their descendants were transplanted to America. Also, many early slaves were brought to plantations owned by Frenchmen—whether in the Louisiana Territory, the Acadian-French sections of North Carolina, or the West Indies.
And many white masters, of French and other backgrounds, told these delightful fox tales to their children. And, from the beginning of the slave trade, many Negroes—who may or may not have had pre-Christian rabbit fables of their own back in Africa—could have listened, smiling amiably, slowly absorbing the raw materials for the grinning folk “gift” that would one day be immortalized by Joel Chandler Harris, Walt Disney, Tin Pan Alley, and the comics . . . .
The Harris research technique, we learn, was first-hand and direct. Seeing a group of Negroes, he approaches and asks if they know any Brer Rabbit stories. The Negroes seem not to understand. Offhandedly, and in rich dialect, Harris tells one himself—as often as not, the famous “Tar-Baby” story. The Negroes are transfixed; then, suddenly, they break out in peals of laughter, kick their heels together, slap their thighs. Before long they are swapping Rabbit yarns with the white man as though he were their lifelong “hail-feller.” “Curiously enough,” Harris notes, “I have found few Negroes who will acknowledge to a stranger that they know anything of these legends; and yet to relate one of the stories is the surest road to their confidence and esteem.”
Why the sudden hilarity? What magic folk-key causes these wary, taciturn Negroes to open up? Harris claims to have won their “esteem”; but perhaps he only guaranteed them immunity. He thinks he disarmed the Negroes—he may only have demonstrated that he, the white bossman, was disarmed.
And how much did the Negroes tell him when they “opened up”? Just how far did they really open up? Harris observes that “there are different versions of all the stories—the shrewd narrators of the mythology of the old plantation adapting themselves with ready tact to the years, tastes, and expectations of their juvenile audiences.” But there seem to be gaps in Harris’s own versions. At tantalizingly crucial points Uncle Remus will break off abruptly—”Some tells one tale en some tells nudder”—leaving the story dangling like a radio cliff-hanger. Did these gaps appear when the stories were told to Harris? When the slave is obliged to play the clown-entertainer and “give” his folk tales to his masters, young or old, his keen sense of the fitting might well delete the impermissible and blur the dubious—and more out of self-preservation than tact.
Of course, the original oral stories would not express the slave’s aggressions straight-forwardly either. A Negro slave who yielded his mind fully to his race hatreds in an absolutely white-dominated situation must go mad; and the function of such folk symbols as Brer Rabbit is precisely to prevent inner explosions by siphoning off these hatreds before they can completely possess consciousness. Folk tales, like so much of folk culture, are part of an elaborate psychic drainage system—they make it possible for Uncle Tom to retain his facade of grinning Tomism and even, to some degree, to believe in it himself. But the slave’s venom, while subterranean, must nonetheless have been thrillingly close to the surface and its symbolic disguises flimsier, its attacks less roundabout. Accordingly his protective instincts, sensing the danger in too shallow symbolism, would have necessarily wielded a meticulous, if unconscious, blue pencil in the stories told to white audiences.
Harris tried hard to convince himself that Uncle Remus was a full-fledged, dyed-in-the-denim Uncle Tom—he describes the “venerable sable patron” as an ex-slave “who has nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery.” But Harris could not completely exorcise the menace in the Meek. How often Remus steps out of his clown-role to deliver unmistakeable judgments on class, caste, and race! In those judgments the aggressions of this “white man’s nigger” are astonishingly naked.
“Why the Negro Is Black” tells how the little boy makes the “curious” discovery that Remus’s palms are white. The old man explains: “Dey wuz a time w’en all de w’ite folks ‘us black—blacker dan me . . . . Niggers is niggers now, but de time wuz w’en we ‘uz all niggers tergedder . . . .” How did some “niggers” get white? Simply by bathing in a pond which washed their pigmentation off and using up most of the waters, so that the latecomers could only dabble their hands and feet in it.
But the stragglers who were left with their dark skin tone are not trapped—they may be able to wriggle out of it. In “A Plantation Witch,” Remus, explaining that there are witches everywhere in the world that “comes en conjus fokes,” hints that these witches may be Negroes who have slipped out of their skins. And these witches conjure white folks from all sides, taking on the forms of owls, bats, dogs, cats—and rabbits.
