Brer Harris and the Briar Patch

by Hal Jacobs, Creative Loafing, November 7, 1998

Imagine a 19th century version of "The Simpsons," directed by Quentin Tarantino, in which Bart, Nelson and Mr. Burns are constantly getting medieval on each other.

Imagine that the stories, put down on paper by an oddball Atlanta newspaperman, become the most popular folktales of their day - a total of 184 episodes, translated into 27 languages.

Now fast-forward to the mid-20th century. The stories are bought by Walt Disney, who make a mousy, maudlin film version that leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth. Then, for the next 50 years, the tales are buried under layers of politics that have more to do with the eye of the beholder (and Disney) than with the stories themselves.

That's what happened to Joel Chandler Harris' collection of folktales. Since the publication of the first Uncle Remus book in 1880, Harris and his alter ego Remus have been loved, honored, sabotaged, vilified - and, most recently, appreciated.

That's right. On the eve of Harris' 150th birthday, many artists, writers and academics - black and white - believe that it's time to release Harris and Remus from the tar baby of political correctness. Time to throw them back into the briar patch where they were raised.

"Harris's work doesn't lend itself to quick and easy judgments," says Steve Ennis, curator of the world's largest collection of Harris papers at Emory University. The mystery lies in what Ennis describes as a "merging of identity between white and black, a merging of voice."

That merging of voice cuts to the heart of southern race relations. While exploitation and animosity have frequently governed the political lives of Southerners, European and African culture melded over centuries to a greater degree in the South than in other parts of the country, and formed stronger bonds than are often acknowledged.

And one of the best examples of this -- long before rock and roll, jazz and professional sports swept blacks and whites closer together -- is of a white man who sat on the porch of his West End home and wrote stories in the voice of a black storyteller.

What's remarkable is that Harris pulled off the tales while respecting their integrity. He didn't resort to minstrel-show pandering. He didn't alter them to fit into white, middle-class culture. He prided himself on telling the stories pure, without "cooking them up." (Interestingly enough, while other folklorists at the time believed that African slaves must have heard the tales from native Americans, Harris correctly surmised that the stories originated in Africa.)

But Harris did bring something to the party, says Dr. Hugh Keenan, a Harris scholar and Candler Park resident. "What Harris brought to it was his skill as a writer and that's what's overlooked.

"These were not simply folk tales taken down verbatim and then published. The sentence structure of those stories is not black English. It's classical, eighteenth century English. And that's one of the reasons they've lasted. Because they're better written. There were lots of collections of black folktales in the 19th century and they're dead on the shelf."

Joe Harris, as he was known, was born in Eatonton, Ga., in 1848 (some say 1845). He never knew his Irish laborer father, but as a teenager had the good fortune of working as a printer's apprentice and budding journalist on Turnwold plantation. While there, Harris soaked up classical literature from Joseph Addison Turner's library and oral African tales from Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert, and Aunt Crissy.

In 1876, after newspaper jobs in New Orleans and Savannah, Harris moved to Atlanta to join the Atlanta Constitution as an editor. He stayed for 25 years, living for the most part in his West End home, which was nicknamed The Wren's Nest for the birds who took up residence in the Harris mailbox.

Harris was a mess of contradictions. Short and stout like a teapot, the red-haired, freckled newspaperman drank heavily and was pathologically shy (he once climbed out a window to avoid speaking to a crowd). He had a terrible stutter (like Lewis Carroll, author of "Alice in Wonderland"), but an uncanny ear for language. He enjoyed puttering around his house and large rose garden, and hanging out with his nine children and menagerie of farm animals.

As an editorial writer, he supported North-South reconciliation, but wanted the region to stay agrarian. He downplayed the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906, but during the worst of the violence, sheltered blacks in the basement of his West End home. During his lifetime, many of his readers thought he was black.

By the end of the 19th century, Harris was the John Grisham of his day - second in popularity only to the charismatic Mark Twain. Just as Grisham was in the right place at the right time with the legal thriller, Harris was the firstest with the mostest with the African-American folktale.

