← Back to portfolio

The Arab Aaron: Slave Narratives and the White Fictionalization of Black History

Published on 3rd October 2019

In 1896, famed journalist and author Joel Chandler Harris published “The Story of Aaron,” a children’s novel that follows the three kids on a Georgia slave plantation as they learn more about a mysterious man named “Aaron,” often referred to as the “Son of Ben Ali.” The novel contains the hallmarks of what are now considered classic children’s stories, complete with talking animals and stylish illustrations. However, the fairy-tale nature of the story only serves to underline the identity politics at play in its portrayal of Aaron, a real-life African slave, as an Arab. Harris uses a character--indeed a person--whose existence should condemn slavery to justify it, and in the process substitutes his voice for that of history.

On a surface level, “The Story of Aaron” is an innocuous fantasy centered on an unusual protagonist, and much of the novel concerns itself with delineating his exotic attributes. Aaron is a mysterious man who can speak to animals, and from him the children protagonists-- a white boy named Buster John, his sister Sweetest Susan, and a black nurse maid named Drusilla--learn to do the same. Harris splashes the novel’s narrative with the immediately recognizable fairy tale tropes of talking animals. Despite the wide array of colorful animal characters, though, the focus of the narrative remains squarely on Aaron throughout. The children trace his history by listening to the personal accounts of various animals that include a black stallion named “Son of Abdullah,” a dog named “Rambler,” and a white pig named “Grunter.” The primary narrative function of these animals is to emphasize Aaron’s virtues, moral and physical.

For example, Grunter the pig, when recounting the story of how he and Aaron attempted to save a kidnapped man, marvels at his unnatural speed, claiming that “the faster [he] went, the faster the son of Ben Ali went,” and that he could never get more than “twenty steps away” from him. Of greater importance was the difference in purpose between them; Grunter had been forced into the quest to rescue the kidnapped innocent, and so was “running for fun,” while Aaron was “running to save life.”[1] On the one hand, Harris communicates the physical superiority of Aaron (relative to other human beings) by comparing his speed to that of fast runner like Grunter. On the other hand, he also highlights Aaron’s moral superiority by contrasting it with the superficiality of his animal companion’s motives. Grunter’s identity as a talking pig lends the above comparisons a weight that would have been absent had he been a human being. By pitting Aaron against his mystical animal friends and finding him to be of comparable or even superior worth, the narrative justifies his status as the protagonist of the story, and as a human being who could perform such incredible feats as conversing with horses and pigs.

The narrative’s magical elements, then, provide Harris with a sufficiently effective framework by which to create a majestic protagonist. And yet, Harris still feels compelled to emphasize Aaron’s outstanding nature in other ways. At the beginning of the novel, when the three child protagonists meet Aaron for the first time, he makes a point of confirming that he is “no nigger.” To prove his claim, he shows the children a “memorandum” book in which his father, Ben Ali, had recorded his life’s story. Significantly, Ben Ali had written it in a language unfamiliar to the children, and when Aaron reads from his father’s diary, he is described as speaking a “strange tongue,” which is later revealed to be a “desert dialect.”[2] The purpose of the above exchange, which lasts over three pages, is of course to establish Aaron’s unique status, but in a far more fundamental manner than what was mentioned before. Here, Harris marks Aaron as special not by appealing to fictional qualities like the ability to converse with animals, but by appealing instead to his racial excellence.

Harris uses Aaron’s and his father’s literacy to justify their racial superiority. Aaron, in order to prove that he is not a black man despite his appearance, shows off his father’s diary, implying that its contents confirm his point. The implicit racist assumption that underlines his reasoning is that blacks could never produce such a piece of writing, owing to some inherent deficiency in their mental capabilities. Far from being black, Aaron identifies himself as an Arab, just like his father Ben Ali, whom he describes as a “man of the desert.”[3]

Harris’s portrayal of Aaron as an Arab is highly significant in light of one very important fact: Aaron’s fictional father, Ben Ali, is based on a real-life Muslim African slave of the same name. Like his fictional counterpart, Ben Ali also lived on a Georgia plantation, spoke a “desert dialect” (Arabic), and was literate in the language. Like his fictional counterpart, he did indeed write a book in Arabic, and the original manuscript still exists today at the Hargrett Rare Books and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Library, in Athens, Georgia.[4] Ben Ali was a legend on the Sapelo Island plantation of Thomas Spalding, where he commanded enough respect from his owner to be appointed a head slave driver.[5] Cornelia Bailey, a black woman and one of Ben Ali’s direct descendants, is still alive today.[6] The federal government’s Work Progress Administration (WPA) conducted interviews with other descendants of Ben Ali in the 1930s, where one describes him as “coal-black.” [7] That description, along with Bailey’s present existence, provides irrefutable evidence that Ben Ali was an African, not an Arab. Even a modicum of research on the Sapelo Islands, where Ben Ali had lived, during Harris’s time would likely have shown this to be true, and yet Harris insists on presenting Ben Ali, and his fictional son Aaron, as “Arab.”

