Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Roark Bradford, Meet Uncle Remus. Or Tom. Your Preference.

Here we tread into delicate territory.

That’s how I could start this entry. And I could go on, paragraph after paragraph, tap-dancing around subjects of Uncle Remus, Uncle Tom, “Song of the South,” and Roark Bradford’s “Green Pastures,” a re-telling of Bible stories, as Louis Untermeyer puts it, “as they might have been rendered by illiterate but highly imaginative colored preachers.”

Thus you see my hesitancy.

But Bradford, descendant of William Bradford, the first Governor of Massachusetts, proceeds with gusto. As will I. Here’s a sample:

After ole King Solomon died de kings got to comin’ and goin’ and goin’ so fast dat hit made de Lawd dizzy tryin’ to keep up wid who was de king and who wa’n’t de king. So he say, “Dis ain’t gittin’ nowheres. Ef my people can’t keep a king long enough for me to get acquainted wid him, well, I’m gonter see what gonter happen.

If you can’t handle the patois, or are livid or in any other way annoyed, do not continue.

Sometimes, racial stereotypes are put into films, stories, et cetera, to be hurtful.

Other times, a cigar is just a cigar.

Let’s continue with Bradford’s story:

So hit was a king over in de next town name Nebuchadnezzar which yared de news, so he say, “Well, when de Lawd was sidin’ wid de Hebrew boys they was doin’ some mighty struttin’. But now wid de Lawd layin’ back and watchin’, I’ll just drap over and raise me some sand.” And so he did.

So ole King Nebuchadnezzar lined up his army and lit out.

“Halt, who’s comin’ yar?” say de Hebrew sentry.

“Sad news is comin’ yar,” say King Nebuchadnezzar.

“Ain’t yo’ name King Nebuchadnezzar?” say de sentry.

“Dat’s what dey calls me,” he say. “What’s yo’ name?”

“Daniel,” say de sentry.

“Well, Daniel,” say Nebuchadnezzar, “I’m bringin’ you some sad news. I’m bringin’ you de news which say I’m gonter raise me some sand in dis town.”

“You better let dis town alone,” say Daniel. “When you raise a ruckus in dis town you’s raisin’ a ruckus in de Lad’s town.”

“I kotched de Lawd away f’m home, dis time,” say Nebuchadnezzar.

“You didn’t kotch me away from home,” say Daniel.

“Naw,” say Nebuchadnezzar,” and I’m gonter use you. I’m gonter feed my pet lines on you.”

And the story continues, a garbled version of Daniel in the lions den, getting chucked into furnace (which didn’t happen to Daniel) and Daniel interpreting the proverbial “writing on the wall,” while the addled members of King Nebuchadnezzar’s court chalk up the writing to the effects of drinking too much alcohol:

“What all dem solid-gold cups which I tuck f’m de Hebrew boys?” say ole King Nebuchadnezzar.

“Put away,” say de haid waiter.

“Well, bring ‘em out so My Majesty kind drink come licker outer dem solid-gold drinkin-cups,” say ole King Nebuchadnezzar. And right dar was whar he made a big mistake, ‘cause dem cups wa’n’t de Hebrew boys’ cups. Dem was de Lawd’s cups. So ‘bout de time old King Nebuchadnezzar drunk out of a solid-gold cup, de Laws stepped right through de wall and wrote somethin’ on hit, and den stepped right back again.

“I seen a ha’nt,” say King Nebuchadnezzar.

“Hit’s de licker,” say de gal which is settin’ in his lap. “Hit’ll make you see mighty nigh anything.”

Then we get this lovely picture:

So, yikes. Maybe we’d have been better off if someone had spilled jelly on this part of the book and made the pages stick together after all.

Marc Connelly, inspired by Bradford’s Ol’ Man Adam an’ His Chillun, wrote a play called “The Green Pastures,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1930.

It didn’t play well in African-American circles.

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