Through the charming, fussy, old character of Uncle Remus, readers met Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear, Miss Meadows "en de gals," and the rest of the supporting critters. As the original African storytellers knew well, as today's "South Park" creators know, Harris found there was quite a bit you could say about the human condition -- particularly it's sordid, violent, unflattering side -- as long as you used make-believe characters. Just as in the world of Aesop, Grimm and rap music, the moral is: life's a bitch.

When Brer Fox catches Rabbit with his tar baby trap, it's not because he wants to teach the bunny a lesson before turning him loose. It's because he wants to kill his ass. Burn, hang, drown or skin this rival gang leader. And Rabbit knows he's only got one chance: be cool and out-think his rival.

Another factor in Harris' success, says Keenan, is that "after the Civil War, dialect books became very popular. People were fascinated with how different people from around the country spoke. Northerners were especially interested in Southerners and what made them tick."

And Harris kept on ticking. He published 30 books in his lifetime, among them eight volumes of folktales. His popularity continued after his death in 1908. In 1926, a survey of high school and college teachers ranked Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings in fifth place among American books, before Moby Dick and just after The Last of the Mohicans. Harris influenced a world of childrens' book writers, from Rudyard Kipling to Beatrix Potter to Dr. Seuss.

Then came the backlash.

First, the reading public tired of dialect books. Then, in 1946, Disney released Song of the South, which tried to make life down on the plantation look as nice and sweet as a stroll through a certain theme park. (Disney bought the rights to the Harris characters in 1939 for $10,000.) Uncle Remus is played with quiet dignity, but the whole atmosphere of the film is based on genteel racism and a cutesy, dipsy portrayal of the Brers Rabbit, Fox and Bear -- bad "Deputy Dawg" cartoons come to mind.

A review in a leading black newspaper described the film this way: "as vicious a piece of propaganda for white supremacy as Hollywood has ever produced." Coming as it did between WWII and the first of major civil rights demonstrations, Uncle Walt's watered-down treatment of the Uncle Remus tales sparked major protests.

Song of the South was Disney's first attempt to combine animation and live action, and like today's special effect films, its technical achievements far outweighed any artistic merit. If the film was released on video today -- Disney reportedly has no plans to do so, and the NAACP reportedly has no problems if they do -- it would bore most kids silly (except for that "zippadee do dah" number, which is impossible to hear once and not find yourself humming it the next day).

It's understandable that from the 1950s until the '80s, with equal rights and affirmative action on the front burner of American society, the Uncle Remus folktales would simmer on the back burner. Instead of teaching everyone how cruel life can be, the stories reminded many people of the cruelty of plantation-era stereotypes.

The shift towards appreciation began not long after a 36-year-old, relatively unknown author, Alice Walker, expressed her feelings in a 1981 essay for Southern Exposure magazine entitled "Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine":

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.


What Ms. Walker didn't, couldn't, forsee was how soon the stories would be told -- and appreciated -- from black storytellers and writers.

Akbar Imhotep, a storyteller at The Wren's Nest since 1985, chuckles when asked if Harris "took" the stories.

"Take is a strong word," Imhotep says. "Harris gathered - he preserved the stories."

Imhotep, who tells the stories dressed in African garb, while speaking in a cool, city voice, doesn't have a problem with the Uncle Remus character either. "He's just an elderly guy who has accepted who he was and found a peace beyond it."

Julius Lester, a children's book author who has retold the Uncle Remus tales in three popular volumes since 1987, wrote in his first foreword that "Uncle Remus became a stereotype, and therefore negative, not because of inaccuracies in Harris's characterization, but because he was used as a symbol of slavery and a retrospective justification for it."

These days the stories set off the red flags among those who wish to appreciate the tales and share them with their children, but don't want their appreciation to be mistaken for acceptance of oldfashioned stereotyping.

"You have to be sensitive to issues," said Jon Ludwig, associate artistic director at the Center for Puppetry Arts. The last time the center performed the Brer Rabbit tales, it was "Mr. Remus," not "Uncle."

Ludwig added, "You can't throw those tales away. They're brilliant. Some of the most beautiful stories in the English language."

