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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wednesday's for Kids III -- UNCLE REMUS (a day early)

My dad was a funny dad, whose preferred method for inducing laughter, save tickle-torture, was voice imitations of Sesame Street and Disney characters.  I remember dinner table performances from The Count, Cookie Monster, and Brer Rabbit.  At bedtime he’d come to tuck in my younger brothers and announcing his arrival, booming, “Why it’s you, Ebenezer, the richest man in the cemetery,” after Jim Cummings’ turn as The Ghost of Christmas Future, in Mickey’s Christmas Carroll.  Tickle torture always followed.  (Mr. Cummings, I just learned, heralds from Youngstown, Ohio, not all too far from my parents.)

Among all voice imitations and nightly story time, the movie recommendations, and all the other general Dad-ness, two collections have settled more deeply and heavily than the rest: Baum’s The Magical Monarch of Mo (for another time) and today’s focus, the tales of one Uncle Remus, made temporarily famous by Disney’s self-banned feature, Song of the South

Yes: self-banned.

This surprised me.  I knew it wasn't available, but banned by Disney?

Mr. Fox and Mr. Rabbit, by A.B. Frost
Uncle Remus is the narrator of folktales recorded by former reporter Joel Chandler Harris.  The stories were an integral part of Harris’ childhood, and he sought only “to write out and put in print the stories I heard all my life” (Harris, Joel Chandler, The Favorite Uncle Remus, from "To the Reader," Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975, New York, New York).  The stories are those of the anthropomorphized Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, Brer Fox, and so on, brought to life by the collective Georgia plantation storyteller’s avatar, Uncle Remus, who, according to Disney, was a slave version Santa Claus, bushy beard and all.

The written stories don’t have near the spurious reputation of the movie, and the illustrations are fantastic.  (Go ahead and google A.B. Frost.  Great stuff all around, not just for Harris.)  In them, my dad found perhaps the greatest realization for his spectacularly kid-friendly gift for voices and dialect.  Here is one of my favorites (also, perhaps, the most recognizable):

“DIDN’T the fox never catch the rabbit, Uncle Remus?” asked the little boy the next evening.
“He come mighty nigh it, honey, sho’s you born—Brer Fox did. One day atter Brer Rabbit fool ’im wid dat calamus root, Brer Fox went ter wuk en got ’im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun w’at he call a Tar-Baby, en he tuck dish yer Tar-Baby en he sot ’er in de big road, en den he lay off in de bushes fer to see what de news wuz gwine ter be. En he didn’t hatter wait long, nudder, kaze bimeby here come Brer Rabbit pacin’ down de road—lippity-clippity, clippity -lippity—dez ez sassy ez a jay-bird. Brer Fox, he lay low. 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.
“‘Mawnin’!’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee—‘nice wedder dis mawnin’,’ sezee.
“Tar-Baby ain’t sayin’ nuthin’, en Brer Fox he lay low.
“‘How duz yo’ sym’tums seem ter segashuate?’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.
“Brer Fox, he wink his eye slow, en lay low, en de Tar-Baby, she ain’t sayin’ nuthin’.
“‘How you come on, den? Is you deaf?’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Kaze if you is, I kin holler louder,’ sezee.
“Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.
“‘You er stuck up, dat’s w’at you is,’ says Brer Rabbit, sezee, ‘en I’m gwine ter kyore you, dat’s w’at I’m a gwine ter do,’ sezee.
“Brer Fox, he sorter chuckle in his stummick, he did, but Tar-Baby ain’t sayin’ nothin’.
“‘I’m gwine ter larn you how ter talk ter ’spectubble folks ef hit’s de las’ ack,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Ef you don’t take off dat hat en tell me howdy, I’m gwine ter bus’ you wide open,’ sezee.
“Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.
“Brer Rabbit keep on axin’ ’im, en de Tar-Baby, she keep on sayin’ nothin’, twel present’y Brer Rabbit draw back wid his fis’, he did, en blip he tuck ’er side er de head. Right dar’s whar he broke his merlasses jug. His fis’ stuck, en he can’t pull loose. De tar hilt ’im. But Tar-Baby, she stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.
“‘Ef you don’t lemme loose, I’ll knock you agin,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, en wid dat he fotch ’er a wipe wid de udder han’, en dat stuck. Tar-Baby, she ain’y sayin’ nuthin’, en Brer Fox, he lay low.
“‘Tu’n me loose, fo’ I kick de natal stuffin’ outen you,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, but de Tar-Baby, she ain’t sayin’ nuthin’. She des hilt on, en de Brer Rabbit lose de use er his feet in de same way. Brer Fox, he lay low. Den Brer Rabbit squall out dat ef de Tar-Baby don’t tu’n ’im loose he butt ’er cranksided. En den he butted, en his head got stuck. Den Brer Fox, he sa’ntered fort’, lookin’ dez ez innercent ez wunner yo’ mammy’s mockin’-birds.
“‘Howdy, Brer Rabbit,’ sez Brer Fox, sezee. ‘You look sorter stuck up dis mawnin’,’ sezee, en den he rolled on de groun’, en laft en laft twel he couldn’t laff no mo’. ‘I speck you’ll take dinner wid me dis time, Brer Rabbit. I done laid in some calamus root, en I ain’t gwineter take no skuse,’ sez Brer Fox, sezee.”
Here Uncle Remus paused, and drew a two-pound yam out of the ashes.
“Did the fox eat the rabbit?” asked the little boy to whom the story had been told.
“Dat’s all de fur de tale goes,” replied the old man. “He mout, an den agin he moutent. Some say Judge B’ar come ’long en loosed ’im—some say he didn’t. I hear Miss Sally callin’. You better run ’long.”
There’s a fantastic website, http://www.uncleremus.com/, which offers 34 additional stories for free, as well as clips from Song of the South, and audio clips of readings. 

