The Reversal of Power in Remus
In Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, Uncle Remus frames the black folktales as entertainment for the young boy with the similar approach Joel Chandler Harris writes this entertaining novel. Both the author and Uncle Remus employ the format of entertainment to further convey the issues of black and white race relations. One issue that dealt with slavery is the distribution of power. Pre-Civil War the white race legally held power over the black race. Chandler uses a reversal of power in the relationship between the black Uncle Remus and the white little boy to display the gradual changes in the power structure among blacks and whites postwar times. Uncle Remus possesses ways of controlling the boy and his actions by threatening to not tell him stories for bad behavior and for with holding stories until the boy will obey his wishes. Uncle Remus tells the story of “The Deluge and how it came about” to the small boy obviously for entertainment but for another purpose. The story contains deeper meaning in that it can also be read to show the alteration of the conventional hold of power among the larger creatures to the smaller creatures which reflects the relationship of Uncle Remus and the little boy, and furthermore reflects black/white issues.
As Chandler tells the story of Uncle Remus and the small boy, the power that the black man holds over the white child is apparent. Uncle Remus can be seen as a representative for the black race while the little boy can be a representative of the white race. The control that Uncle Remus possesses over the boy reflects the issue of possibility for power change in post war times.
Uncle Remus illustrates his power control in deciding when he believes a story should be told and if a story should be told according to the boy’s behavior and actions. On one occasion Uncle Remus tells the boy that he “ain’t tellin’ no tales ter bad chilluns” because he suspects that the child badly behaves by doing acts such as “chunkin’ dem chickens dis mawnin,” “knockin’ out fokes’s eyes wid that Yallerbammer slin des ‘fo dinner,” and “flingin’ rocks on top of [Uncle Remus’] house, which a little mo’en one of un em would er drap on [Remus’] head.” The extent of Uncle Remus’ power over the child is shown in the child’s response to the alleged behavior. He claims, “Well now, Uncle Remus, I didn’t go to do it.” The boy thrives on hearing the entertaining stories so he even goes as far as to confess and tell Uncle Remus “ I won’t do so any more.” The extent of what the boy will do to hear the stories is further exhibited as “Miss Sally’s” little boy coerces Remus with “teacakes” so he will continue the tales. The old man believes that “seein’ um’s better’n hearin’ tell un um” so the boy’s liking of the stories creates in him a willingness to do whatever Uncle Remus asks even though the taking of his mother’s teacakes again displays bad behavior. It seems not to matter to the child if he is doing wrong or what he has done wrong. All he wants is to hear Remus’ stories. The boy flees in search of the cakes to return within minutes “with his pockets full and hands full” to Remus’ world of wonderful folklore. Uncle Remus also shows power when on occasion he will discontinue telling the story towards the end of it just because he can, just because he has that choice. Uncle Remus believes that he should not “give out too much cloff fer ter cut one pa’r pants,” which expresses the belief that if he tells the boy all the story he will not come back for more. Then the old man would resume in the position of not holding power over him because he would have nothing the boy desires to return for. The withholding of information allows Uncle Remus to keep a string attached to the boy that he can pull at any time to make the boy come at his call or to puppet master his actions.
The relationship between Uncle Remus and the boy is reflected in the folklore story of “the deluge and how it came about.” The story of the deluge concerns the reversal of power possession. The forest of animals in the story can represent the American black and white society, and the black folktale even supports this comparison and association to people by stating that the creatures “had the sense same like folks.” Also, the way in which the names of the animals are displayed as capitalized, such as Elephant instead of elephant, assigns a more human like characteristic because of the similarity to the presentation of human names. At the beginning of the tale while all the animals are holding an assembly a large elephant steps on and squashes a small Crawfish. The Elephant really pays no attention to his action because there “wuzn’t nuff er dat Crawfish lef’ ter tell dat he’d [even] bin dar.” In this situation the elephant can be looked upon as the “large, powerful, and important” white race while the crawfish can represent the “weaker, smaller, and less” important black race. The careless crushing of the crawfish executed by the Elephant may symbolize the constant slave repression and reprimanding because the elephant later steps on another crawfish. The only individuals that seem to care are the other crawfish, which is similar to the way that the slaves may feel towards one of their own that has been “squshed.” When the crawfish decide to speak, none of the larger animals regard their presence; only smaller and weaker animals, such as themselves, choose to listen to their complaints. Even the crawfish state that the animals that do listen, the Mud Turtle and the Spring Lizard, have influence that lacks power. The smaller animals represent the other slaves that care about the situation but have no power or influence close to that of the elephant, who represents the powerful non-listening white race. When the elephant proceeds to step on another crawfish this pushes them into a revolt where they bore holes into the ground and create a flood, which could be associated with a slave revolt—or even greater, a war. The crawfish as one could make no difference but as a huge group of smaller animals they do. This can be compared to the idea that many slaves as opposed to one can make a difference. The anger of the crawfish because of the careless elephant push them to revolt just as the black slaves can revolt against the careless white slave holders despite size and the difficulty of overcoming something or somebody more powerful. Of course the reversal of power seen in the relationship between black Uncle Remus and the white boy is not as dramatic or characterized by anger as the story of the small crayfish and large elephant.
Uncle Remus’ power over the white boy allows him to hold the boys attention by telling a more intensified version of the reversal of power in the story of “The deluge and how it came about” that is utilized in Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus: His Songs and his Sayings. Uncle Remus is certain to have several other stories so he does not choose this story for the sole purpose of entertainment but it seems as he does this in hopes of relaying the deeper meaning. Although the boy may only see this now as an amusing story he may retain the story because of its whimsicalness and unconventionality. Later in life he can remember it and discover that a deeper meaning is present.