The Uncle Remus Tales

Click here to read information on Joel Chandler Harris - the 'compiler' of The Uncle Remus Tales.

Click here to read a modern translation of an Uncle Remus Tale


 

 


The legend of Uncle Remus is referred to in letter sixty-four as Tashi recites one of them. Not only does this again throw open the issue of slavery but also colonialism – that is stealing from one country its beliefs and material items in order to supply your own country with them. Nettie, in letter fifty seven wonders at how many "thousands of vases, jars, masks" and "statues" the British have taken from Africa, a place that "once had a better civilization" than the European countries, but now experiences poverty and famine.

The same too, can be said for the Uncle Remus Tales, written by Joel Chandler Harris [pictured], who after hearing them recited by African slaves on an American plantation, rewrote them – though he always said that he was merely "the compiler" – and as a result made thousands of dollars.

Joel Chandler Harris and The Uncle Remus Tales
The Uncle Remus Tales written by Joel Chandler Harris became a national phenomenon in the 1870s through Harris’ satirical newspaper column in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The tales however had a very interesting contextual past. Harris originally heard the stories recited by slaves as a young boy working on a nearby plantation and then converted them into written narratives, firstly in the local newspaper, and then as the stories became known throughout the world, Harris would go onto write books. By the time Harris had died in 1908 he had written ten volumes of his work on Uncle Remus, and his stories had been translated into twenty-seven different languages.

Uncle Remus, the central character in Harris’ slave fiction, was an old slave, who told his moral fables to the son of a Union officer whom he had shot before coming to work on the plantation as punishment for what he had done. Although Remus told the stories in Harris’ fiction, he was never the protagonist. Harris’ stories usually revolved around animals such as Brer Fox, Brer Rabbit and Brer Wolf. Like many children’s tales of that era, there was a central moral to each tale – a lesson to be learnt. Although the characters did not always put these into practice, still Uncle Remus at the end of each tale would remind the reader of the difference between right and wrong.

Despite being a national and international success the Remus tales did not go without criticism. When addressing the reader at the beginning or end of a story, it was obvious that Uncle Remus and indirectly Joel Chandler Harris expressed a desire for the slave trade to be brought back. Indeed, the slave trade was a major talking point at the time when the Uncle Remus Tales were published because here was Harris airing his ‘dirty linen’ only three years after the regime had been abolished. Uncle Remus was in favour of the plantation life, but for every ex-plantation owner that read Harris’ stories and believed that "indeed, the slave trade is not so bad after all" another person would be ready to criticise.

Despite mixed opinion, Harris continued projecting his opinions through the ‘mouth piece’ of Uncle Remus until his death, creating over one hundred and eighty distinctive stories. Harris himself was a reserved man, despite being an expert in satirical writing. In the 1940s, his tales were taken and adapted by Walt Disney, who visited his home, one of the oldest museums in the United States of America, to pay homage to Joel Chandler Harris, the man who created and by many, was thought of as being Uncle Remus himself.

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An Uncle Remus Tale
To increase your understanding of the Uncle Remus Tales [pictured], below I have reproduced a translation of Joel Chandler Harris’ most famous story, Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby. My original intention was to include the original story, written in Gullah - that is, the traditional African-American dialect – but in fearing that people might fail to understand below is an adapted version of the famous tale. In this instalment, Brer Fox, annoyed by Brer Rabbit, tricks him by creating a model baby made out of tar. It would seem however that as the story reaches its climax the tables are turned and by the end of the story we see that Brer Rabbit is not just a bossy and nosy character but also a skilled trickster.

Notice also while you read the story any devices in this story that also seem evident in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.