And in “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story”—advertised on the dust-jacket as the most famous of all the Remus stories—Remus reverts to the question of pigmentation. (“There are few negroes that will fail to respond” to this one, Harris advises one of his folklore “legmen.”) The Fox fashions a “baby” out of tar and places it on the side of the road; the Rabbit comes along and addresses the figure. Not getting any answer, he threatens: “Ef you don’t take off dat hat en tell me howdy, I’m gwineter bus’ you wide open.” (Here the Rabbit’s bluster reads like a parody of the white man’s demand for the proper bowing-and-scraping etiquette from the Negro; it is a reflection of the satiric mimicry of the whites which the slaves often indulged in among themselves.) He hits the Tar-Baby—his fist sticks in the gooey tar. He hits it with the other hand, then kicks it—all four extremities are stuck.
This is “giving” in a new sense; tar, blackness, by its very yielding, traps. Interesting symbol, in a land where the mere possession of a black skin requires you, under penalty of death, to yield, to give, every-where. The mark of supreme impotence suddenly acquires the power to render impotent, merely by its flaccidity, its inertness; it is almost a Gandhi-like symbol. There is a puzzle here: it is the Rabbit who is trapped. But in a later story, “How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp for Mr. Fox,” it turns out that the Rabbit, through another cagey maneuver, gets the Fox to set him free from the tar-trap and thus avoids being eaten by his enemy. The Negro, in other words, is wily enough to escape from the engulfing pit of blackness, although his opponents, who set the trap, do their level best to keep him imprisoned in it. But it is not at all sure that anyone else who fell victim to this treacherous black yieldingness—the Fox, say—would be able to wriggle out so easily.
The story about “A Plantation Witch” frightens his young admirer so much that Remus has to take him by the hand and lead him home to the “big house.” And for a long time the boy lies awake “expecting an unseemly visitation from some mysterious source.” Many of the other stories, too, must have given him uneasy nights. For within the “gift” that Uncle Remus gives to Miss Sally’s little boy is a nightmare, a nightmare in which whites are Negroes, the Weak torture and drown the Strong, mere blackness becomes black magic—and Negroes cavort with cosmic forces and the supernatural, zipping their skins off at will to prowl around the countryside terrorizing the whites, often in the guise of rabbits . . . .
Harris’s career is one of the fabulous success stories of American literary history. Thanks to Uncle Remus, the obscure newspaperman was catapulted into the company of Mark Twain, Bret Harte, James Whitcomb Riley, and Petroleum V. Nasby; Andrew Carnegie and Theodore Roosevelt traveled to Adanta to seek him out; he was quoted in Congress. And all the while he maintained—as in a letter to Twain—that “my book has no basis in literary merit to stand upon; I know it is the matter and not the manner that has attracted public attention . . . my relations towards Uncle Remus are similar to those that exist between an almanac-maker and the calendar . . . .”
But how was it that Harris could apply his saccharine manner to such matter, dress this malevolent material, these nightmares, in such sweetness and light? For one thing, of course, he was only recording the tottering racial myth of the post-bellum South, doing a paste-job on its fissioning falseface. As it happened, he was peculiarly suited for the job; for he was crammed full of pathological racial obsessions, over and above those that wrack the South and, to a lesser degree, all of white America.
Even Harris’s worshipful biographer, his daughter-in-law, can’t prevent his story from reading like a psychiatric recital of symptoms. The blush and the stammer were his whole way of life. From early childhood on, we are told, he was “painfully conscious of his social deficiencies” and his “lack of size”; he felt “handicapped by his tendency to stutter” and to “blush furiously,” believed himself “much uglier than he really was”; in his own words, he had “an absolute horror of strangers.”
During his induction into the typographical union, Harris stutters so badly that he has to be excused from the initiation ceremony; trapped in a room full of congenial strangers, he escapes by jumping out of the window. “What a coarse ungainly boor I am,” he laments, “how poor, small and insignificant . . . .” He wonders if he is mad: “I am morbidly sensitive . . . it is an affliction—a disease . . . the slightest rebuff tortures me beyond expression . . . . It is worse than death itself. It is horrible.” Again, he speculates about his “abnormal quality of mind . . . that lacks only vehemence to become downright insanity . . . .” Harris’s life, it appears, was one long ballet of embarrassment.
