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 test, Harris insisted that 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.


Links:

  • Accompanying story
  • Directory of scanned stories
  • Preceding analysis (Little Rabbits)
  • Table of Contents