Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings
Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings
THE LITERARY WORK
A collection of antebellum folklore from Georgia; published in 1880.
Uncle Remus, an aged ex-slave, recounts the tales, songs, and proverbs of plantation blacks to a young white boy. Also included in the collection are character sketches about a second Uncle Remus, who lives in Atlanta.
Joel Chandler Harris was born on December 9, 1848, in Putnam County, Georgia. As a young white man, he became apprenticed to a printer on the Turn wold plantation. He felt comfortable among the plantation slaves and spent much of his spare time in the slave quarters. Harris believed that it was ethnologically important to record their verbal art and speech patterns. With the publication of Unde Remus, he established himself as one of the earliest collectors of plantation dialect and folklore.
The collecting of folklore
The active collecting of folklore and development of compilations such as Unde Remus became common in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There was a feeling that folklore from previous times was in danger of dying out, just as earlier ways of life, like the plantation system, had ended. To prevent the folk stories and songs from disappearing, scholars and hobbyists placed an emphasis on collecting them in written form. They believed the tales had historical value and wanted to preserve them for the future. Harris himself, in addition to feeling some nostalgia for the past, strongly believed that it was ethnologically important to preserve the folklore of former slaves, and so set about his collecting.
Unde Remus is primarily a collection of tales, songs, and proverbs that Joel Chandler Harris recorded from the oral tradition of former slaves. Since many slaves could not read or write, oral folklore played an essential role in the creative expression of their daily lives. Tale-telling, for example, formed an integral part of the slave’s life, and Unde Remus became the first major publication to record slave tales. Although the collection primarily records the tricksterlike stories about Brer Rabbit, slaves also narrated tall tales, legends, humorous anecdotes, outrageous yarns, animal stories, other kinds of trickster tales, origin narratives, and many others.
Scholars have debated and puzzled over what these stories actually meant to the slaves. Most academics agree that the stories were told for entertainment, but some have also hypothesized that the stories provided a metaphor for the master/slave relationship, or even that the stories contained didactic elements that taught the slaves important lessons. Most likely, however, the tale-tellings contained multiple layers of meaning, depending on the intent of the teller, the situation, and the teller’s audience. Harris himself remained ambivalent about assigning universal meaning to the stories and, in the end, admitted his own ignorance of any subtle purposes.
The various songs recorded in Unde Remus demonstrate the important place of music in nearly all aspects of a slave’s life. Though some slaveowners forbade singing, music filled the daily routine of most slaves and some were even forced to sing whether they wanted to or not. Many songs reflected the slaves’ oppression, mood, and daily experiences. Work songs, for example, related to specific plantation duties, and partially served to pass time and ease labor by dictating a particular work pace. Many songs were satirical or contained double meanings that poked fun at an unknowing slaveowner. Sometimes slaves sang one version of a song in the master’s presence and another more subversive version while he was away. Songs also served as a way to convey secret warnings or messages to other slaves, to preserve history, and to achieve a variety of other purposes. Black spirituals, or religious folk songs, drew upon several sources, including traditional hymns, psalms, and biblical images. Generally improvisational, these songs were communally re-created at each performance and were characterized by complex rhythms, body movements, and repeat phras-ings. Like the secular songs, spirituals often contained hidden meanings. Slaves who sang for heavenly freedom and deliverance, for example, also sought earthly liberation from the condition of slavery in their daily lives.
Many peoples of Africa are given to speaking indirectly or using proverbs as comparisons in everyday life. It is not surprising, then, that proverbial usage was fairly common among slaves and that many of the proverbs in Harris’s collection comment upon the nature of work. Proverbs such as “Looks won’t do ter split rails wid” (Harris, Uncle Remus, p. 157) help to motivate, while “Rails split ‘fo ‘bre’kfus’ ‘ll season de dinner” (Uncle Remus, p. 156) comment on the benefits of an early start to one’s day. Many, such as “Good luck say: ‘Op’n yo’ mouf en shet yo’ eyes,’” “Better de gravy dan no grease ‘tall,” and “Hit’s a mighty deaf nigger dat don’t year de dinner-ho’n” (Uncle Remus, pp. 157, 156, and 158) relate to both food and hunger, important facets of slave life. Still others simply comment on general human nature, such as “Licker talks mighty loud w’en it git loose fum de jug” (Uncle Remus, p. 157).
