Jim and Uncle Remus : stereotypicity versus authenticity in representations of blackness in the Gilded Age
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Accuracy and authenticity in literary representations of blackness in the modern age are of utmost importance in order to dissuade accusations of racism; however in centuries past, this was not the case. Given the cultural and social climate, what we today see as overt racism may have been viewed in the 1800s as the accepted norm. Actual authenticity was less important than portraying black characters in a way that readers would accept. The purpose of this project is to examine representations of blackness in terms of language and character descriptions in nineteenth century American fiction through the lens of factors that led to the stereotyped versions of black characters that were prevalent at the time. I investigated two works: Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings by Joel Chandler Harris, taking into account not only the physical texts themselves, but also each author’s biographic history and personal knowledge and experience of black culture. By examining the phonological, lexical, and grammatical aspects of the Black English found in each text in conjunction with physical, emotional, and intellectual descriptions of the chosen characters, I found archetypes of the Sambo slave stereotype, also influenced by the culture of minstrelsy prevalent at the time. While Twain and Harris claim to have represented their characters as genuinely as possible, external societal pressures and their own limitations as white men clearly affected their depictions of blackness. In the century since these Gilded Age pieces first made their appearance, hundreds of scholarly works on African American speech have been published, reifying the academic study of Black English into a well-established field. Nevertheless its occasional representation in fiction and in entertainment media— especially now film—is evidence that stereotype can still too often win out over accuracy.