Uncle Remus and Bre'r Rabbit

Week 14: American Tales - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Background Reading

Joel Chandler Harris, a journalist, a Southerner, a white man, published his first Brer Rabbit story in the Atlanta Constitution newspaper in 1879, fourteen years after the end of the Civil War. Harris had heard the Brer Rabbit stories all his life, having grown up as a poor white child in Putnam County, Georgia (his father deserted the family and Harris was raised by his mother). Harris was born in 1848; the Civil War coincided with his adolescence and he found himself a young man in a new South. After the war ended, he went to work for a rural newspaper and later moved to Atlanta and began writing for the Atlanta Constitution.

The Brer Rabbit stories that he published in the paper were immensely popular, and were first published in book form in 1881. Along the way Harris also created the character of "Uncle Remus", a fictional slave who told the Brer Rabbit stories to an eager and curious little white boy; Uncle Remus speaks in dialect, while the little boy speaks a precociously literary English.

Harris continued to write for the newspaper and to publish Brer Rabbit stories for the rest of his life. Harris eventually collected and published over 250 stories about Brer Rabbit and his fellow animals. All of the stories were collected from African-American storytellers whom Harris knew personally. In addition to these stories, Harris also published short stories featuring Uncle Remus as a character. These fictional stories, purely the product of Harris' imagination, were also collected and published in book form, although they never attained the popularity of the Brer Rabbit stories.

Thanks to the Brer Rabbit stories, Joel Chandler Harris became a celebrity - or, rather, Uncle Remus became a celebrity. Mark Twain recounts an incident in Life on the Mississippi when an audience was disappointed to find out that Joel Chandler Harris was not himself black, was not really "Uncle Remus."

Of course, Mark Twain was another writer who made use of dialect in his stories and novels. In the introduction to Huckleberry Finn, Twain explains his purpose and intentions:

"In this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech. I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding."

Of course, while Joel Chandler Harris and Mark Twain were both quite confident that they were working to improve race relations by doing this kind of writing, modern attitudes have changed. Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn has been banned from many schools, and students are often shocked that the Uncle Remus stories are included in this course. Personally, I cannot imagine doing this course without using the Brer Rabbit stories: it is one of the most important collections of American folklore that we possess. We are incredibly lucky to have this collection of hundreds of African-American folktales, which also provide a record of African-American dialect as spoken in the 19th century. Harris had a folkloric interest in these stories, and he notes the connections between the Brer Rabbit stories and African traditions, as well as the diffusion of these stories throughout Native American traditions (you will see many connections if you did the Cherokee readings last week).

Admittedly, the way in which Joel Chandler Harris collected and published the stories is bound up with the racism that marked every aspect of life in the society in which he lived. There is a deep contradiction between Harris and the stories that he tells: Brer Rabbit is a vitally important and authentic creation of the African-American experience during slavery, while Uncle Remus is a fictional character spawned by the racist politics of the post-war white South. This Uncle Remus character is used by Harris as a kind of "black-face" in print, something like a literary minstrel show. Harris is white, but he writes as a black man, much like the white singers and comedians who appeared as "black" on the stage.

Minstrel shows with white entertainers performing in black-face date back to the 1820's. These shows were already a well-established tradition by the time Harris was born and he would have been exposed to minstrel shows all his life (in fact, minstrel shows continued to be popular well into the 20th century, mostly famously in Amos and Andy). Putting on the Uncle Remus character seems to have come quite naturally to Harris, yet he never agreed to "perform" as Uncle Remus in public. At no time, did Harris do any public reading of the Brer Rabbit stories.

Luckily for us, however, the way that Harris "dressed himself up" in writing did not involve the use of black face paint, but instead depended on the heavy use of dialect in his stories. Harris, in fact, prided himself on his use of dialect, and his ability to distinguish between the many different regional dialects of the American South. As a result, you are probably going to find the stories hard to read. In order to understand the stories, you basically have no choice to but to read them out loud, using Harris' odd and abbreviated spelling to recreate the sound of English that was spoken by his African-American sources.