Minstrel shows and misrepresentations
As a printer’s apprentice on the plantation, Joel Chandler Harris worked for a man named Joseph Addison Turnwold, a planter, lawyer, scholar, and aspiring author who sought to develop a literature of the South, and who encouraged Harris to write. Turnwold’s perspective greatly influenced Harris, who himself had a natural ear for the black dialect of his region and once bragged that “he could think in Negro dialect,’ that if necessary he could speak whole passages of Emerson as a Negro would” (Hemenway, p. 16). After he left Turnwold, Harris felt frustrated by the imprecise renditions of black dialect and plantation lore that he saw in the minstrel shows and in written publications. Minstrel theater, which featured white actors who blackened their faces and then proceeded to sing, dance, and tell jokes to white audiences, had begun in 1843. At first the shows made an effort to portray black people realistically, but by Harris’s time they had dropped any attempt at honest representation. The shows came to feature a lazy, loud-mouthed, flashily dressed, wide-grinning black who used poor grammar. Neither the stereotype nor the dialect was true to life. Published articles also included misrepresentations, unintentional but inaccurate nonetheless. One article in particular motivated Harris to publish his own work. According to his own knowledgeable ear, the word the author expressed as “Buh” should have been “Brer”; Harris decided that he could do a better job of preservation himself. As he notes in the introduction, “The dialect, it will be observed, is... different also from the intolerable misrepresentations of the minstrel stage, but it is at least phonetically genuine” (Unde Remus, p. 39).
The black Southern vernacular of the late nineteenth century varied widely, ranging from minor linguistic variations of standard English to distinctive African American languages such as Gullah. Much of the linguistic misrepresentation that frustrated Harris stemmed from white prejudices and misunderstandings. Often, whites would transcribe a word into “dialect” even if in black English it sounded exactly like the standard one. For example, someone might write “w’en” for “when” or “fokes” for “folks,” a practice of which Harris was also occasionally guilty. Although some scholars in the twentieth century have criticized Harris’s dialect writing as simply a product of racial prejudice, historically Harris’s publications have been considered some of the most successful early attempts at transcribing the black vernacular of Middle Georgia. More recently, linguistic scholars have offered evidence that the vernacular English found in Harris’s
writings was not simply a black dialect, but contained elements shared by both blacks and whites who spoke the southern Piedmont dialect. Whether or not future evidence will confirm this, Harris’s transcriptions are acknowledged as some of the most accurate renditions of the area’s dialect at that time.
Racism in the New South
Joel Chandler Harris also wrote for the Atlanta Constitution, where he served under a man named Henry Grady. Grady was a famous spokesman for the New South, a term for a small group of merchants, industrialists, and planters who advocated rapid change and industrialization as a means of reorienting and rebuilding the South after the Civil War. Grady and many other New Southerners advocated not only reconciliation with the North, but racial reconciliation as well. They supported freedom for blacks and blamed slavery as a cause of Southern “backwardness.” Furthermore, Grady and his followers envisioned blacks as playing an important role in the region’s transformation from an agricultural to an industrial society. Partly in order to win sympathy for their political aims, the New Southerners often romanticized the South’s antebellum past.
Some scholars suggest that Uncle Remus, who embodied a romantic, peaceful, and mythical past, served to promote New South political aims. Harris’s collection eliminated the cruel white plantation owner and replaced the blackfaced minstrel’s grin with a loving persona of a black man who would not be frightening to whites. He furthermore created a romantic framework that reminded whites of a time when relations between the races had been calm, and around which the South could reunite. “Uncle Remus, immensely popular, witnessed that black people would turn the other cheek, would continue to love, despite all the broken promises of American history” (Hemenway, p. 20). Through Uncle Remus, blacks were further portrayed as a people with natural intelligence. The argument that such portrayals helped serve a political end is supported by the fact that Uncle Remus originally appeared as a series of character sketches in the Altanta Constitution, in which he is depicted as a streetwise customer who discusses topical issues for a white readership. Furthermore, Uncle Remus became more politically oriented over the course of the more than thirty years in which Harris wrote stories about him.
Grady, Harris, and others supported full legal rights for blacks, a radical position at that time. But many New Southerners did not support social equality. They still regarded blacks as inferior to whites, and this perspective, coupled with the fact that the Remus character probably served to further the political purposes of Harris and likeminded Southerners, might partially explain both the rural and urban Remus’s subservient nature and his inoffensive—in some cases, even reactionary—political positions.