Appreciation doesn't come easy, of course. But for Joel Chandler Harris and the folktales he gathered and saved, a little recognition is better than the quick put downs of the last 50 years. Now, if only Hollywood would repair some of the damage done by Disney by producing a new version of the tales that captures the mystery, slyness, and humor of the original literary work. Perhaps Alice Walker could team up with Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy to get the job done.


Reading Tar Baby to School Kids

Brer Rabbit come prancin' `long twel he spy de Tar-Baby, en den he fotch up on his behime legs like he wuz `stonished. De Tar-Baby, she sot dar, she did, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

Although there is still an older generation who view the tar baby as "a racial slur" (in the words of author Toni Morrison), to the first-grade class I recently visited, the tar baby was just a tar baby. A trap for a pesky, good-for-nothing rabbit.

You probably know the story. Brer Fox places a lump of tar dressed as a stranger in the middle of the road. Brer Rabbit comes along, says howdy to the stranger, who doesn't reply. So Rabbit decides to teach him a lesson. He punches, kicks, and headbutts -- and is trapped at last by Fox.

But how to read that Harris' original, nineteenth-century dialect? After a few paragraphs, what I discovered is that the rhythm of the strange words, their vitality, transforms itself into something less like language and more like music. And the kids are enthralled. To them it's silly talk, they think it's hilarious.

They could care less that these funny words correspond to the way people talked a 100 years ago. Or that, as Dr. Kennan explained, the original Buddhist version of the story involves the Buddha overcoming the temptation of the five senses (Rabbit gets stuck in five places.)

Occasionally a child would ask the meaning of a word, but I didn't stop to explain. It's like liturgy, it's best to let the words roll over you. The story makes perfect sense. Everyone knows why Brer Rabbit would confuse a doll made out of tar with a rude stranger on the road, then want to beat the tar out of him. You don't need Psych 101 to know why Brer Fox first wants to kill the rabbit, then changes his mind and tosses him into the briar patch. Those are the kind of raw quicksilver emotions that kids can relate to, while what they usually get is something watered-down or sugar-coated. And Harris' comic timing is perfect.

As I read on to the end of the story, I get to one word I can't say out loud to the kids. The only insulting word so far. "Darky," as in, "the old darky, chuckling slyly."

It's a problem, but history and literature, even family members, are full of problems like this, and denying them serves no good, practical purpose. But now isn't the time or place to launch into a discussion of who did what when. So, for the children, I substitute "man" for "darky" and continue, hoping no AARP members might be laying low, planning to jump me for saying "old man."


Visiting The Wren's Nest

If Atlanta ever begins to appreciate Harris again, it means acknowledging The Wren's Nest, the historic home in Atlanta's West End and the city's oldest house museum.

Since 1987, when Carole Mumford was hired as executive director, the museum has benefited from a $500,000 historic restoration on the house and furnishings (its authentic wallpaper was featured in Bob Vila's Jan/Feb '98 American Home), as well as an open-door policy that reflects Mumford's past experience: five years with the National Urban League and ten years with the Atlanta Urban League, as well as a brief stint at the Cyclorama.

Tourist traffic is slow at The Wren's Nest these days, despite being named by National Public Radio's Savvy Traveler as one of Atlanta's Top 5 tourist sites.

For one thing, the museum is tucked off I-20, near West End strip centers, and is far off the large tour bus route that zooms down Peachtree Street from The World of Coca Cola to the spanking new Margaret Mitchell House.

For another, as a center for weekly storytelling, The Wren's Nest must now compete with story hour at upscale, mall bookstores. And the little museum has a miniscule operating budget.

But unlike the Margaret Mitchell House, which contains only a few authentic objects from that author's life, the Wren's Nest is stuffed with furniture, memorabilia, photographs, books and all sorts of other odds and ends accumulated by Harris during the more than 20 years he lived there and during the 90 years it has been a tourist destination.

Mumford admits that for years the house carried a stigma of racism. As late as the 1970s, African-Americans were denied entrance to the museum.

But Mumford, a veteran of previous stints at the National Urban League and the Atlanta Urban League, has brought a new sensitivity to the organization. She believes Harris' work makes The Wren's Nest a natural mecca for storytellers and story listeners of all races.


For an in-depth article about Harris and Remus, see "Remembering Remus," Florida State University Research in Review, Spring/Summer 1998.