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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, Georgiamarker, Harris produced seven Uncle Remus books.

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' version of a Deep South slave dialect. The genre of stories is the trickster tale. The term "uncle" was a patronizing, familiar and often racist title reserved by whites for elderly black men in the South, which is considered by some to be pejorative and offensive. 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. Now that Br'er Rabbit is stuck, Fox ponders how to dispose of him. The helpless, but cunning, Br'er Rabbit pleads, "Please don't throw me in the briar patch," prompting Fox to do exactly that. As rabbits are at home in thickets, the resourceful Br'er Rabbit escapes. 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.

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, long considered demeaning by many blacks, as well as Harris' racist and patronizing attitudes toward blacks and his defense of slavery in his foreword, rendered the book indefensible to many. Without much controversy the stories became less popular.

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 & Music adaptations

The stories have inspired at least three feature films. The first and most famous 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 Harlemmarker setting. The Adventures of Brer Rabbit is a 2006 direct-to video production which has hip-hop influences.



Frank Zappa recorded a song called 'Uncle Remus' which appears on the album 'Apostrophe' (1974).

The Uncle Remus Tales are also the basis for the 1984 Van Dyke Parks album 'Jump'.

References

William Ruhlmann, All Music Guide
  1. Life on the Mississippi, c.1883, Samuel L. Clemens, Ch. XLVII "Uncle Remus" and Mr. Cable
  2. Brasch, Walter M. (2000). Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus and the "Cornfield Journalist": The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris. Mercer University Press. P. 275.


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