Yet at the same time that Harris's motives were - by the standards of his time - extremely sympathetic, there is no denying the taint of the minstrel show in Harris's work. For this reason, Julius Lester, a contemporary African-American author, eliminated the Uncle Remus character entirely from his retelling of the Brer Rabbit stories. He also changed much of the dialect into basically standard English, which is only slightly flavored with dialect vocabulary and rhythm. Here is how Julius Lester explains his choice (Introduction to The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. Dial Books. New York: 1987, xv-xvi):

Reading the original Uncle Remus tales today is not an easy task. The contemporary reader is offended by the dialect, if that reader is able to decipher it. (It is almost like reading a foreign language.) The reader is also uncomfortable with the figure of Uncle Remus, his attitudes, his use of the word "nigger," and his sycophancy. Because Uncle Remus is a character with whom blacks and white are uneasy today, the tales themselves have become tainted in some minds. This is unfortunate. Whatever one may think about how Harris chose to present the tales, the fact remains that they are a cornerstone of Afro-American culture and continue to be vital. The purpose in my retelling of the Uncle Remus tales is simple: to make the tales accessible again, to be told in the living rooms of condominiums as well as on front porches of the South.

I have included some of Julius Lester's versions of the stories together with the dialect versions published by Harris so that you can compare the two. In past semesters, folks have been pretty evenly divided about whether they preferred the Lester versions or the Harris versions. You can decide what you think as you do this week's readings, since for some of the stories you will have both versions: the modern version by Lester and the original publication by Harris.

You will also be reading some of the songs and proverbs that Harris included in his Uncle Remus publications. African-American music was a part of the minstrel show tradition, with songs like "Old Dan Tucker" and "Zip Coon" (you'll see a reference to Old Dan Tucker in one of the Uncle Remus stories this week). In addition to this secular music tradition, there was also a powerful tradition of African-American gospel music, with a strong theme of protest against slavery running through those songs, as you will see in the "Revival Hymn" and the "Plantation Chant.

As for the proverbs, you'll probably have to do some thinking as you work through them, since proverbs are a dying art form in American today. There's a world of hard-earned truth in sayings like "Watch out w'en you'er gittin all you want. Fattenin' hogs ain't in luck!" or "'Twix' de bug en de bee-martin 'tain't hard ter tell w'ich gwineter git kotch." (Hint: it ain't the bird that gets caught!)

As for Uncle Remus today, try out this Frank Zappa lyric; it points to the many of the hard truths about race relations in America today, using the character of Uncle Remus as a way to comment on the struggles of the civil rights movement in the 20th century. You might also want to read about the controversy surrounding the Disney film Song of the South, a mixed live-action and animation feature film based (loosely) on the works of Joel Chandler Harris. This film has been withdrawn by Disney from circulation in the United States and in Europe, although it still circulates in Asia and is the subject of a huge auction business on EBay.

The main objection that has been raised about the film is that it turns the Southern plantation into a timeless paradise, where black folks could imagine nothing finer than fetching and carrying for the wealthy white folks. In fact, it is very hard to tell whether the story is set before or after the Civil War. Disney invented an elaborate frametale for the film about the trials and tribulations suffered by a little white boy (the cast of the film is mostly white), while the Brer Rabbit stories are animation sequences inserted into the film.

In a sense, Disney's version is just the opposite of what Julius Lester tried to do. Lester, in his 20th century version of the stories, got rid of the Uncle Remus character and minimized the use of dialect. Disney went the other direction, exaggerating the Uncle Remus frametale almost beyond recognition (while also adding a whole cast of white characters), and exploiting the use of dialect for comic effect. For anyone who doubts that there is at least some deeply rooted element of racism connected with this film and its popularity, you will want to check out the "defense" of the film at a website which calls itself bannedfilms.com - although the main goal of bannedfilms.com does not seem to be protest the fact that Disney has withdrawn the film from circulation, but rather to make as much money as possible from the commercial vacuum that Disney has created for them as a result.

Luckily for us, the works of Joel Chandler Harris are safely in the public domain, and Disney cannot withdraw the Brer Rabbit stories from circulation, no matter what they decide to do with the film Song of the South...!

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM