“The Education of Little Tree”: A Psychological Exploration of How a Racist Wrote a Great Anti-Racist Novel

education of little treeThe Education of Little Tree” is one of my favorite novels.  Published in 1976, it is a poignant and tender tale of an orphaned part-Cherokee boy named Little Tree who is raised by his half-Cherokee grandfather and full-Cherokee grandmother in the mountains of North Carolina during Prohibition.  It is also one of the most anti-racist books I have read.  Yet its author, Asa Earl Carter, who published it under the pen name of Forrest Carter to hide his identity, had about as racist a history as anyone in 20th century American history.  He was a violent Ku Klux Klan leader, an outspoken segregationist and anti-Semite, and a speechwriter and politician who ran (and lost) in his last election, for governor of Alabama in 1970, on a racist platform.  This is, to say the least, a major curiosity.

The New York Times, which outed Carter for his real identity, denounced him and labeled his book a sham that exploits Native Americans.  And while Carter may have been part-Cherokee, his claim that “The Education of Little Tree” was autobiographical wasn’t true.  For starters, Carter was never orphaned, was raised in Alabama and not North Carolina, and gained his imperfect knowledge of Native Americans not through personal experience but through research in a local library in Texas.  Yet the New York Times fails to answer the key question:  how could a man as racist as Asa Earl Carter write such a superb, anti-racist book?

No one that I could find, including Oprah, who once lauded the book and then dropped it when she learned its author’s history, seems to have answered it.  Instead most were content with the facile explanation that the book is nothing more than a fraud—or at best an apology.  And while I don’t doubt that it was at some level an apology, because from cover to cover it deflates racists, bigots, anti-Semites, hypocrites, and politicians, I see the real answer going much deeper—into his unconscious.

My hypothesis is that Asa Earl Carter wrote this book from a part of his psyche that wasn’t racist, rather, was kind, gentle, caring, and deeply non-bigoted.  I see his racist side, meanwhile, as his false self, a facade he created unconsciously as a defense to keep himself from having to look at and feel the pain of the split-off, weak, unresolved, traumatized part of him that hid beneath the surface—the little, lost, abandoned boy who he really was and who his Little Tree character metaphorically represented.  This side of Carter was an orphan in his own psyche.

In this vein, I see “The Education of Little Tree” as a metaphorical autobiography of Asa Earl Carter’s own personal education of reclaiming that orphaned side of his identity—and condemning the cruel, racist part of himself that dominated his adult life.  Hand in hand with this, I sense his book was also a self-comforting fantasy about the childhood he wished he’d had—and the morals he wished he and the authority figures in his childhood had embodied.

But where did his racism come from?  I find this question so relevant in our modern, increasingly polarized society.  My speculation is that his racism was a split-off lens through which he could safely redirect his long-buried rage at his abusive parents onto a safe, externalized, non-familial “Other.”  Although I lack the biographical information on his childhood to provide direct evidence that Carter’s parents harmed him, I do have two pieces of indirect evidence.  The first is the knowledge that no child who was raised with deep parental tenderness and love could ever grow up to do the hateful things that Asa Earl Carter later came to do.  Human psychology doesn’t work that way.  The second is that Carter did not grow up to be the most loving of parents himself—considering one of his own sons, whom Carter likely raised in a parenting style learned from his own parents, killed him in a fistfight only three years after the publication of “The Education of Little Tree.”

Finally, I find it interesting that Carter wrote this book from the perspective of a boy of five or six years old.  My hunch is that this corresponds to the emotional age to which he remained stunted throughout his adult life.  Considering the extreme immaturity of so many of his adult actions, I would not be surprised if it were true.


9 thoughts on ““The Education of Little Tree”: A Psychological Exploration of How a Racist Wrote a Great Anti-Racist Novel

  1. I just learned today that the story of little tree was a fraud. I first read this story to my kids and Mother in 1992. I am amazed that the author Asa Earl Carter was able to pull it off.

  2. Hi Daniel,

    I enjoyed this article, and I agree with you that hateful ideologies and racism have their roots in childhood trauma. However, I just read an article that makes the case that there are ways in which The Education of Little Tree actually fits Carter’s racist ideas.

    Apparently, even though he hated blacks and Jews, he romanticized Native Americans. This book in itself is a highly romantic view of Native American life, giving them the Noble Savage treatment which is so common among people who want to use them in some ideal of humanity. The book also, tellingly, casts northerners and government officials as evil forces working against honorable southerners and Native Americans.

    Here’s a quotemfrom the article:

    Blacks, [Carter] said, were undeserving compared with the patient and brave Indians, who had suffered terrible wrongs inflicted by the Yankees. “I heard him say many times that blacks don’t know what it is to be mistreated,” says Buddy Barnett, Asa’s friend from chidhood, who lives in Oxford, Alabama. “The Indians have suffered more.”

