About three years ago I was asked to write an essay on folklore and what it had meant in my own writing and my own thoughts and my own development, and so I started thinking about that. I started doing research, and I became very depressed. Now I became very depressed because, when you think of folklore in America, you have to think of Uncle Remus and you have to think of Joel Chandler Harris. I went to the library to start work on Joel Chandler Harris partly because he was born in Eatonton, Georgia, which is also my home. I had deliberately not thought about that; it was really too painful to think about. And as I read his letters, collected by the wife of his son, I realized that the subject was too painful for me to write about in an essay. So the essay is still on the shelf, but I did take some notes, and I want to share those notes with you.
Joel Chandler Harris is, of course, billed as the creator of Uncle Remus. Uncle Remus told the stories of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox, all the classic folk tales that came from Africa and which, even now in Africa, are still being told. We too, my brothers and sisters and I, listened to those stories. But after we saw “Song of the South,” we no longer listened to them. They were killed for us. In fact, I do not remember any of my relatives ever telling any of those tales after they saw what had been done with them.
When Joel Chandler Harris was a young boy in the 1850s and 1860s, he went out to work as an apprentice for a newspaperman on the Turnwold Plantation. We knew this place when I was growing up as the Turner place. It now has a historical marker and often, driving past it, I stop and look at the house — a nice, big, white Southern house — and the marker that says all of the things about how Joel Chandler Harris created Uncle Remus.
In Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris, published in 1918 by Houghton Mifflin, Harris’ daughter-in-law, Julia Collier Harris, told his story. She wrote: “When the work and play of the day were ended and the glow of the lightwood knot could be seen in the negro cabins, Joel and the Turner children would steal away from the house and visit their friends in the slave quarters. Old Harbert and Uncle George Terrell were Joel’s favorite companions, and from a nook in their chimney corners he listened to the legends handed down from their African ancestors — the lore of animals and birds so dear to every plantation negro. And sometimes, while the yellow yam baked in the ashes, or the hoecake browned in the shovel, the negroes would croon a camp-meeting hymn or a corn-shucking melody. The boy unconsciously absorbed their fables and their ballads, and the soft elisions of their dialect and the picturesque images of their speech left an indelible imprint upon the plastic tablets of his memory.
“Here, too, he heard stories of runaway slaves and ‘patterollers.’ But Joel noticed that the patrol never visited the Turner Plantation and when, during the war, vague rumors of a negro uprising began to circulate, Mr. Turner only laughed, for he claimed that ‘the people who treat their negroes right have nothing to fear from them.’
“Thus passed the months and years at Turnwold and it was during these colorful days that the creator of ‘Uncle Remus,’ of ‘Mingo,’ and ‘Free Joe’ received those vivid and varying impressions of the old regime and of the customs of its mansions and its cabins, — pictures of a period that passed away long before he became known as the creator of types rich in humor and poetry, and redolent of the soil to which they were bound by a thousand ties of love and sorrow, of bounty and privation.”
She goes on to say, “The great popular success of the legends was a matter of strange surprise to their author.” (This was around 1887, after Harris had published these books, these tales, of Uncle Remus.) “He said, ‘It was just an accident. All I did was write out and put into print the stories I had heard all my life.’ When asked by an interviewer if any particular negroes suggested the ‘quaint and philosophic character’ whom he had built up into one of the monuments of modern literature, he replied, ‘He was not an invention of my own, but a human syndicate, I might say, of three or four old darkies whom I knew. I just walloped them together into one person and called him ‘Uncle Remus.’”
The daughter-in-law also writes: “Before leaving the subject of the first volume of Uncle Remus stories, I cannot refrain from quoting a paragraph of the introduction in which Father touches on the prowess of the hero Br’er Rabbit, proceeding to link up his salient characteristics with the psychology of the negro. It is in reference to the almost invariable conquest of the fox by the rabbit that the author says, ‘It needs no scientific investigation to show why he, the negro, selects as his hero the weakest and most harmless of all animals and brings him out victorious in contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox. It is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness. It is not malice but mischievousness. Indeed, the parallel between the case of all animals who must, perforce, triumph through his shrewdness and the humble condition of the slave raconteur is not without its pathos and poetry.’ Finally, the reader not familiar with plantation life is counseled to ‘imagine that the myth stories of Uncle Remus are told night after night to a little boy by an old negro who appears to be venerable enough to have lived during the period which he describes — who has nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery.’”
Then she goes on to say — this wife of the son of Joel Chandler Harris — “I have been asked many times if my husband, the eldest son of the family, was the little boy of the stories. He was not. And strangely enough, Father never told these stories to his own or any other children.”
But the stories were wildly successful. They were in every household, practically, across America. And Mark Twain, in Life on the Mississippi, tells of an encounter between Harris and a group of children: “He deeply disappointed a number of children who had flocked eagerly to get a glimpse of the illustrious sage and oracle of the nation’s nurseries. They said, when they saw this man, ‘Why, he’s white!’ They were grieved about it. So, to console them, the book was brought that they might hear Uncle Remus’ Tar-baby story from the lips of Uncle Remus himself, or what, in their outraged eyes, was left of him. But it turned out that he had never read aloud to people and was too shy to venture the attempt now.”
I think I know why he did not read or tell these stories to his own children. I think I know why he never said them aloud to an audience. I think he understood what he was taking when he took those stories and when he created a creature to tell those stories. There are very few people who were slaves who have “nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of that institution.”