Harris’s whitewashing of literate Africans like Ben Ali and Aaron was common practice in both antebellum and postbellum America. For Aaron or his father to be genuine Africans would be problematic within the reductive understanding of race prevalent in Harris’s time, as blacks were still seen as physically and mentally inferior to whites, and so incapable of either culture or literacy. This was the heyday of scientific racism, after all (see Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black or William Stanton's The Leopard’s Spots).

Muslim slaves like Ben Ali, educated in Arabic in West African religious schools, challenged such racist views. [8] Their ability to read and write at all distinguished them from the mass of American-born slaves, who were typically denied proper education. Rebranding these Muslim African slaves as “Arabs” explained their existence without contradicting American society’s rigid racial hierarchies, whose maintenance was essential to justifying racially based systems of oppression like slavery.

Why “Arabs” specifically? The reasons are many. Nineteenth-century American society perceived “Arabs” as “African whites”[9]; in other words, the next best thing. Academic scholars saw Arabs as phenotypically closer to whites than other races and therefore naturally superior to blacks, who seemed to share less physical characteristics with Caucasians.[10] This explains Harris’s description of Aaron as “the most remarkable slave in the country” due to his fine physical characteristics, which included “a well-shaped head, a sharp black eye, thin lips,” and jet-black hair. Those qualities contrast sharply with the stereotypical image of blacks as deformed beings with thick lips and “coarse and kinky” hair.[11] In the eyes of Harris’s society, Arabs were more civilized and dignified than Africans could ever hope to be (an opinion so popular that an academic researcher, upon discovering some slaves from northern Africa with a great “share of mental energy,” attributed it to the influence of the Arabs who lived by their native villages).[12]

Establishing Aaron as an Arab, then, is obviously of vital importance to Harris’s narrative. In fact, it is the foundation upon which the remainder of the novel is built, hence its placement near the start of the narrative. What follows, namely an adventure that emphasizes Aaron’s majesty of character, is only acceptable if Aaron is singled out as a non-African early on. In other words, Aaron may compared favorably to enchanted creatures like Grunter only because he has been confirmed special by virtue of his “Arab” blood. Any story that extolled African Americans the way Harris’s novel extols Aaron was inconceivable at the time the book was written, and so Aaron necessarily couldn’t be African. However, since he possessed dark skin, he could not be white either. Identifying him as an Arab, which in American society’s racial hierarchy occupied a sweet spot between the higher “whites” and lower “blacks,” provided a convenient solution to this conundrum.

Whether Harris actually endorsed the racist narrative that his novel perpetuates, or whether he turned Aaron into an Arab simply to adhere to societal norms, is unclear. Harris is a complex figure, and his views on race and slavery all the more so. On the one hand, he was devoutly proslavery, going so far as to interpret Harriet Beecher Stove’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a withering condemnation of the institution, as a “wonderful defense of slavery as it existed in the south.”[13] He knew she intended the novel as a criticism of slavery, but in his view, had ironically ended up painting “a very fair picture of the institution she had intended to condemn.”[14] On the other hand, Harris appears to have had a concrete anti-racism agenda, as later in life he founded a magazine for the express purpose of “the obliteration of prejudice against the blacks, the demand for a square deal, and the uplifting of both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing.”[15] These two views, that slavery was a positive institution and that blacks must be treated equally to whites, seemingly co-existed in Harris’s mind for most of his life.

The ambiguity of Harris's stance vis-a-vis slavery manifests most clearly in the character of Richard Hudspeth, a man who taught the son of Aaron’s slave master. Aaron saves his life after a man attempts to kill him for “telling [the slaves] about freedom” and trying to “raise an insurrection.”[16] Harris, then, clearly identifies Hudspeth as a man opposed to slavery. During a conversation about Hudspeth between the children’s father and grandfather, the former scornfully characterizes him as a “bitter abolitionist,” and the latter doesn’t contradict him; however, he claims to love him nonetheless due to his relationship with his (now deceased) son.[17] The portrait of Hudspeth that emerges from this conversation is that of a man that is sympathetic in spite of being a “bitter abolitionist,” and not because of it. 

