Harris became a voice of the South, not beloved by all

At a time when the nation is again assessing race relations and how to bridge the divide between perception and reality, the Photo Vault looks back at a journalist and folklorist whose use of black-dialect tales was part of a new literary tradition.

Well before folklore studies and cultural anthropology became an academic discipline, Joel Chandler Harris gathered stories he had heard in his childhood told by slaves. He placed them within a narrative context that made them available to a large white audience, sharpening the effects of their regional details and the age-old wisdom by which the enslaved secretly outwit their masters. Through his work with the Uncle Remus tales, he would introduce Americans to the basic patterns and rhythms of Southern African-American speech.

Already an associate editor of The Atlanta Constitution and an advocate of ‘New South’ ideology who promoted socioeconomic, sectional, and racial reconciliation, Harris churned out 2,000 words a day for the paper between 1876 and his retirement in 1900. In his spare time, he also wrote 25 books, since translated into 27 languages. The most popular of these, the 10 in the ‘Uncle Remus’ series, were compilations of tales about Br’ers Rabbit, Bear and Fox derived from black folklore.

These works, beloved at the time, have also been maligned as a result of controversy about the racial implications of his works. To this day the term ‘tar baby,’ a character in one of Harris’ most popular tales, has negative connotations.

The Wren’s Nest, the Atlanta museum that houses the Harris legacy, didn’t allow black patrons until it was forced by federal court order in the 1970s. (At the time, the proprietors contended that their policy was not racially discriminatory but that everyone was screened and could be denied entrance to the museum.)

Harris insisted that his sources were genuine and that his documentation of the plot and dialect was accurate. In this way, Uncle Remus goes back in time to African models, as well as to the animal tales of Aesop and Chaucer. Harris helped inspire other writers in the vernacular such as Zora Neale Hurston and Mark Twain.

Harris also had an impact on other major literary figures to come. Rudyard Kipling, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison all responded to the legacy of Brer Rabbit and the tar baby that Harris had helped popularize. Fellow Eatonton writer Alice Walker protested, however, that Harris had stolen her African-American folklore heritage and had made it a white man’s publishing commodity.

Although Harris disavowed regionalism in art, (he has been quoted as saying “My idea is that truth is more important than sectionalism, and that literature that can be labeled Northern, Southern, Western, or Eastern, is not worth labeling at all”) his writings are unsurpassed in reflecting the Southern environment. His short stories are born of the Georgia soil, his novels echo the strains of the Civil War South, his editorials for the Constitution deal with Southern social and political issues, and, of course, his famed Uncle Remus tales capture the diction and dialect of the plantation blacks while presenting genuine folk legends.

Harris died on July 3, 1908, of acute nephritis and was buried in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta’s West End. Obituary writers called him a Southern voice with a national range.

In 2000 Harris was inducted as a charter member into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

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