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, Georgia, Harris produced seven Uncle Remus books.
Uncle Remus is a collection of animal stories, songs, and oral folklore, collected from Southern United States African-Americans. 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 former slave who serves as a storytelling device, passing on the folktales to children gathered around him.
The stories are written in an eye dialect devised by Harris to represent a Deep South Gullah dialect. The genre of stories is the trickster tale. 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.
Controversy and legacy
The animal stories were conveyed in such a manner that they were not seen as 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 was considered overly demeaning by many African-American people, on account of what they considered to be racist and patronizing attitudes toward African-Americans. Providing additional controversy is the stories' context, as they are set on a former slave-owning plantation, a setting that is portrayed in a passive and even docile manner. Nevertheless, Harris' work was, according to himself, an accurate account of the stories he heard from the slaves when he worked on a plantation as a young man. He claimed to have listened to, and memorized, the African American animal stories told by Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert, and Aunt Crissy at the plantation; he wrote them down some years later. He acknowledged his debt to these storytellers in his fictionalized autobiography, 'On the Plantation' (1892). Many of the stories that he recorded have direct equivalents in the African oral tradition, and it is thanks to Harris that their African-American form is preserved.
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".
Adaptations in film and other media
The stories have inspired at least three feature films. The first and best known 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, saying: "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 African-American man with a round face, contrasts with the appearance of Uncle Remus in earlier book illustrations by Frederick S. Church, A. B. Frost, and E. W. Kemble. Ralph Bakshi's 1975 film Coonskin is a satire of the Disney film that adapts the Uncle Remus stories to a contemporary Harlem setting. The Adventures of Brer Rabbit is a 2006 direct-to video production which has hip-hop influences.
An Uncle Remus and His Tales of Br'er Rabbit newspaper strip ran from October 14, 1945, through December 31, 1972.
The song "Uncle Remus" was included on the 1974 Frank Zappa album Apostrophe ('). It was co-written by Zappa and keyboardist/vocalist George Duke. The song tackled the subject of racial relations in America, and is something of a spiritual successor to “Trouble Every Day,” a track from Freak Out! about the same issues.
- Life on the Mississippi, c.1883, Samuel L. Clemens, Ch. XLVII "Uncle Remus" and Mr. Cable
- "Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings". www.gutenburg.org. 2000-08-01. Retrieved 2010-05-25.
- For more on the relationship between Uncle Remus and Uncle Tom's Cabin, see Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights, (New York: New York University Press, 2011), pp. 133-141.
- Brasch, Walter M. (2000). Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus and the "Cornfield Journalist": The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris. Mercer University Press. P. 275.
- "Child's Play". www.washingtonpost.com. 2006-04-09. Retrieved 2008-08-29.
- "Disney’s “Uncle Remus” strips," Hogan's Alley #16, 2009
- William Ruhlmann, All Music Guide
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- Full text of books by Uncle Remus from Project Gutenberg
- Theodore Roosevelt autobiography on Brer Rabbit and his Uncle
- Short biography of Joel Chandler Harris with photograph (article by the Eatonton Literary Festival, Eatonon, Georgia)
- Official Uncle Remus Museum in Eatonton, GA
- Official Site of Uncle Remus