If there has ever been a collection of folk tales that has ever been as much of a cultural minefield, I don’t know it.
The Uncle Remus books are a series of books written and published by journalist and writer Joel Chandler Harris in the years following the American Civil War. They all focus on an old black man named Uncle Remus who works as a handyman/odd jobs man on a southern plantation as he tells African-American folk tales to an unnamed little white boy. They’re also all written in a dialect that’s presumably accurate to southern African-Americans of the time period (I have some issues with writing in dialect, but I’ll get to those later).
Before getting into the book, I should make some notes about Harris himself. Mainly that he seems like a bit of an odd duck. Joel Chandler Harris was the son of an Irish immigrant woman and never knew his father. He seemed to suffer from an intense, debilitating shyness as well as a sort of impostor syndrome when it came to his literary success (he preferred to be acknowledged as a journalist than as a book writer and typically referred to the person who wrote his books as “the other fellow”). His road to literary fame started when he went to work for the only newspaper in the south that was actually published on a plantation and managed to make friends with a runaway slave. Eventually, he had managed to gain the confidence of the slaves on the plantation and had managed to sit with them as they sang songs and told stories. You see, for whatever reason, all records suggest that he lost his famous shyness around black people (go figure). There’s certainly a lot to unpack there, but the end result would be that he would adapt the stories and songs he heard by giving them to a character he created for an Atlanta newspaper named Uncle Remus. Harris himself freely admits in his writings to simply being a collector of tales, never taking credit for the stories himself. He was also a rather vocal advocate for both racial and regional reconciliation during the Reconstruction years. And yet, despite all Harris’s good points, there’s just something not quite right about this collection and how it came to be.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am glad the collection exists. At least in the sense that I like the stories that were collected. I greatly enjoyed reading the misadventures of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Terrapin as well as alternate takes on how the famous Biblical deluge happened and plantation superstitions about witchcraft. The book I read is far more of a complete book of folklore than the framing structure would have you believe. There are even collections of songs and proverbs. The stories, especially the Brer Rabbit stories, all emphasize the triumph of the quick and the cunning over the powerful. It’s easy to see why these stories would resonate so well with an oppressed, enslaved people.
No, the real problem is Uncle Remus himself and the milieu he’s placed in.
It’s more obvious from the Uncle Remus stories from the Atlanta Constitution that were published as back matter in my copy of the book. The picture Harris paints is something straight out of an old plantation romance. The plantation is the genteel home of the old southern gentry. The black folks who work there are kind and loyal. Even to the extent that a singular old black man would befriend a certain little white boy and tell him stories about that tricky ol’ Brer Rabbit. There’s just one rather significant problem with this and we’re going to say it loud for the people who might not get it:
HISTORY DIDN’T HAPPEN THAT WAY!
Yeah. It’s an alluring illusion. So alluring that I even found myself thinking “Gee, this isn’t so bad” as I read only to stop and remind myself that it really kind of is. The truth is that plantations weren’t some kind of southern Camelot. They were farms that often made money off some kind of grueling monoculture. Essentially the 19th Century equivalent of a “factory farm”. And the slaves and sharecroppers who worked on them weren’t some kind of loyal family retainers, they were forced labor or tenant farmers who could just barely make ends meet. And if it ever was any different than that, it was likely only .001% of the time.
Humans are a myth-making species. And while some of those myths contain truths, some of them just contain what we wish was true. When we can no longer support those illusions anymore, we have to move past them. Possibly the best example might be the Western. As a genre, there was a time when the Western ruled the cinemas. But the popularity of the genre was severely affected once people started to realize that the Old West wasn’t really all that much like the myths we had built around it. The same can be said about the myth of the southern plantation, but that myth has been shelved for so long that it’s easy to forget why we had such a problem with it. As for Harris’s part in the myth, while he may have enjoyed the company of black folks and some suggest that he may have been cagier and more subversive in his writings than most think, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest he wasn’t just kind of clueless.
There are a couple other things to touch on. The book does use a few racial slurs that were common at the time. Also, I should comment on the practice of writing in dialect. The problem with writing in dialect is that you’ve pretty much decided who your audience is and what accent they have. People don’t hear their accents the way others do. To borrow an example from the X-Men comics of my youth. Southerners who use the word “sugar” as a term of endearment don’t hear it as “sugah”. There’s also always the chance you’ll still lose people, no matter what dialect they speak. It took me a while into reading this book to realize “bimeby” was supposed to be a form of “by-and-by”.
Over all, as a collection of tales, songs and proverbs Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings isn’t terrible but the framing of it is just such a product of the views and prejudices of the time. About two centuries removed from those times, there have got to be better choices for collections of African-American folklore.
Like maybe this one:
Or this one:
Or hey, this one just came out!
Really, there are options out there. And you’ll probably find ol’ Brer Rabbit in there along the way even if he didn’t bring Uncle Remus with him.