A translation of Brer Rabbit and the Tar-Baby compiled by Joel Chandler Harris

   One day Brer Fox thought of how Brer Rabbit had been cutting up his capers and bouncing around until he'd come to believe that he was the boss of the whole gang. Brer Fox thought of a way to lay some bait for that uppity Brer Rabbit.
   He went to work and got some tar and mixed it with some turpentine. He fixed up a contraption that he called a Tar-Baby. When he finished making her, he put a straw hat on her head and sat the little thing in the middle of the road. Brer Fox, he lay off in the bushes to see what would happen.
   Well, he didn't have to wait long either, 'cause by and by Brer Rabbit came pacing down the road - lippity-clippity, clippity-lippity - just as sassy as a jay-bird. Brer Fox, he lay low. Brer Rabbit came prancing along until he saw the Tar-Baby and then he sat back on his hind legs like he was astonished. The Tar-Baby just sat there, she did, and Brer Fox, he lay low.
   "Good morning!" says Brer Rabbit. "Nice weather we're having this morning."
   Tar-Baby didn't say a word, and Brer Fox, he lay low.
   "How are you feeling this morning?" says Brer Rabbit.
   Brer Fox, he winked his eye real slow and lay low and the Tar-Baby didn't say a thing.
   "What is the matter with you then? Are you deaf?" says Brer Rabbit. "Cause if you are, I can holler louder," says he.
   The Tar-Baby stayed still and Brer Fox, he lay low.
   "You're stuck-up, that's what's wrong with you. You think you're too good to talk to me," says Brer Rabbit. "And I'm going to cure you, that's what I'm going to do."
   Brer Fox started to chuckle in his stomach, he did, but Tar-Baby didn't say a word.
   "I'm going to teach you how to talk to respectable folks if it's my last act," says Brer Rabbit. "If you don't take off that hat and say howdy, I'm going to bust you wide open," says he.
   Tar-Baby stayed still and Brer Fox, he lay low.
   Brer Rabbit kept on asking her why she wouldn't talk and the Tar-Baby kept on saying nothing until Brer Rabbit finally drew back his fist, he did, and blip - he hit the Tar-Baby on the jaw. But his fist stuck and he couldn't pull it loose. The tar held him. But Tar-Baby, she stayed still, and Brer Fox, he lay low.
   "If you don't let me loose, I'm going to hit you again," says Brer Rabbit, says he, and with that he drew back his other fist and blap - he hit the Tar-Baby with the other hand and that one stuck fast too.
   Tar-Baby she stayed still, and Brer Fox, he lay low.
   "Turn me loose, before I kick the natural stuffing out of you," says Brer Rabbit, says he, but the Tar-Baby just sat there.
   She just held on and then Brer Rabbit jumped her with both his feet. Brer Fox, he lay low. Then Brer Rabbit yelled out that if that Tar-Baby didn't turn him loose, he was going to butt her crank-sided. Then he butted her and his head got stuck.
   Brer Fox walked out from behind the bushes and strolled over to Brer Rabbit, looking as innocent as a mockingbird.
   "Howdy, Brer Rabbit," says Brer Fox. "You look sort of stuck up this morning," says he. And he rolled on the ground and laughed and laughed until he couldn't laugh anymore.
   By and by he said, "Well, I expect I got you this time, Brer Rabbit," says he. "Maybe I don't, but I expect I do. You've been around here sassing after me a mighty long time, but now it's the end.
   And then you're always getting into something that's none of your business," says Brer Fox, says he. "Who asked you to come and strike up a conversation with this Tar-Baby?   And who stuck you up the way you are? Nobody in this round world. You just jammed yourself into the Tar-Baby without waiting for an invitation," says Brer Fox. "There you are and there you'll stay until I fix up a brush-pile and fire it up, ‘cause I'm going to barbecue you today, for sure," says Brer Fox.
   Then Brer Rabbit started talking mighty humble.
   "I don't care what you do with me, Brer Fox, says he, "Just so you don't fling me in that briar patch. Roast me, Brer Fox," says he, "But don't fling me in that briar patch."
   "It's so much trouble to kindle a fire," says Brer Fox, says he, "that I expect I'd better hang you," says he.
   "Hang me just as high as you please, Brer Fox, says Brer Rabbit, "but for the Lord's sake, don't fling me in that briar patch," says he.
   "I don't have any string, " says Brer Fox, "Now I expect I had better drown you, " says he.
   "Drown me just as deep as you please, Brer Fox," says Brer Rabbit, "But please do not fling me in that briar patch, " says he.
   "There's no water near here," says Brer Fox, says he, "And now I reckon I'd better skin you."
   "Skin me Brer Fox," says he. "Snatch out my eyeballs, tear out my ears by the roots," says he, "But please, Brer Fox, don't fling me in that briar patch, " says he.
   Of course, Brer Fox wanted to get Brer Rabbit as bad as he could, so he caught him by the behind legs and slung him right in the middle of the briar patch. There was a considerable flutter when Brer Rabbit struck the bushes, and Brer Fox hung around to see what was going to happen.
   By and by he heard someone call his name and ‘way up on the hill he saw Brer Rabbit sitting cross-legged on a chinquapin log combing the tar pitch out of his hair with a chip. Then Brer Fox knew he had been tricked.
   Brer Rabbit hollered out, "Born and bred in the briar patch. I was born and bred in the briar patch!" And with that he skipped out just as lively as a cricket in the embers of a fire.

The End.

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For me, the last metaphor of Brer Rabbit being "just as lively as a cricket in the embers of a fire" reminds me of Mary Agnes in letter seventy-four, whose "embers" are said to be "dying back on the stove." Additionally, the way in which Brer Rabbit tricks Brer Fox, by pleading with him not to do what he in fact wishes him to do, resembles the way in which Sofia is rescued from prison by Mary Agnes:
   "Say she happy in prison, strong girl like her. Her main worry is just the thought of ever being some white woman maid."

Introduction to The Uncle Remus Tales written by Matthew Kane [2001].  
Brer Rabbit & the Tar-Baby written by Joel Chandler Harris.

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