December 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, Joel Chandler Harris

Have you ever heard of Br'er Rabbit? Uncle Remus? Song of the South?

Born on this day in 1845, Joel Chandler Harris wrote American folktales about a trickster rabbit and other “critters” from the brier patch, collecting stories that can be traced back to Africa and Cherokee traditions. These stories had been told orally and passed down, from parents to children, for years, and several people endeavored to write them down before Harris tackled the tales.

Harris chose to retell the stories with the voice of a fictional storyteller named Uncle Remus. Remus is a kindly old enslaved man who tells the stories to a white child. Remus's voice is written in a Deep South slave dialect. One small example of the dialect is the fact that “Br'er” is a contraction of the word brother. The white child speaks in quite advanced literary English.

The Uncle Remus stories became very popular with mainstream audiences. Harris, who was a newspaper journalist in his “real” job, was prevailed upon to continue the Remus character in a second volume of collected Br'er Rabbit tales. Disney even made a full-length animated movie about Uncle Remus and the animals. This movie, called Song of the South, was used as the basis to decorate a popular Disneyland attraction, Splash Mountain.

Are they racist?

The folktales as written by Harris were considered to be not racist by many people at the time of their publication. Harris himself, as a journalist, worked for racial reconciliation after the Civil War, and later he and his wife won a Pulitzer Prize for their efforts to fight the Ku Klux Klan (a horrific terrorist organization that tried to maintain or restore white supremacy through threats, violence, and murder). The tales themselves, according to black folklorist Julius Lester, are important records of black folklore, and they were subversive to many of the assumptions and ideas of white America. Obviously, the Uncle Remus stories are not racist.

On the other hand...

Some people point out that Uncle Remus is a stereotype of an uneducated black entertainer, and others pick out portions of Harris's writings that show him to be patronizing to blacks and (perhaps in an effort to smooth down defensive attitudes among white southern readers) “sympathetic” to the ideas and attitudes of the slave owners of days past.

By the mid-1960s the Br'er Rabbit stories had definitely fallen out of favor, and despite its use in Splash Mountain, Song of the South is now considered politically incorrect as well. Here is a clip from the movie. 

A matter of dialect...

At the time of their publication, Harris was praised for his ability to capture “plantation negro dialect,” and Harris was considered to have revolutionized children's literature partly because of his strong-voiced narrator. However, nowadays use of such strong dialect is quite unpopular, and the difficulties of reading the tales is partially responsible for them being considered out of date.

Here is a sample:

"Hit look like ter me dat I let on de udder night dat in dem days w'en de creeturs wuz santer'n 'roun' same like fokes, none un urn wuz brash nuff fer ter ketch up wid Brer Rabbit," remarked Uncle Remus, reflectively.

"Yes," replied the little boy, "that's what you said."
"Well, den," continued the old man with unction, "dar's whar my 'membunce gin out, kaze Brer Rabbit did git kotched up wid, en hit cool 'im off like po'in' spring water on one er deze yer biggity fi'es."
It's almost like reading a foreign language, isn't it?

Here is a resource with some of the original tales plus “translations” by Julius Lester, with very little dialect. 

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