Homage once more to my Jane Mansfield lookalike junior high speech teacher, Miss Brumfield. Another of our many activities in her always fun classes was preparing a short story that had to be read aloud in front of the class. From this initial assignment a handful of students were chosen to attend a speech rally and read the well-practiced story in front of a large audience and a panel of judges. At the end of the day the judges awarded scores and those getting a top score received certificates of excellence.
Hard to say if the teacher assigned specific stories to specific students, or allowed them to choose their own, but in my case she handed over a Joel Chandler Harris story, saying, “That’s your story.” It was my introduction to Brer Rabbit and the tales of Uncle Remus. I loved the assigned story, and all the others in the book as well. The Uncle Remus collection on my bookshelf today is there because of that unforgettable and sultry speech teacher in seventh grade.
Joel Chandler Harris left home at thirteen and by the age of sixteen, with a love of books, a fair writing skill and mischievous sense of humor had become an apprentice to a Georgia newspaper publisher and plantation owner. Turnwold was a 1,000 acre plantation and was where Harris first heard the black folktales that were to become the Uncle Remus stories. Harris spent hundreds of hours in the slave quarters during his off hours, where his self-conscious stammer and illegitimate birth faded into the background and where he was able to foster a close relationship with the plantation slaves. During his four years at Turnwold he absorbed the stories, language, and inflections of the people in the slave quarters. Their African-American animal tales became the foundation and inspiration for the numerous volumes of his later work.
Between 1896 and 1918 Harris published eight volumes of black folktales told by an old man named Uncle Remus. The eight volumes included 263 tales in which Brer Rabbit is a central character. A major concern for Harris was language. From his many hours of listening to the tales told around the slave quarters at Turnwold, he developed a remarkable ear and realized that the tales could not be divorced from the language of the people telling them. Harris himself admitted that the character and voice of Uncle Remus was a composite of three slaves who had told him many of the tales. Reading the original Uncle Remus tales today, it is very easy for the contemporary reader to be offended by the dialect, providing he is even able to decipher it. Many are also uncomfortable with the figure of Uncle Remus, his attitudes, his sycophancy and his use of the word “nigger.” The uneasiness prompted by this character—in the minds of readers both black and white—has in some way tainted the Uncle Remus stories for many people.
In the 1999 retelling of Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales, Julius Lester has settled on what he calls a ‘mean point’ that gives the stories a comfortable easiness, whether read silently or aloud. In Lester’s retelling they are written in a modified contemporary southern black English, a combination of standard English and Black English. But for a storyteller—and above all the tales are meant to be told—voice, vocal inflections and gestures cannot be printed, but are as important ‘in the telling’ as the printed words themselves. If in no other ways, Lester’s adaptation of Chandler’s original and difficult tales is a paean to Harris and to the voice of those slaves who first told him the stories. This contemporary telling of nineteenth century African-American folktales from the slave quarters reinforces the power of voice and cadence in storytelling. Easy to discern in the Uncle Remus tales a glimpse of the origin of literature in all cultures, the gathering of the group around a fire to listen to stories of the elders.