“I am nursing a novel in my brain,” Harris announced archly more than once. All along he was consumed with the desire to turn out some “long work” of fiction, but, except for two inept and badly received efforts (published after his forty-eighth year), he never succeeded. Over and over he complained bitterly of his grinding life in the journalistic salt mines—but when the Century Company offered him a handsome income if he would devote all his time to creative work, he refused. This refusal, according to his daughter-in-law, “can be explained only by his abnormal lack of confidence in himself as a ‘literary man.’”
The urge to create was strong in Harris, so strong that it gave him no peace; and he could not create. That is the central fact in his biography: his creative impulses were trapped behind a block of congealed guilts, granite-strong; the works he produced were not real gushings of the subjective but only those driblets that were able to seep around the edges of the block.
Harris’s stammer—his literal choking on words—was like a charade of the novelist manqué in him; his blush was the fitful glow of his smothered self, a tic of the guilty blood.
And that smothered self had a name: Uncle Remus.
Accused of plagiarizing folk materials, Harris replies indignantly: “I shall not hesitate to draw on the oral stories I know for incidents . . . . The greatest literary men, if you will remember, were very poor inventors.” Harris all his life was a very poor inventor; his career was built on a merciless, systematic plagiarizing of the folk-Negro. Small wonder, then, that the “plantation darky” was such a provocative symbol for him. For, ironically, this lowly Negro was, when viewed through the blinders of stereotype, almost the walking image of Harris’s egoideal—the un-selfconscious, “natural,” free-flowing, richly giving creator that Harris could never become. Indeed, for Harris, as for many another white American, the Negro seemed in every respect to be a negative print of his own uneasy self: “happy-go-lucky,” socializing, orally expressive, muscularly relaxed, never bored or passive, unashamedly exhibitionistic, free from self-pity even in his situation of concentrated pain, emotionally fluid. And every time a Remus opened his mouth, every time he flashed a grin, he wrote effortlessly another novel that was strangled a-borning in Harris.
“I despise and detest those false forms of society that compel people to suppress their thoughts,” Harris wrote. But he was himself the most inhibited and abashed of men. What fascinates him in the Rabbit stories, he confesses, is “the humor that lies between what is-perfectly decorous in appearance and what is wildly extravagant in suggestion.” But, a thorough slave to decorum, he was incapable of the “wildly extravagant,” whether in his love-making (“My love for you,” he informs his future wife, “is . . . far removed from that wild passion that develops itself in young men in their teens . . . it is not at all wild or unreasoning.”) or in his writing.
Harris, then, was awed by Uncle Remus. It was the awe of the sophisticate before the spontaneous, the straitjacketed before the nimble. But was the Negro what Harris thought him to be? It is certainly open to question, for another irony of the South is that the white man, under his pretense of racial omniscience, actually knows the Negro not at all—he knows only the false-face which he has forced on the Negro. It is the white man who manufactures the Negro grin. The stereotype reflects the looker, his thwartings and yearnings, not the person looked at; it is born out of intense subjective need.
Harris’s racial awe was only an offshoot of the problem that tormented him all his life: the problem of identifying himself. He was caught in the American who-am-I dilemma, one horn of which is white, the other often black. And there is abundant proof that, at least in one compartment of his being, Harris defined himself by identifying with the Negro.
As a child, Harris started the game of “Gully Minstrels” with his white playmates; and later in life, whenever he felt “blue” and wanted to relax, he would jump up and exclaim, “Let’s have some fun—let’s play minstrels!” Often, in letters and newspaper articles, and even in personal relations, he would jokingly refer to himself as “Uncle Remus,” and when he started a one-man magazine, he decided to name it Uncle Remus’s Magazine instead of The Optimist! Frequently he would lapse into a rich Negro dialect, to the delight of his admirers, from Andrew Carnegie down to the local trolley conductor. And, like Uncle Remus, he even toys with the idea that whites are only blanched Negroes: “Study a nigger right close,” he has one of his characters say, “and you’ll ketch a glimpse of how white folks would look and do without their trimmin’s.”