Despite Grady’s attempts at reconciliation, however, by the end of the 1880s, racial hostilities and open discrimination against blacks were growing in the South. Along with the stereotypes that portrayed blacks as lazy, foolish, and clownlike were ones that depicted them as angry and violent, and all of these images permeated the media. The original cover illustration to Uncle Remus, a comical-looking rendering that Harris certainly did not select, demonstrates this tendency. Laws were passed with the intention of keeping blacks in the position of second-class citizens. In 1883, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court made a series of rulings concerning provisions in the Civil Rights Act of 1875. The legislation had assured blacks of equal rights in public places, but the court found that parts of the act were unconstitutional. Segregation laws became institutionalized especially after 1896, when the Supreme Court’s Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling
held that it was legal to maintain separate but equal accommodations for blacks and whites. The ruling sanctioned the separation of the two races in public facilities such as schools, hotels, restaurants, and libraries. Meanwhile, propaganda suggesting that blacks were thieves, liars, and rapists spread throughout the South, increasing white fear and hostility. Such propaganda proposed that the only way to control blacks was to lynch or burn them, thereby deterring other blacks from committing similar actions. In fact, most of the so-called “crimes” committed by blacks were either totally invented or clearly trivial. The truth, though, proved less important than the rumors. In the 1890s, over 1,400 black men were burned alive or lynched in this atmosphere of hatred and fear. Harris, who advocated humanitarian treatment and education of blacks and who worked as a writer during this unfortunate era, might have been seeking a way to change public perceptions about blacks without directly addressing the issues of equality and hate crimes. Because of this, one scholar has explained, Harris used the figure of Uncle Remus as well as his other writings “to do by indirection what... [he] never could accomplish by direct methods” (Mixon, p. 474).
Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings is an anthology of plantation slave lore written in dialect. Depicted in the anthology are two Uncle Remuses. One lives in rural Georgia in the vicinity of a “big house,” and the other lives in the city of Atlanta. The collection contains thirty-four tales told by the rural Uncle Remus, seventy proverbs, and ten songs. The songs consist of work songs, play songs, religious songs, and a revival hymn. Additionally, the collection contains twenty-one sketches about the Atlanta Uncle Remus and a tale about the rural Uncle Remus during the Civil War.
The majority of the tales are animal stories centering on such characters as Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Wolf, and Brer Terrapin. The animals steal, lie, cheat, and sometimes kill one another. Brer Rabbit is the weakest of all the animals, yet through trickery and cunning he manages to gain the upper hand in most situations. For example, in “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story,” Brer Fox sets out to catch Brer Rabbit by making a tar doll. Brer Rabbit becomes infuriated when he greets the doll and it doesn’t answer; punching the doll, he becomes trapped in the sticky tar. Instead of becoming Brer Fox’s dinner, however, Brer Rabbit pleads with Brer Fox: “Skin me, Brer Fox,... snatch out my eyeballs, t’ar out my years by de roots, en cut off my legs,... but don’t please, Brer Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch” (Uncle Remus, pp. 18-19). Of course, Brer Fox does just that, freeing the clever rabbit.
The proverbs and sketches found in the rest of the book reveal Uncle Remus’s character and personal beliefs. The Atlanta and rural versions of Remus share similar viewpoints; both advocate humility, dignity, integrity, and hard work as socially correct behavior. An example of the proverbs is “Lazy fokes’ stummucks don’t git tired” (Uncle Remus, p. 175). In the sketches, the urban Uncle Remus sometimes chides younger blacks for their sloth or plainly states his opinions on matters of race, religion, and superstition.
Use of story
The Uncle Remus stories are partially tales of cunning and trickery. The weak triumph over the strong because the stronger animals are infinitely gullible. Brer Rabbit is not overwhelmingly smart. It is rather the case that his enemies are overwhelmingly stupid, and Brer Rabbit delights in their ineptitude. Whether or not these stories are direct analogies to slavery, parallels can be drawn between the stories and the slave-master relationship.
The cunning emphasized in the tales was an essential survival technique for many slaves. Their existence depended on the whim of slavemasters; thus slaves became skillful at reading their masters’ emotions. They learned what to say and how to act in order to avoid beatings or to satisfy particular needs of their own. Putting their intentions aside for a moment, many masters demanded that slaves behave in particular ways. Some wanted their slaves to act happy; others wanted the slaves to act humble and subservient. Given such expectations, it is hardly surprising that a number of owners stated that their slaves never revealed their true feelings or character, even those slaves who had lived with the same masters all their lives. Whites noted that their slaves acted one way before them, and another way with other slaves. As one rice plantation owner admitted, “I used to try to learn the ways of these Negroes, but I could never divest myself of the suspicion that they were learning my ways faster than I was learning theirs” (Levine, p. 101). These practices enhanced a slave’s chances for survival.
Evidence of such manipulation is found in the narrative frame that Harris sets up in his collection—specifically in the way Uncle Remus treats his eager listener. The young boy has access to the fine foods of the “big house,” and Uncle Remus uses a number of devices to obtain handouts, including refusing to tell another story until he is placated. He also uses the stories to teach the boy lessons. In “Mr. Fox Is Again Victimized,” for example, Uncle Remus informs the boy, “I ain’t tellin’ no tales ter bad chilluns,” (Uncle Remus, p. 70). His rebuke follows some misbehavior on the boy’s part; the boy has thrown stones at people with a slingshot and sicced the dog on Remus’s pig. Eager to hear the stories, the young boy immediately apologizes for his misbehavior, promises never to do these things again, and placates Remus with some tea cakes. Only after he receives the cakes does Remus continue telling the story. Similarly, in “Mr. Wolf Makes a Failure,” the boy brings Remus a mince pie. Remus says, “Dish yer pie … will gimme strenk fer ter persoo on atter Brer Fox en Brer Rabbit en de udder beastesses w’at dey roped in’long wid um” (Uncle Remus, p. 84). He eats the pie, and then proceeds with the story.
