People across the world tuned into the Roots mini-series, resulting in this Time piece and also more open discussion about slavery and racism.
During Reconstruction, Joel Chandler Harris was an associate editor for The Atlanta Constitution and a prominent Southern author, on peer with Mark Twain. Wrens Nest, his Victorian home in the historic West End of Atlanta, is dedicated to “preserving his legacy.” Harris was raised on Turnwold, a plantation near Eatonton, GA, where he listened to the older slaves pass down their oral traditions. It was these moments around the smoky kitchen hearth that inspired the creation of Uncle Remus. According to Wrensnest.org, Harris’ Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Stories “gave voice to African-American folklore.” They further describe Harris as “a significant voice for the New South and a staunch advocate for regional and racial reconciliation.”
Joel Chandler Harris, Top. Colson Whitehead, Below. Both important writers in the narrative of slavery fiction.
Based on this description, perhaps it is appropriate to reconcile Harris’ racial legacy: a wealthy white man of privilege expropriates stories from enslaved laborers, ignores the abomination of the plantation life, and cast the storytellers as witless participants in their own denigration.
That view can be argued as too harsh or too tolerant. It depends on how authentic you find Disney’s Song of the South.
At the end of the 19th century, the whimsical tales and quaint illustrations had the potential to humanize former slaves in the eyes of former slave masters or assuage the guilt of a culpable public with no conception of African Americans as equals. From today’s perspective, Harris’ ability to “write the other” is an absurd failure. Given his advantageous origin, that outcome was inevitable as summer heat, but it took nearly a century for the genuine fiction of slavery to find a larger audience, a massively larger worldwide audience.
In the 1970’s, Alex Haley’s Roots shocked a country hypnotized by Happy Days and Rocky. His prize-winning novel and record-breaking mini-series duped white America into dealing directly with its forefather’s horrific past, which had never been portrayed in the hermetic incubator of middle-class family rooms. Haley’s seminal work serves as a suitable origin for African Americans to tell their tales, and his commercial success draws a logical parallel to the triumph of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.
The list of accolades for Whitehead’s novel are lengthy, impressive and deserving; from the National Book Award for Fiction to Oprah’s Book Club selection. The mysterious Underground Railroad coaxes the audience to journey beyond the atrocities of the Georgia plantation era. Like Cora, the fifteen-year-old heroine, we are appalled at the truth behind the doctor’s eugenic experiments in South Carolina and the empty assertions of the Declaration of Independence for anyone other than privileged landholders. For generations, the thought of a secret network of trails and safe houses allowed whites to believe the best about their ancestors, until Whitehead forces readers to face the institutional racism, which still exists in America today. As Rebecca Carroll wrote in her Los Angeles Times review, “it is also a fiercely salient reckoning of what it means, has meant and continues to mean to be black in America.”
Whitehead’s acclaimed novel is not the only recent work that exposes the sickening truth about slavery and our current racial conflicts.
Dr. Daniel Omotosho Black was raised in Arkansas and teaches at Clark Atlanta University, a few miles north of the Wrens Nest. His 2015 novel, The Coming, has not reached Oprah Book Club status, but it should. His lyrical style and enthralling insight engulf the reader in the gruesome horrors of the Middle Passage. While Haley relies on commercial appeal and Whitehead on an almost steampunk energy, Black entices with his poetic prose. The impact of the novel is its revealing betrayal of African heritage—a proud ancestry that grieved for lost potential and survived each day despite the relentless torture. Neither, the vast ocean waters or the steady passing of time quells the captive traveler’s beliefs in their divinity. In The Coming, Black not only establishes the power of unity to fortify survivors of the passage, but he also presents a solution for the struggles of today.
The Southern literary legacy of Uncle Remus and Joel Chandler Harris are debatable. In an article posted on WrensNest.org Lain Shakespeare writes, “Uncle Remus was a significant departure from other black characters in popular fiction.” Ralph Ellison viewed Uncle Remus as a teacher, “that comedy is a disguised form of philosophical instruction.” Without Harris, we might not have Toni Morrison’s beautiful novel Tar Baby. However, the fiction of slavery is best written by those innately vested in traditional African customs, stories, and sayings. Ellison, Morrison, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, among many brave others, own the rights to the fiction of slavery—no matter the setting or the characters—and all of us should be grateful for the telling.