13 June 2015

Ben Ali and the Arabic Diary (Part Two)

One of the earliest well-known encounters with the Ben Ali Diary dates from 1896, and was recorded by Joel Chandler Harris, author of the popular Negrophobic stories "Uncle Remus" and "B'rer Rabbit." A character in one of Harris' books calls the manuscript a diary, and suggests that Ben Ali was an "Arab slave hunter" who was himself taken into slavery, and goes on to state quite erroneously that the first few pages were said to describe the events of Ben Ali being taken into slavery (Harris 1896, p. 13). It is perhaps worth noting here that some of Harris' personal papers contained in the rare books library at Columbia University suggest that he was on the lookout for African stories from which to profit in his own literary endeavors. I cannot resist also noting here that his predilection to profit from the heritage of African Americans might implicate Harris in an attempt at selling the manuscript, or parts of it, which could explain the missing pages, though that would be difficult to prove at this point unless one could show that he actually had it in his possession and had not merely heard of it. In any event, Harris' account of Ben Ali's life and writing, although found in a work of fiction, proved to be very resilient and was often recounted, even as late as 1931 by Goulding, who had the Ben Ali manuscript in his possession for a number of years but seems to have used Harris' opinion as his primary source for interpreting it. By 1940 the notion that Ben Ali was an Arab was questioned by a university academic, Joseph Greenberg, who found the account "improbable" (Greenberg 1940, p. 373). In the same year, one of Ben Ali's great-grandchildren described him as "coal black" (Georgia Writers' Project 1940, p. 166). In 1984, Austin refuted the claim that Ben Ali as an Arab slave trader, and suggested as evidence that Harris' stories were "completely Negrophobic" (1984, p. 265), but by that time the notion had lingered for nearly a century.