Sunday, October 2, 2011
Uncle Remus in Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation, 1881
Uncle Remus is a fictional character, the title character and fictional narrator of a collection of African American folktales adapted and compiled by Joel Chandler Harris, published in book form in 1881. A journalist in post-Reconstruction Atlanta, Georgia, Harris produced seven Uncle Remus books.
"Old Plantation Play Song", from Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation, 1881
Uncle Remus is a collection of animal stories, songs, and oral folklore, collected from Southern United States blacks. Many of the stories are didactic, much like those of Aesop's fables and the stories of Jean de La Fontaine. Uncle Remus is a kindly old slave who serves as a storytelling device, passing on the folktales to children gathered around him.
The stories are told in Harris's version of a Deep South slave dialect (Gullah language). The genre of stories is the trickster tale. At the time of Harris' publication, his work was praised for its ability to capture plantation negro dialect.
Br'er Rabbit ("Brother Rabbit") is the main character of the stories, a likable character, prone to tricks and trouble-making who is often opposed by Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear. In one tale, Br'er Fox constructs a lump of tar and puts clothing on it. When Br'er Rabbit comes along he addresses the "tar baby" amiably, but receives no response. Br'er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as Tar Baby's lack of manners, punches it, and becomes stuck. Using the phrase "tar baby" to refer to the idea of "a problem that gets worse the more one struggles against it" became part of the wider culture of the United States in the mid-20th century.
Controversy and Legacy
The animal stories were conveyed in a manner in which they were not deemed as ostensibly racist by many among the audiences of the time. By the mid-20th century, however, the dialect and the "old Uncle" stereotype of the narrator, was considered politically incorrect and demeaning by many black people, on account of what they considered to be racist and patronizing attitudes toward blacks. Providing additional controversy is the story's context in the Antebellum south on a slave owning plantation, a setting that is portrayed in a passive and even docile manner, contrary to modern attitudes that slavery was a terrible travesty in United States history and should be portrayed as such. Nevertheless, Harris' work was, according to himself, an accurate account of the stories he heard from the slaves when he worked on a plantation as a young man. He claimed to have listened to, and memorized, the African American animal stories told by Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert, and Aunt Crissy at the plantation; he wrote them down some years later. He acknowledged his debt to these storytellers in his fictionalized autobiography, 'On the Plantation' (1892). Many of the stories that he recorded have direct equivalents in the African oral tradition, and it's thanks to Harris that their African-American form is preserved.
Harris himself said, in the introduction to Uncle Remus, that he hoped his book would be considered:
...a sympathetic supplement to Mrs. Stowe's [author of Uncle Tom's Cabin] wonderful defense of slavery as it existed in the South. Mrs. Stowe, let me hasten to say, attacked the possibilities of slavery with all the eloquence of genius; but the same genius painted the portrait of the Southern slave-owner, and defended him.
Mark Twain read the Uncle Remus stories to his children, who were awed to meet Harris himself. In his Autobiography Twain describes him thus:
He was the bashfulest grown person I have ever met. When there were people about he stayed silent, and seemed to suffer until they were gone. But he was lovely, nevertheless; for the sweetness and benignity of the immortal Remus looked out from his eyes, and the graces and sincerities of his character shone in his face.
Twain wrote that "It may be that Jim Wolf was as bashful as Harris. It hardly seems possible...." Jim Wolf being a person from the first humorous story Twain ever told—the story recorded in "Jim Wolf and the Cats".
Film and Music Adaptations
Uncle Remus as portrayed by James Baskett in Song of the South
The stories have inspired at least three feature films. The first and best known is Walt Disney's Song of the South, released in 1946. The film was a combination of live action and animation. Disney hired vaudeville and radio actor James Baskett to portray Remus, claiming that he (Disney) purposely sought someone whose appearance was unknown to audiences: "We want [the audience] to see 'Uncle Remus' and not some actor whose personality is already known to them through other screen roles." Baskett's appearance, a large black man with a round face, contrasts with the appearance of Uncle Remus in earlier illustrations by Frederick S. Church, A. B. Frost, and E. W. Kemble in books by Joel Chandler Harris. Ralph Bakshi's 1975 film Coonskin is a satire of the Disney film that adapts the Uncle Remus stories to a contemporary Harlem setting. The Adventures of Brer Rabbit is a 2006 direct-to video production which has hip-hop influences.
Loudon Wainwright III wrote and recorded the song "Black Uncle Remus" in 1972. Frank Zappa also recorded a song called "Uncle Remus" which appears on the album Apostrophe (') (1974). The Zappa song was also recorded by band mate George Duke on his album "The Aura Will Prevail".
The Uncle Remus tales are also the basis for the 1984 Van Dyke Parks album Jump.
The Boondocks, a comic strip and animated show, adopted the likeness of Uncle Remus in creating the character Uncle Ruckus.
Don Williams refers to "Uncle Remus" putting him to bed in the song Good Ole Boys Like Me.