While there are many children’s books, even by the aforementioned L. Frank Baum, that are unfortunately heavy in racism and other unfair and cruel stereotyping, I don’t see it in the Uncle Remus stories.  They are respectful of their sources, recounted lovingly by the demur Harris, particularly in his uniform goal of reporting via faithful retelling; and as folktale, it reflects most accurately what life was at the time, evincing if anything racism of community and culture, not embodying racism in its essence. 

So here’s my problem.  I want to get my hands on a copy of Song of the South.  I remember clips from the movie fondly.  I love the music.  Splash Mountain is among my three favorite rides at Disneyland.  Is the movie really so bad that it got itself banned for racism?

Well, maybe.  Disney pulled it from the shelves themselves, because their publicists believed it idealized the slave situation in Georgia, where the stories take place, and didn't want to incur their employers a lawsuit.  Supposedly (I have never seen the whole thing, but I can see this claim as a strong possibility) the movie does nothing to damn slavery and its immorality, and shows good ol' Uncle Remus as fat, jolly, and perfectly content with his lot.  I agree that this isn't good.  It's bad.  Whether it merits the movie's ban is another story entirely, and perhaps beyond the scope of Wednesday's for Kids, but I'm going to touch on it just for a moment in order to expose a possible hypocrisy.  

Is the portrayal of Uncle Remus any more racist than that of Dumbo's ravens, Aladdin's Jafar, Pinocchio's Stromboli, or Peter Pan's Indians (these among many others), or is it just closer to home?  Do the movies themselves demonstrate racism on the part of the movie makers, or does the lack of ban on the others reflect racism yet in our culture?  Or both?

I don't know.  Regardless, you can't watch the whole movie, because it's just not available, but you can read all the stories.  The stories are brilliant, beautiful, and fun, and I highly recommend them to you and the kids you know.


If you're interested in further discussion, check out James Smith's review, HERE, of The Woggle-Bug Book, by L. Frank Baum, at his blog, Motion for a Five Minute Unmoderated Caucus.  


  1. Interesting stuff. You know, the problem is, if you're writing a kids' book about African Americans at the time, you really don't want to write the evils of slavery. It's something you usually deal with when you're a little older. But at the same time, if the message gets to the kids at a young age, "Oh slavery wasn't really that bad!" that's not a good thing at all either. But by banning it you're losing a crucial part of the picture. Surely a lot of slaves lived a grim existence, but I can't imagine that they always dwelled on it. I don't know. I'd have to see the movie to decide, but as you said, I can't.

  2. There are clips all over the place. Go to the website I mentioned: uncleremus.com. Soem good stuff there.

    The whole racism thing wears me out. Intollerance like that is so outside my realm of understanding that while I understand how it came about--through ignorance, ego, fear--I still don't get how people can actually believe and feel that stuff and BE racist.

    A potential point of discussion however: out of tragedy and ugliness often comes the greatest art. Where would we be in this country without Jazz, for example, are the barbecue? This is very unlikely to have come about if slavery had not happened....

    I don't know.


  3. slavery is a part of this country's history and clearly directed the road we embarked on as a country. it can't be changed. it can't be erased. it can't be lessened or even glorified. it's part of all of us in this great country. all countries have dark pockets of history but that doesn't mean it should be forgotten or even dwelled upon.

    i loved daddy's uncle remus voice. he is a master.

  4. I can't help but put the epoch of slavery right along with the terror of the Holocaust. (Maybe "slavery" should earn a capital letter, too.) I think it's a really good point that, well, it happened. It's horrible, but there you go. Can't do anything about the past; we can only( and sorry for the bland cliche, but there's truth in it) learn and grow from it.


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