by Jack McKeon
I recently purchased, reluctantly, The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus by Joel Chandler Harris, reluctantly because of my belief about its racist condescension towards the character of Remus, its flaunting of illiteracy in the dialect and the exploitation of an oppressed culture’s tales for the oppressor’s purpose. But I love the Brer Rabbit tales and there seems to be no other source for them. The Julius Lester versions I’ve read, updated with contemporary insertions, just didn’t do it for me. I haven’t been able to find any versions “translated” from the dialect and without the presence of the slave context except the old compilation Disney made to go along with the release of “Song of the South” in 1946. I owned that book, and my mother used to read me the stories. Now I wanted all these tales and figured I could modernize them myself easily enough. I’d have to bite the bullet and suffer through the racism, made more difficult after I read Harris’s appalling description of Remus as having “nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery.” Zip-a-dee-doo-dah and blue birds! Remus was the happy slave companion of our other relatives, Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima grinning with pleasure from the master’s kitchen, and that other uncle, Tom, whose goodness as a slave has made him a pejorative. Even so, I started reading the first of the books, “Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings.”
Now I have to confess. I like and admire Uncle Remus. I wish I had known him. I wish I had been the 7 year old boy fortunate enough to have had his company. And part of my admiration for the man comes from his reaction to ”the discipline of slavery.” To do this, though, means taking the man from his context. I don’t know if it’s morally or historically correct, or even possible, to do this without seeming to defend the “silver lining” version of slavery, but if we can look at Remus as just a man living in adversity, in a dehumanizing situation beyond his control, he becomes a person who has centered himself and has found peace in his own sense of dignity and self-worth. He has taken himself out of the context and it no longer defines him, however Harris may have perceived him. He demands from the little boy that he be treated with respect and takes him to task when he feels liberties have been taken (Whether he would do this with “Miss Polly”, however, is another thing). He dresses down the boy for his behavior, even when Remus himself is not involved, and once reduces him to tears almost cruelly, but the boy loves him and respects him, and relaxes into the peacefulness of the cabin, as does the reader. We are almost always in this cabin watching Remus perform the skills of the poor: mending his jacket, making a new sole for a shoe, making an ax handle, roasting a sweet potato in the fireplace, sharpening his knife on the palm of his hand. (How this reveals that slavery, even for Remus, wasn’t always peace in the cabin!) There’s a calm in him. He’s the still center around which whirl the action and mayhem of the tales, accounts of the harshness and turbulence of life. He answers the boy’s questions about the stories honestly, with cynical observations on the fallen nature of man and beast. You wonder how the young boy digests this wisdom, but Remus pulls no punches.
I also confess to thoroughly enjoying the dialect. It’s rollicking, colorful, evocative and funny. It’s both readable and delightful. Harris spent a lot of time trying to get it accurate, and for Mark Twain, no one else had done it better. It does not, as I expected, come across as mocking or condescending but as a folklorist’s effort to capture the feeling, the culture and the true voice of the storyteller. I recently told “Brer Rabbit’s Riddle” at the Detention Center. The version I first went to was in an anthology, told in modern English. Updating the language, though, made a crucial part of it incomprehensible. I went to Harris’s version, and though I had to look up a couple of words, it made much better sense and sounded right. I combined the new and the old when I told it, and, though it needed some explanatory material at the outset, it worked. It would be impossible for me, certainly, to tell the stories as written, even if I wanted to, but reading them in the original puts in a place and an outlook that modern English can’t convey. Modern versions can give us the story. Harris’s versions give us the people. Maybe it’s difficult to ignore that he is a white man trying to portray the speech of an oppressed people, purposefully denied the education given to their oppressors, but he’s walking the same road as Zora Neal Hurston, with the same purpose.
Harris (1848-1908) did not grow up on a plantation, but as a teenager he worked for a newspaper on one and spent much of his time in the slave quarters listening to stories. The tellers became the models for his creation. While he never quite lost his patronizing idea that blacks depended on white assistance, he went on to spend much of his career as a journalist advocating for the emancipated African-American. He promoted reconciliation between the races, education, suffrage, and equality for African -Americans. He condemned racism in Southern culture and condemned lynching. His collection of tales was not a product of a racist mentality, but the work of a serious folklorist trying to preserve the best versions of tales he loved in the voice in which they were told. It was a labor of love and affection.
If you read Harris’s introduction to the tales, you need to contend with his benign version of the slave-holding South. His forays into the quarters as a youth evidently presented him with this vision - Disney’s vision- and he did not know about, or chose to ignore, the horrors of the institution. “The realities (of slavery),” he once wrote concerning Uncle Tom’s Cabin, “under the best and happiest conditions, possess a romantic beauty and tenderness all their own.” In spite of our understanding that romantic beauty might have been in short supply during this period, this is clearly the spirit in which he wrote his Remus books. There are certainly cringeworthy elements in the books. There’s a liberal sprinkling of the n-word, not with any negative intent but dropped casually as a part of the language, as it is in Twain and Hurston (or in August Wilson’s Fences today). Still the word jars, mainly because of the slave context. Also, Remus, whatever else he may be, exemplifies Harris’s ideal of the dedicated, loyal servant of the family, staying with them through generations, during and after the Civil War.
You want to see some anger, some sense of injustice and desire for retribution. You won’t find it in Remus, but it’s there in the stories he tells which are filled with conflict, mischief and sometimes sadistic violence. The physically weak use their wits to overcome and punish those who would prey on them. They are funny but not gentle. Remus doesn’t make the point obvious, but it is clear why these stories were so popular in the quarters. One would like to think that Harris realized this.
But maybe he didn’t. Anyway, I’ll read on, even though the first paragraph of the next book, “Nights with Uncle Remus”, introduces a woman as “the owner of Uncle Remus.” Just a simple statement of fact, as if nothing could be more reasonable. Still, on I go, keeping Beloved clearly in mind, so I can hear a very human, wise old man tell a little boy some wonderful stories.