The stories, songs, and proverbs in Uncle Remus stem from Harris’s own memory as well as interviews and conversations with exslaves. Harris spent several of his teenage years in his job as a newspaper apprentice on the Turnwold plantation. He notes that “it was on this and neighboring plantations that I became familiar with the curious myths and animal stories that form the basis of the volumes credited to Uncle Remus” (Harris in Baer, p. 186). After work, Harris and some other boys would visit the slaves’ quarters to hear stories. Uncle Remus is a combination of “Uncle” George Terrell, “Old” Harbert, and “Aunt” Crissy, slaves whom Harris knew. As Harris explains, “Remus was not an invention of my own, but a human syndicate, three or four old darkies I had known. I just walloped them together into one person and called him Uncle Remus” (Harris in Trosky, p. 193).
Harris published the first Uncle Remus animal tale while employed at the Atlanta Constitution in 1879. By then, he already had a widespread reputation as a Southern humorist, and had been writing popular black dialect sketches for quite some time. His natural ear for accurately writing dialect was quickly recognized by the public. Harris developed sketches into vehicles using proverbs, animal tales, and character descriptions to comment upon various topics to white audiences. Uncle Remus first appeared in these sketches.
The source of the tales, proverbs, and songs has been a matter of academic debate since the publication of the book. In his introduction to Uncle Remus, Harris states that he believes the tales stem from Africa. While some academics agree, others insist that India is the source of some tales, such as the widely known and popular Tar Baby tale. Still others suggest that the plantation slaves borrowed themes and motifs from Native Americans or whites, and the debate has never really been resolved. Whatever their origin, most scholars agree that the plantation slaves modified the tales and songs to fit their own lives, producing lore specific to their own experience.
Uncle Remus was an immediate hit with both popular and academic audiences who tended to view it as one of the first “true” portrayals of antebellum life. It sold 7,500 copies in the first month and helped generate tremendous interest in African American culture. The New York Times labeled the publication as the first real book of American folklore, while one of Harris’s Northern correspondents wrote him that the stories “are, to people here, the first graphic pictures of genuine Negro life in the South” (Hemenway, p. 14).
After the publication of Uncle Remus, animal stories such as the Brer Rabbit tales grew increasingly popular, as did the whole field of black American folklore. Black spirituals generated even greater public excitement than the tales among both the public and academics. By the end of the 1880s, African American culture had become an important new area for formal research.
In response to such favorable reaction, Joel Chandler Harris continued to write Uncle Remus tales for nearly thirty years. The later books differ from the earlier ones in several ways. Over time, for example, the relationship between Uncle Remus and the young white boy grows cooler. Remus does not play the role of teacher and moral escort as often, and the young white boy in later books (who is the son of the young white boy in the original book) shows less understanding of the magical realms about which Remus narrates.
Furthermore, Remus himself becomes more critical of the white world, which, in the wake of progressive efforts toward industrialization and modernization, he sees as antiseptic, unimaginative, and rationalistic. “By the time the last major Remus book was published, when radical racism had reached the peak of its frenzy, Remus himself in the frame narratives wages all-out war on a white world characterized by materialism, scientism, and disdain for the imaginative sensibility” (Mixon, p. 473). Despite these changes, later critics would accuse Harris of acting superior or showing a paternalism toward his Uncle Remus character. Others would retort that if any paternalistic touches crept into his writing—Uncle Remus’s subservient behavior, for example—one must remember that Harris as well as his characters are, to some degree, a reflection of their times.
Baer, Florence E. “Joel Chandler Harris: An ‘Accidental’ Folklorist.” In Critical Essays on Joel Chandler Harris. Edited by R. Bruce Bickley. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981.
Bickley, R. Bruce. Joel Chandler Harris. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
Hemenway, Robert. Introduction to Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, by Joel Chandler Harris. New York: Penguin, 1982.
Harris, Joel Chandler. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1880.
Levine, Lawrence W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. London: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Mixon, Wayne. “The Ultimate Irrelevance of Race: Joel Chandler Harris and Uncle Remus in Their Time.” The Journal of Southern History 61, no. 3 (1990): 457-78.
Montenyohl, Eric L. “The Origins of Uncle Remus.” Folklore Forum 18, no, 2 (Spring 1986): 136-37.
Trosky, Susan M., and Donna Olendorf, eds. Contemporary Authors. Vol. 137. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.