Yet the crux of the novel’s climax rests entirely upon Hudspeth’s goodwill. As the Union army marches through Georgia, dismantling slave plantations and freeing their black populations along the way, it makes an exception for the plantation of Aaron’s master. An army commander informs the slave master that Hudspeth, who had become an influential Congressman, specifically requested that his property be spared from pillage, as thanks for both the slave master’s kindness and for Aaron’s heroism in saving his life. Hudspeth’s actions cast him in a positive light, as his generosity validates Aaron’s decision to save his life all those years ago. More so, Hudspeth’s dream of equality for all seems to win out in the end. The novel concludes with Aaron’s slave master willingly freeing him from the bonds of slavery, and with the majority of the slaves on the Georgia plantation departing with the Union army. Ultimately, the novel appears to celebrate the end of slavery and the arrival of freedom.

Such an interpretation is difficult to maintain, however, in light of what is known about Harris himself, who continued to believe that slavery was a force for good long after he wrote “The Story of Aaron” in 1896, as demonstrated by his 1904 article in the Saturday Evening Post that declared that “all of the worthy and beloved characters” in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are “products of the system…the book is all the time condemning,” asserting once again his firm belief that Harriet Beecher Stove’s novel was a resounding defense of slavery.[18] Tellingly, Harris’s novel paints a romanticized picture of slavery, as it neglects to mention any of the well-known atrocities associated with the institution. More so, the story’s main slave master is a genial figure who treats his slaves with kindness, a sympathetic depiction largely unmoored from reality. Harris’s sanitized portrayal of slavery undermines the legitimacy of Hudspeth’s abolitionist quest, as he never gives the reader any reason to believe that such a quest is necessary. That, in turn, robs the novel’s conclusion of much of its power; since the brutality of oppression is never shown, the arrival of freedom feels unnecessary and so at best a hollow victory.

Harris’s sympathetic view of slavery clearly colors his novel, then, and demonstrates yet again why he chose to portray Aaron in the manner he did. As an oppressive system in an ostensibly Christian society, slavery could only be justified if its victims were physically and mentally deficient. Aaron, as a literate slave, poses a challenge to the fundamental logic of slavery. By designating him a non-African, Harris subverts this challenge. As an Arab, Aaron can be a slave while still possessing a status far above his fellow black slaves, but not far above enough to render his enslavement unjust. He can then slot into a novel uncritical of slavery without destabilizing its thematic structure. Of course, by turning Aaron and his father Ben Ali into “Arabs,” Harris continued a well-worn racist tradition of his time that denied black slaves their identity as human beings, an act which flies in the face of Harris’s mission to “obliterate prejudice against the blacks.”

One could argue, however, that Harris didn’t know better. After all, all he appears to do is lift the life story of his imaginary Ben Ali wholesale from the real-life Ben Ali’s biography as described in an affidavit attributed to Captain Benjamin Goulding. Goulding states that Ben Ali was an “Arab slave hunter” before his enslavement.[19] In addition to this information, Goulding claims that Ben Ali gave his father, whom he had become close to, his Arabic writings, or “diary,” before his death. [20]

Harris’s account of Ben Ali’s life is consistent with Goulding’s, right down to the existence of his diary. This would be unsurprising, if not for the fact that Harris’s novel, published in 1896, precedes Goulding’s affidavit, which was written in 1931. In fact, the brief biography of Ben Ali’s life featured in Goulding’s affidavit is identical, word-for-word, to the one in “The Story of Aaron.” Goulding is aware of this, and he justifies his direct quotation by citing Harris’s novel as a credible source of information on Ben Ali. Goulding claims to have shown Ben Ali’s manuscript, which had been with him since his father’s death in 1881, to Harris, which inspired him “to make investigations for himself” and eventually produce the novel about Aaron in 1896.[21][22]

A few obvious questions then arise: is the version of Ben Ali’s life present in Harris’s novel based on what Goulding knows to be true about the Muslim slave, hence why Goulding felt comfortable directly quoting the novel in an official state document? Or is Goulding’s tale about Ben Ali based on Harris’s fictional portrayal? Where, exactly, did the information about Ben Ali’s status as a former “Arab slave hunter” originate from? 

Goulding suggests that “The Story of Aaron” contains factual information by virtue of an “investigation” that Harris undertook after viewing Ben Ali’s Arabic manuscript. However, this notion is more than a little ridiculous, as there exist no evidence that either Goulding or Harris could read Arabic, and so Ben Ali’s writings would have been meaningless to them. Ben Ali’s manuscript remains mostly indecipherable to even the most fluent Arabic speakers today, and for a long time not even a partial English translation existed; Goulding and Harris could not have used one to learn of the document’s contents.[23] Neither would have been able to identify it as a “diary,” nor would they have actually been able to learn any information about ben Ali from it. In other words, the official account of Ben Ali’s life cannot be trusted, since it has no identifiably credible source.