    So it was definitely possible for him to be racist against blacks but at the same time to idealize Native Americans. And his romaniticization of Indians is, in it’s own way, just as racist as it plays off stereotypes that they have to work against just to be seen as normal human beings and not Great Noble Savages or Mysterious Shamans or whatever.

    The article does end with some lines which echo your hypothesis, however:

    “Perhaps there is another sense in which the story of Little Tree is true. Maybe, for Asa Carter, it represented a wishful kind of truth, the upbringing he wished he really had.”

    Here’s a link to the full story:https://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/the-real-education-of-little-tree/

    • hi Madeline — good points — and thanks for the link. i read the article — and i hadn’t seen it before in my researching of carter. that man was sick, for sure! and about the noble savage, according to the dictionary definition of “the noble savage” (“a representative of primitive humankind as idealized in Romantic literature, symbolizing the innate goodness of humanity when free from the corrupting influence of civilization”) it surely does seem that you’re right, and this book qualifies. but how sad! ugh — sickening. i was so disappointed to find out the truth behind this book. daniel

      • hi Madeline — i was thinking about it a bit more and i forgot while writing the last comment that carter put in a very positive character of an elderly jewish peddler — who was the epitome of kindness and generosity. he was the only jewish character in the book, i think. he also had a positive black character in the book, from what i remember — who was the only black character. so that adds a level of curiosity for me… hard to figure that guy out…. daniel

  3. “The Education of Little Tree” is one of my favorite books, too. It makes me sob every time I read it, and I have given the book to lots of people I care for. I am shocked to learn about the author today. How could a man like that write such a beautiful and heart-breaking story that resonates with so many people?

    I guess he might have internalized the societal value that would benefit his survival best at that time while keeping his inner innocent self unconsciously or consciously. I feel sorry for the guy who might have lived with this inner conflict the whole time, and whose pseudonym and identity were revealed limiting his further creative work.

    Having learned about the author, the book is still in the top three of my favorite books because it contains certain universal wisdom with regard to how to raise and love a child.

  4. Interesting.There are a lot of famous writers such as Dickens and Tolstoy that have done things in their private lives that are completely contradictory to the humanist messages of love and tolerance that they wrote so eloquently about.Maybe because writing about it and knowing what the right thing to do is not the same as actually implementing and acting on your high standards.

  5. Hi Daniel. Interesting rumination on trauma and the self. We tend to oversimplify and stereotype each other, so your analysis of an American racist was refreshing. Truly, hate comes after hurt. But is it really true that only deeply traumatized individuals turn to hateful ideologies? I’m just afraid that while that is usually true, it’s not always so. The human psyche is so complex that i doubt it could be studied in a comprehensively. Not even one individual’s! Maybe that’s why therapy doesn’t work the same with everyone, nor does it work at all with some. I think it’s really impossible “to look into someone’s soul” and not see your own biases staring back at you. I think psychotherapy is so subjective that it fails to be scientific in the clinical setting. You cannot see someone for who she is. You can only see your own limited understanding of yourself. No offense, but psychologists have no business calling themselves Doctors! I appreciate this blog very much:) thank you

  6. Welcome back Daniel,

    I am not familiar with this book or author but would like to look into it.

    However, this topic brought up another issue I have been thinking about.

    Lately I am noticing my dreams more vividly because I am in an intense therapy to become a therapist myself. I am finding even though I feel angry, feel my trauma has over activated my aggression side/drive or whatever you want to call it, or I am hyper-vigilant and very justice minded most of the time… that my dreams are opposite of that. My dreams show me that I am calm, I can easily deal with life’s hardship in most reasonable way, I can scream, or cry in my sleep but I am not afraid or sad or overwhelmed. I can see my trauma (in symbols) such as my trauma is as big as the universe or I will see walls falling down and water rising and blahhaha or reading chinese dishes or many other things that have positive association for me.

    Basically, in my dreams, I am what I could have been if I was not traumatized for gazillion years by my mother…or that is the feeling I get no matter how bad a dream is, I am calm, collected, and most reasonable and feel things to the bone and live through it.

    The beauty is I am becoming acutely aware of this and enjoying it.

    I wonder if this writer was actually good person inside but fell into identifying with some negative people in his past and his racist side was that…not the real self but a cover self? As you mentioned, his true self was the book but his false self that took over was unfortunately the one everybody knew. I wonder if he knew the difference or was confused by the reaction of the people cause he truly saw himself as inside not as he came out.

    On more general note, what causes this do you think? Can the self really hide that much and deep during trauma and come up in dreams or in writings as expression…even though truly the person suffer a great deal.

    I do not think most psychology supporter will acknowledge this cause they like to believe we are developed a to z without any much differentiation.

    I am struggling with this. Did my real self seriously go incognito until I was free from the trauma (finding safe space) and then started to develop the old traditional way…that we know of today. Is this possible or am I just really in delusional level crazy?

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