Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908)
Contributing Editor: George Friedman
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Get ready to meet some resistance to Harris, particularly to the Tar-Baby story, because the dialect is initially so daunting. It might be useful to tell students (particularly those from north of the Potomac River) that the dialect becomes easier to read as the story progresses; if you have the time at the end of the class preceding the Harris assignment, you might want to go over some of the more common words such as "sezee," "kaze," "gwine." I have on occasion been asked (by students who never saw "Song of the South") just what a Tar-Baby looked like; I use the analogy of a snowman.
As for "Free Joe," I find it useful to ask students to look for signs that this story was the creation of a white man. Your most perceptive students will have no trouble zeroing in on such lines as "The slaves laughed loudly day to day, but Free Joe rarely laughed. The slaves sang at their work and danced at their frolics, but no one ever heard Free Joe sing or saw him dance." Students should also notice and question Harris's assertion that no slave could possibly envy Joe's freedom.
In many instances, discussion of these lines generates a lively debate over the nature of slavery and harshness of life on an antebellum plantation. That slaves sang in the course of their daily labor is not to be denied, but it is useful to point out the lyrics of these songs, particularly the more religious ones, with their strong emphasis on the book of Exodus and eventual emancipation.
Students should also be encouraged to debate Harris's principal message in "Free Joe," and in particular the overall impression he wants to convey of Joe himself. Is it fair to dismiss Joe as an "Uncle Tom," passively taking whatever meanness that Spite Calderwood doles out? Students who characterize him as such will be challenged by others, who will point out that in the world of central Georgia in the middle of the nineteenth century, there wasn't much Joe could do to resist Calderwood. Nonetheless, other students will say, he doesn't seem to need to suppress rage, because he doesn't seem to feel any rage to begin with. A related question then arises: Is Harris's principal point in this story that no one should have such boundless power over the life of someone else, or is he saying that an African-American is unable to function without a white guardian? Let your class discuss this at some length, but don't expect a consensus.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
As the preceding section suggests, "Free Joe" opens up a host of questions about the nature of slavery in the antebellum South and the extent to which a "Free Negro" was really free. You might want to tell your students that historical accounts of Southern slavery have varied drastically in their characterizations of it, with some historians likening plantations to "vocational training schools" and others declaring Southern slavery the cruellest in western history, principally because it did not face organized opposition from the church and masters were rarely encouraged, by the clergy or anyone else, to emancipate their slaves or even to think of them as human beings.
It is useful to point out that Harris's treatment of slavery is much closer to the first of these two characterizations, and to put both "Free Joe" and the Tar-Baby story in the context of an age that sentimentalized the antebellum South--to point out that in story after story in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, the antebellum South was depicted as a land where races lived in harmony and both master and mistress considered their slaves part of the family, as did the slaves themselves. Point out that this idealized version of the antebellum South survived well into this century and reached its apogee in Gone with the Wind.
Harris's original audience, particularly for the Uncle Remus stories, was heavily northern. The stories originally appeared in his Atlanta Constitution, but they were quickly syndicated, and appeared in many northern newspapers. He also put out an Uncle Remus Magazine at the turn of the century and it had a brisk sale nationwide. Letters to Harris, reprinted by his daughter Julia, suggest that some of his most admiring readers considered themselves sincere champions of the rights of African-Americans.
It is very important to stress that at the turn of the century there were a great many writers and politicians eager to roll back the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments, and that these people railed against African-Americans in extremely shrill and vicious terms, to very wide and very gullible audiences. It might be useful to quote from Thomas Dixon's The Leopard's Spots, which sold over 1,000,000 copies in 1902, or read from Senator "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman's (a Democrat from South Carolina) famous speech on the floor of the Senate in defense of lynching. Harris's condescension toward African-Americans might look a bit less defamatory when placed alongside such savage and widely accepted views of the race.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
In addition to the comparisons and contrasts cited above, Charles W. Chesnutt's Uncle Julius stories offer the most logical point of contrast-- to both the Uncle Remus stories and "Free Joe." It is useful to point out that Uncle Remus's only apparent motive in telling his stories is to entertain a little white boy, whereas Chesnutt's Uncle Julius is a far craftier character; he always has an underlying motive rooted in his own self-interest. Regardless of the Chesnutt story you use, it will depict the institution of slavery itself in terms far more bleak than what is found in Harris's stories--no one sings in Chesnutt's stories and no one frolics, either.
Other African-American writers of the age suggest themselves: certainly Dunbar's poem, "We Wear the Mask" could be cited, since the mask Dunbar describes in this poem appears to have fooled Harris himself. Booker T. Washington's own memories of slavery would form a useful comparison, as would the more critical observations of W.E.B. Du Bois, in "The Sorrow Songs."
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
I've already suggested the most fruitful questions: for the Tar-Baby story, you might ask why these stories would have held so much appeal for the slaves themselves. See if your students can discern for themselves the connections between the weak but wily rabbit and the slave; and strong but oafish fox or bear and the master.
For "Free Joe," ask them to look for signs that the work was written by a white man, and see how many pick up on Harris's emphasis on the slaves' singing and dancing, and his certainty that no slave would ever envy Joe's freedom.
One final point for discussion in "Free Joe" would be Harris's attitude toward poor whites, as represented by the Staleys. For one whose origins were themselves so humble, Harris seemed to have very little sympathy for poor whites; the Staleys are insensitive and superstitious. They nevertheless open the only doors in the story for Joe; does Harris want us to think of them in a positive light?
For "Free Joe," try R. Bruce Bickley, Joel Chandler Harris (1987), pp. 113-16, and Catherine Starke, Black Portraiture in American Fiction (1971), pp. 53-54.
Just about everything written about the Tar-Baby Story concentrates on Harris's use of dialect. The best of such studies is probably Lee Pederson's "Language in the Uncle Remus Tales," Modern Philology 82 (1985): 292-98.
A useful took for Harris is The Atlanta Historical Journal, 30 (1986- 87): iii-iv. The entire issue is devoted to articles on the man and his work.