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Editor's Commentary to "Why the Negro is Black"

"Why the Negro is Black" is very different from the others tales in Legends of the Old Plantation in that it is more ethnographically charged than the other tales. The majority of the tales documented by Harris are accounts of the mishaps and adventures of Brer Rabbit. "Why the Negro is Black,"instead tells Uncle Remus' version of the evolution of the races. The story begins when the little boy notices that the palms of Uncle Remus' hands are as white as his own. Uncle Remus immediately becomes serious as he explains to the child that at one time, "we wuz all niggers tergedder."

Uncle Remus then goes on to explain that all of the races were black at one time, however, by dipping their entire bodies into a pool of enchanted water, many of the "blacks" were able to become white. He explains the existence of mulattos and other ethnicities by saying that mulattos were only able to dip part of their bodies into the pool and that the Chinese dipped their hair into the water in order to straighten it.

Interpreting the story is incredibly problematic for the modern reader. On one hand, it can be interpreted as being extremely critical of contemporary southern society with its racial divisions. By having an elderly Negro man explain that at one time there was racial equality to a young white boy, shows a potential influence over the next generation--an influence that, perhaps, could lead to a future where there would again be no racial division. This version of racial evolution also negates the idea of the biological inferiority of African-Americans by linking the origin of racial differences to a pool of water rather than to an innate disparity in the intellectual and biological capacities of whites and blacks. The text could also be interpreted as being extremely critical of Uncle Remus' intellect. In some of the earlier Uncle Remus texts that appeared in the Atlanta Constitution as commentaries on contemporary Atlanta society, Harris portrays Uncle Remus as technologically backward and incompetent. "Why the Negro is Black," could be read as a perpetuation of the stereotype of the backwards plantation Negro--a happy darky without any conception of the realities of the world around him.

Despite the conflicting interpretations, "Why the Negro is Black" poses the question of Harris' intent in documenting these tales. In his introduction to the 1881 edition of the text, Harris insisted his collection was not an ethnographic or anthropological archive, but rather a collection of works from a dying tradition. With the inclusion of a tale like "Why the Negro is Black" however, Harris entertains the anthropological approach that he denounced in his introduction. By discussing something as socially charged as the origin of the races and the former equality of all races, Harris engenders commentary about the various racial stereotypes and the society from which they are spawned.

Interesting comments offered 6/1/2004

Dear sirs,

First, I would like to offer some praise for such an attractive site. The Uncle Remus stories, like discussions of race itself, are highly complex and difficult to determine as definitely meaning the one or the other thing, which is actually one of the reasons I find them so compelling. Your site is not only attractive but also offers a lot of good links to other things, useful bibliographic information etc. in order to make the discussion as broad as possible.

I wanted to write specifically to address your analysis of the story "Why the Negro is Black". You offer the thought that this story does not clearly lean in one direction or another, i.e. toward criticizing racist theories at the time or reinforcing them. The story, you posit, "This version of racial evolution also negates the idea of the biological inferiority of African-Americans by linking the origin of racial differences to a pool of water rather than to an innate disparity in the intellectual and biological capacities of whites and blacks." I am not so sure if it is simple as the water washing out the blackness. The key word in the story is "soopless". That would be "supplest" in Harris's constructed black dialect. Those who were the most supple, the fittest, made it to the pool first to wash themselves: "dem w'at wuz de soopless, dey got in fud' en dey come out w'ite". Those who were less supple made it second, came to less water and thus got less washed, whereas "dem yuthers" made it last and only got their palms and the bottoms of their feet wet. Thus, whether it was Harris's intention or not, the story confirms a system whereby the healthiest exemplars of humanity became the whitest with a clear scale leading down to the black. One notes from the use of water and the associations it contains that the becoming of white is a washing, a cleansing, a removing of blackness and thus a purifying. That whiteness is desirable is demonstrated by the great rush by all the people to get to the pond the moment they hear of it.

For all their brevity, Harris's stories are quite complex and subtle. They are made even more so by the use of dialect which in many cases obscures a more direct reading of the text through its twists and turns which are at once entertaining and a challenge to read and, with the supposed ignorance it radiates, distracts from the sophistication of what may really be going on "between the lines".

These thoughts may be of use for the analysis part of your site.

Best regards,
Richard M.
Munich, California

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