Both of my parents were excellent storytellers, and wherever we lived, no matter how poor the house, we had fireplaces and a front porch. It was around the fireplaces and on the porch that I first heard, from my parents’ lips — my mother filling in my father’s pauses and he filling in hers — the stories that I later learned were Uncle Remus stories.
The most famous Br’er Rabbit tale is also the most enigmatic, the story of the tar baby. In order to catch Br’er Rabbit, whom he wishes to eat, Br’er Fox makes a sort of doll out of tar. (In Africa, the doll is made out of rubber, hot rubber.) Br’er Rabbit sees this tar baby beside the road and tries to get it to speak to him. And it can’t, of course. In his frustration, he hits it with his hands and feet and is soon stuck fast.
Br’er Fox comes out of hiding and says, “I’ve got you now.”
Br’er Rabbit says, “Yeah, that’s true.” But you know Br’er Rabbit is thinking all the time. When Br’er Fox says perhaps he’ll cook him for dinner in a big pot, Br’er Rabbit breathes a sigh of relief. “That’s fine,” says he. “For a minute I thought you were gonna throw me in the briar patch.”
Br’er Fox, of course, had not thought of this. “Maybe I’ll roast you on a spit,” he says, thinking of dinner, but wanting it to be a dinner only he can enjoy.
“Hey, that’s cool,” says Br’er Rabbit. “That’s a lot better than being thrown in the briar patch.” “What is this briar patch business anyway?” Br’er Fox is thinking. “Maybe I’ll make rabbit dumplings,” he says, licking his chops.
“Dumplings? Delightful,” says Br’er Rabbit. “Just please, please, whatever you do, don’t throw me in the briar patch.”
Now we begin to suspect that Br’er Fox’s hatred of Br’er Rabbit is greater than his hunger. It is more important to him that Br’er Rabbit suffer than that he himself be satisfied. Of course, he runs and finds the nearest briar patch and flings Br’er Rabbit into it. Once unstuck from the tar baby and on the ground, Br’er Rabbit laughs at Br’er Fox and says, “I was born and raised in the briar patch, born and raised in the briar patch.” And of course he gets away.
No matter how many times I heard this story as a child, I always expected Br’er Fox to be able to use his considerable intelligence to help himself, rather than expend all his energy trying to harm Br’er Rabbit. But my parents’ point, and that of the story, was: this is the nature of Br’er Fox, and a smart rabbit will never forget it.
Needless to say, my parents had never read these stories anywhere. They had come down to them orally and were passed on to their children orally. Since none of us ever read Joel Chandler Harris, we experienced his interpretation and the stories of our own folk culture in other ways.
In Eatonton, Georgia, to this day, there is a large iron rabbit on the courthouse lawn in honor of Joel Chandler Harris, creator of Uncle Remus. There is now and has been for several years an Uncle Remus museum. There was also, until a few years ago, an Uncle Remus restaurant. There used to be a dummy of a black man, an elderly, kindly, cottony-haired darkie, seated in a rocking chair in the restaurant window. In fantasy, I frequently liberated him using army tanks and guns. Blacks, of course, were not allowed in this restaurant.
The second interpretation of our folklore that we experienced was the movie “Song of the South,” an animated story of Uncle Remus and the little white children to whom he told his tales. Our whole town turned out for this movie: black children and their parents in the colored section, white children and their parents in the white section. Uncle Remus in the movie saw fit to ignore, basically, his own children and grandchildren in order to pass on our heritage — indeed, our birthright — to patronizing white children who seemed to regard him as a kind of talking teddy bear.
I don’t know how old I was when I saw this film — probably eight or nine — but I experienced it as a vast alienation, not only from the likes of Uncle Remus — in whom I saw aspects of my father, my mother, in fact all black people I knew who told these stories — but also from the stories themselves, which, passed into the context of white people’s creation, I perceived as meaningless. So there I was, at an early age, separated from my own folk culture by an invention.
I believe that the worst part of being in an oppressed culture is that the oppressive culture — primarily because it controls the production and dispersal of images in the media — can so easily make us feel ashamed of ourselves, of our sayings, our doings and our ways. And it doesn’t matter whether these sayings, doings or ways are good or bad. What is bad about them and, therefore, worthy of shame, is that they belong to us.
Even our folklore has been ridiculed and tampered with. And this is very serious, because folklore is at the heart of self-expression and therefore at the heart of self-acceptance. It is full of the possibilities of misinterpretation, full of subtleties and danger. And in accepting one’s own folklore, one risks learning almost too much about one’s self. For instance, if you read these tales, you will see throughout them various things about us that we have to accept because they are true reflections, but they’re painful. My view is that we needn’t pull away from them because of the pain. We need simply to try to change our own feelings and our own behavior so that we don’t have to burden future generations with these same afflictions. There’s a lot of self-criticism in the folklore, for instance, and things that are really, sometimes, unsettling.
Joel Chandler Harris and I were raised in the same town, although nearly 100 years apart. As far as I’m concerned, he stole a good part of my heritage. How did he steal it? By making me feel ashamed of it. In creating Uncle Remus, he placed an effective barrier between me and the stories that meant so much to me, the stories that could have meant so much to all of our children, the stories that they would have heard from us and not from Walt Disney.