Harris seems to have been a man in permanent rebellion against his own skin. No wonder: for he was driven to “give,” and it was impossible for him to give without first zipping out of his own decorous skin and slipping into Uncle Remus’s. To him the artist and the Negro were synonymous.
And Harris virulently hated the Negro, too. “The colored people of Macon,” he writes in his paper, “celebrated the birthday of Lincoln again on Wednesday. This is the third time since last October . . . .” And: “A negro pursued by an agile Macon policeman fell in a well the other day. He says he knocked the bottom out of the concern.” Again: “There will have to be another amendment to the civil rights bill. A negro boy in Covington was attacked by a sow lately and narrowly escaped with his life. We will hear next that the sheep have banded together to mangle the downtrodden race.”
The malice here is understandable. Can the frustrate—the “almanac-maker”—ever love unequivocally the incarnation of his own taboo self—the “calendar”? What stillborn novelist can be undilutedly tender towards the objectivization of his squelched alter-ego, whose oral stories he feels impelled to “draw on” all his life?
Most likely, at least in Harris, the love went deeper than the hate—the hate was, in some measure, a defense against the love. “Some goes up en some goes down.” Who sings this theme song? A trio: the Rabbit, Remus, and Harris. Literally, it is only a rabbit and a fox who change places. Racially, the song symbolizes the ascent of the Negro “Weak” and the descent of the white “Strong.”
But to Harris, on the deepest personal level, it must have meant: the collapse of the “perfectly decorous” (inhibition, etiquette, embarrassment, the love that is never wild, the uncreative journalist-compiler, the blush and the stammer) and the triumph of the “wildly extravagant” (spontaneity, “naturalness,” the unleashed subjective, creativity, “Miss Meadows en de gals,” exhibitionism, the folk-novelist). The song must have been deliciously funny to him . . . .
The Remus stories are a monument to the South’s ambivalence. Harris, the archetypical Southerner, sought the Negro’s love, and pretended he had received it (Remus’s grin). But he sought the Negro’s hate too (Brer Rabbit), and revelled in it in an unconscious orgy of masochism—punishing himself, possibly, for not being the Negro, the stereotypical Negro, the unstinting giver.
Harris’s inner split—and the South’s, and white America’s—is mirrored in the fantastic disparity between Remus’s beaming face and Brer Rabbit’s acts. And such aggressive acts increasingly emanate from the grin, along with the hamburgers, the shoeshines, the “happifyin’“ pancakes.
Today Negro attack and counter-attack becomes more straightforward. The NAACP submits a brief to the United Nations, demanding a redress of grievances suffered by the Negro people at the hands of white America. The election newsreels showed Henry Wallace addressing audiences that were heavily sprinkled with Negroes, protected by husky, alert, deadpan bodyguards—Negroes. New York Negroes voted for Truman—but only after Truman went to Harlem. The Gandhi-like “Tar-Baby” begins to stir: Grant Reynolds and A. Phillips Randolph, announcing to a Senate committee that they will refuse to be drafted in the next war, revealed, at the time, that many Negroes were joining their civil-disobedience organization—the first movement of passive resistance this country had seen.
Increasingly Negroes themselves reject the mediating smile of Remus, the indirection of the Rabbit. The present-day animated cartoon hero, Bugs Bunny, is, like Brer Rabbit, the meek suddenly grown cunning—but without Brer Rabbit’s facade of politeness. “To pull a Bugs Bunny,” meaning to spectacularly outwit someone, is an expression not infrequently heard in Harlem.
There is today on every level a mass repudiation of “Uncle Tomism.” Significantly the Negro comedian is disappearing. For bad or good, the Dark Laughter that Sherwood Anderson heard all around white New Orleans is going or gone.
The grin is faltering, especially since the war. That may be one of the reasons why, once more, the beaming Negro butler and Pullman porter are making their amiable way across our billboards, food labels, and magazine ads—and Uncle Remus, “fetchin’ a grin from year to year,” is in the bigtime again.