“The 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.