And yet, Goulding, by directly quoting Harris’s fictional account in an official state document, essentially made it fact. The notion that Ben Ali was an “Arab slave” held great sway in academic investigations of his history for decades. Bizarrely, Harris’s fictional “Ben Ali,” originally conceived to explain how an African slave could be literate and cultured, replaced the real “Ben Ali.” The actual Muslim slave transformed from an African to an Arab, and from an example of the philosophical bankruptcy of racism to a person who fit comfortably within the racial hierarchy that rationalized the soundness of slavery. Some of Harris’s more egregious innovations have since been proven false; for example, scholars like Joseph Greenberg and Ronald Judy have shown that Ben Ali’s manuscript, or at least what is legible of it, is not a “diary” at all but instead a description of Islamic practices.[24][25] However, despite these discoveries, Harris’s “Ben Ali” has been and continues to be confused with the real one, the fictional threatening to overwrite the historical at any moment. Harris’s racist conception of Ben Ali has likely became far more consequential than he ever anticipated.

Ultimately, then, what is most disturbing about “The Story of Aaron” is the way that it silences the source of its inspiration. Ben Ali, despite being an African slave, lived his life on his own terms. By demonstrating that an African could possess the cognitive capacity to read and practice an organized, non-Christian religion, he threatened to fundamentally undermine the racial framework that justified slavery. As a literate Muslim slave who commanded enough respect to be a slave driver on his own plantation, he would have provided perfect material for a story about the wrongness of prejudice against blacks. And yet, despite centering an entire novel on him and his fictional son, Harris only manages to pervert Ben Ali’s legacy, rewriting him to not just accommodate but even bolster the racist delusions of his day. 

 “The Story of Aaron,” by erasing Ben Ali’s significance figuratively, through the fictional character of Aaron, and literally, through its influence on the real Ben Ali’s official biography, stands as a haunting example of white exploitation of slave narratives, and as a chilling demonstration of its consequences.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

[1] Harris, Joel Chandler. The Story of Aaron: The Son of Ben Ali Told by His Friends and Acquaitances. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1897. Print, p. 152-153

[2] Harris, Joel Chandler. The Story of Aaron: The Son of Ben Ali Told by His Friends and Acquaitances. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1897. Print,, p. 11-12

[3] Ibid, p. 13

[4] Judy, Ronald A. T. (Dis)forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1993. Print, p. 210

[5] Austin, Allan D. African Muslims in Antebellum America: A Sourcebook. New York: Garland Pub., 1984. Print, p. 265-279

[6] "The Heart of Sapelo." Garden & Gun. Web. 03 May 2016. .

[7]Drums and Shadows. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1940, p. 166

[8] Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York UP, 1998. Print, p. 6-8

[9] Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York UP, 1998. Print, p. 100

[10] Ibid, p. 97-102

[11] Harris, Joel Chandler. The Story of Aaron: The Son of Ben Ali Told by His Friends and Acquaitances. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1897. Print, p. 5

[12] Diouf, Sylviane A. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York UP, 1998. Print, p. 97-98

[13] Harris, Joel Chandler, and A. B. Frost. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1921. Print.

[14] Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing Childhood and Race from Slavery to Civil Rights. 2004. Print, p. 133

[15] "1967 Editorial Condemns Segregation at the Wren’s Nest, Praises Uncle Remus | The Wren's Nest." The Wrens Nest RSS. Web. 04 May 2016.

[16] Harris, Joel Chandler. The Story of Aaron: The Son of Ben Ali Told by His Friends and Acquaitances. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1897. Print, p. 149

[17] Ibid, p. 156

[18] Bernstein, Robin. Racial Innocence: Performing Childhood and Race from Slavery to Civil Rights. 2004. Print, p. 136

[19] Goulding, Benjamin. Affidavit of Capt. Benjamin Lloyd Goulding as to Arabic document. State of Tennessee, County of Hamilton. 1931

[20] Judy, Ronald A. T. (Dis)forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1993. Print, p. 210-212

[21] Goulding, Benjamin. Affidavit of Capt. Benjamin Lloyd Goulding as to Arabic document. State of Tennessee, County of Hamilton. 1931

[22] Judy, Ronald A. T. (Dis)forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1993. Print, p. 210-212

[23] Judy, Ronald A. T. (Dis)forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1993. Print, p. 216

[24] Greenberg, Joseph. The decipherment of the ‘Ben Ali Diary’: A preliminary statement. Journal of Negro History, 1940

[25] Judy, Ronald A. T. (Dis)forming the American Canon: African-Arabic Slave Narratives and the Vernacular. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1993. Print, p. 240-246



0 Comments Add a Comment?

Add a comment
You can use markdown for links, quotes, bold, italics and lists. View a guide to Markdown

You will need to verify your email to approve this comment. All comments are moderated before publication.

Close