African American Folk Tales contribute context and controversy

Joel Chandler Harris, author of Uncle Remus

NPR aired an All Things Considered segment last week with Robert Siegel interviewing Harvard professors Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Maria Tatar about a book they have just edited: The Annotated African American Folk Tales. In the interview they talk about Joel Chandler Harris and the different ways they see his role as an author.

Gates says: ” Joel Chandler Harris did an enormous service. We can debate the fact that, well, he certainly wasn’t a black man, and we could debate what his motivation was, and we can wonder, did African Americans receive any percentage or share of the enormous profit that he made? The answer is absolutely not. But on the other hand, a lot of these tales would have been lost without Joel Chandler Harris.”

Tatar counters: “Did he kill African American folklore? Because after all, if you look at the framed narrative, who is Uncle Remus telling the stories to? A little white boy, and so suddenly this entire tradition has been appropriated for white audiences, and made charming rather than subversive and perilous, dangerous — stories that could be told only at nighttime when the masters were not listening.”

Gates adds: “But think about it this way: It came into my parlor, it came into my bedroom, through the lips of a black man, my father, who would have us read the Uncle Remus tales but within a whole different context, and my father, can we say, re-breathed blackness into those folk tales. So it’s a very complicated legacy.”

Uncle Remus Combo

Uncle Remus is one of the best-selling books in the Beehive Foundation catalog. The Beehive edition contains 64 stories with some of the original illustrations. Mills Lane IV, who created the foundation, called Uncle Remus the most famous personality of all Georgia literature and saw the tales as “a unique record of African American animal folklore” and social history with “a melancholy undercurrent about the changing postwar South.”

Harris was an editor of the Savannah Morning News from 1870-1876. For several years as the executive editor of the paper I sat in the same office where Harris had worked in the Bay Street building. In 2003 in the 100 block of West Bay Street across from the old News-Press building newspaper staff participated in erecting a Georgia Historical Marker acknowledging Harris’s contribution to Savannah.

Antagonists Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit about to get into an adventure (drawing by Harris’s ideal illustrator, Arthur Burdette Frost)

The Marker reads: “Joel Chandler Harris (1845-1908), New South journalist and author of Uncle Remus tales, Free Joe, and many other works, was associate editor of the Savannah Morning News from 1870 until 1876, under William Tappan Thompson, an established writer of Southern humor. He published comic stories in his ‘Affairs of Georgia’ column, which was often reprinted around the state. Rooming at the Florida House, which merged in 1880 with the Marshall House on East Broughton Street, Harris married Esther LaRose in 1873. The couple and their two children left Savannah in 1876 to avoid the yellow fever epidemic. Harris served from 1876 until 1900 as associate editor of the Atlanta Constitution.”

The Annotated African American Folk Tales is set for release this week by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. Siegel mentioned that in a chapter called “Defiance and Desire” there is a section devoted to flying Africans. If you visit the SCAD Museum of Art to see the current Jacob Lawrence commemorative exhibit called “Lines of Influence,” you can see Faith Ringgold’s take on that tradition.

Gates says, “The relationship between flying, freedom, and death is one of the curious things about the African American oral tradition.”

Harris’s Free Joe is also available through Beehive as is Slavery Time When I Was Chillun down on Marster’s Plantation, which contains first person accounts of slavery from interviews with writers from the Federal Writers Project.

Rexanna Keller Lester is working on a book about Mills Bee Lane IV and his preservation legacy.

For more on architecture and the history of the South, click on the “Books” tab at the top of the page.

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One Comment

Lane Morrison

A B Frost was famous for his wildlife and hunting sketches and I think a great compliment to Harris that he did the sketches for Uncle Remus. Even Walt Disney used the stories in Song Of the South, a great movie now out of favor.


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