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Uncle Remus

From Academic Kids

Uncle Remus was the title and fictional narrator of a collection of stories by Joel Chandler Harris, published in book form from 1881; seven Uncle Remus books were published. Harris was a journalist in Atlanta, Georgia.

Uncle Remus is a collection of animal stories, songs, and oral folklore, collected from Southern blacks. Many of the stories have a moral or advisory point, much like those of Aesop and La Fontaine. Uncle Remus is the purported narrator, and the setting is that of an old Negro slave telling folk tales to white children. The stories are told in a literary version of Deep South Negro dialect. The style of story is the trickster tale and may well have roots in West Africa. The title "Uncle" is given by the plantation children to their favorite slave/mentor. At the time of Harris's publication, his work was praised for its ability to capture plantation negro dialect.

Brer Rabbit ("brother rabbit") is the main character of the stories, a likable trickster getting into trouble who is often opposed by Brer Fox and Brer Bear. In one tale, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear construct a lump of tar and put clothing on it. When Br'er Rabbit comes along, he finds the lack of manners from the "tar baby" (as he mistakes it) insulting, strikes the tar baby, and gets stuck. Now that Br'er Rabbit is stuck, Fox decides how to dispose of him. The captured Br'er Rabbit pleads, "Please don't throw me in the briar patch," prompting the fox to do exactly that. As rabbits are at home in thickets, Br'er Rabbit escaped. "Please don't throw me in the briar patch" and "tar baby" (for a problem that gets worse the more one struggles against it) have become part of wider American cultural knowledge in the mid-20th century.

The stories were the subject of a Walt Disney movie in 1946, Song of the South (now uncirculated and little known).

The animal stories are not racist and had considerable popular appeal, but by the civil rights era of the 1960's the dialect and portrayal of the narrator seemed demeaning, and the author's defense of slavery in his foreword made the book indefensible. Without much controversy the book and movie simply disappeared from American popular culture. Few children born after 1970 have heard of them.

Harris himself said, in the introduction to Uncle Remus, that he hoped his book would be:
considered a curiously 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.
This which would appear to mean that Harris was against cruelty to blacks yet in favor of slavery. In Harris' day, this would have been a moderate position to take -- in today's America, it would be considered racist and hypocritical by many.

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