Through The Eyes of a Child
I am completely aware that there is no possible way that we can ever know exactly how another person feels, or understand exactly what they think. Without actually being that person, it is impossible. So why I was so sure I knew what my nieces and nephews would think of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby eludes me. The only way to see something through the eyes of a child is to be a child.
Shortly after I wrote my Angel post about Brer Rabbit I began to question its validity. I assumed that my nieces and nephews would be appalled that Brer Rabbit was assaulting a baby. I believed that they would say the dialect was degrading to African Americans. I made a lot of other assumptions about what these children would think and say, and I was wrong on every single one of them.
A few days ago, I sat down with my nieces, Julia (13 years old), Hailee (10 years old), Maddy (7 years old), Tori (4 years old) and my nephew, Kenny (8 Years old). I read the story of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby, and Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch. We talked about the story for a while, and then we watched the movie, “Song of the South”. It was a very enlightening, and humbling experience for me.
Tori lost interest in the story before I was finished with the first paragraph, and left the room. The rest of the children listened quietly to the story until about half way through when Hailee said, “I think the briar patch is poky bushes.” I confirmed this, and continued to read.
When I finished reading I asked if there were any questions or if they wanted to say anything about the story. Silence. I looked around the room at blank faces. Julia’s eyes twitched, but thankfully she managed not to actually roll them. “Well” I thought, “this is going remarkably well.” I realized that I was going to have to ask the questions if we were going to get anywhere. The following is a summary of what followed.
Patty: What color was the Tar Baby?
Patty: Why was it black?
Hailee: Because it was made out of tar.
Maddy: What is tar?
Julia: It’s that sticky black stuff they fix road cracks with.
Maddy and Kenny: Oh.
Patty: Why do you think Brer Fox didn’t stick to the tar?
Hailee: He probably used powder.
Kenny: Maybe he wore gloves.
Julia: Rolls eyes.
Patty: Who do you think was the bad guy in this story?
All the children: The fox!
Patty: Why do you think Brer Fox was the bad guy?
Hailee: He was mean to Brer Rabbit and wanted to kill him.
Maddy: He was going to cut his head off!
Kenny: And he threw Brer Rabbit in the poky bushes!
Patty: What did Brer Rabbit do to the Tar Baby?
All the children: Kicked him. Hit him. Head-butted him.
Patty: Did Brer Rabbit know that the Tar Baby wasn’t a real baby?
Hailee: I don’t know.
Patty: Is it okay to hit, kick and head-butt babies?
All the children: No! Of course not!
Patty: So was it okay for Brer Rabbit to do those things to the Tar Baby?
All the children (except Julia, whose eyes are now stuck in a permanent roll pattern): The Tar Baby wasn’t real! (By now they are trying not to laugh at me.)
Hailee (looking very serious): Aunt Patty, it was just a story. It wasn’t real. Animals don’t really talk.
Maddy: Can we watch the movie now?
I cannot express how grateful I was to turn on Song of the South. I felt a little off balance, and was trying desperately to analyze what had just happened. It didn’t help that my sister was staring at me as if I had turned into a bug! (She used to think I was the smart one.)
I had done a lot of research about the racist aspects of the Uncle Remus stories. I read about the speculation that Brer Rabbit was a symbol of the African slaves, and that Brer Fox and Brer Bear symbolized the plantation masters (Ritterhouse). I learned that the dialect of the stories was degrading to African Americans, and that by glorifying the life of a slave the Uncle Remus stories minimized their pain and suffering (Cochran).
What I didn’t research was how children think. My nieces and nephew each analyzed the story of Brer Rabbit from their own personal frame of reference, and other than Julia and Tori, they all enjoyed it. I was sure they would think the story was inappropriate because there is so much more awareness of anything that might be thought to be racist now days. I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
After the movie, I asked a few more questions, and the answers remained pretty consistent. They all understand what slavery is, and know that it is horrible and wrong. They all know that animals only talk in stories, and they now know that briars are poky bushes. To my surprise, they all wanted to hear more Uncle Remus stories, and even more surprising, I ordered “Uncle Remus-The Complete Tales” for them.
I still don’t know if the Uncle Remus tales are racist or not. Without knowing for sure what the writer intended it is left to each reader to decide for themselves. I imagine there will always be some controversy regarding them. For now, they are simply cute children’s stories.
When my sister was tucking the children in the
night after I read to them, Julia sat straight up in her bed and said, “Now I
get it. Tar Baby.” She frowned, and lay back down on her bed. I wish she hadn’t
Cochran, Robert. "Black Father: The Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris." African American Review: 2004. Print.
"Reading, Intimacy, and the Role of Uncle Remus in White Southern Social
Memory." 1993. Journal of Southern History. Web. 27 Apr. 2011.
One of the reasons I decided to pursue this topic was because of an email my instructor sent me questioning something I had written in our class discussion forum: she asked if I really thought the Uncle Remus stories were, as I had said, "inappropriate." I realized that I kept changing my mind, and wanted to figure out why.
What I figured out was that I wasn't actually thinking about what I personally believed, but what Political Correctness dictated I believe. (I thought I was immune to PC rules.) I also assumed that my nieces and nephews would be hyper-alert to anything racist, but they weren't even aware of the color issue. I realized later that they are as close to color-blind as a person can be. It is simply not something they think about.
One of the most interesting things for me was when I asked them why Brer Fox did not stick to the tar. Instead of saying it was just a story, they came up with "logical" reasons. Then later, Hailee reminded me that it was just a story. I had forgotten how much kids like to pretend....
Hailee phoned me tonight. The book I ordered for them came and she asked if I could come over and read to them. She said she really likes Uncle Remus stories, and she loves when I read to her. I love it too.