Friday, November 19, 2010

Boldly Taking on the Tar Baby

This drawing is in the public domain in the United States.

 A commonly-accepted definition of the term “tar baby” today is a “sticky situation that is only aggravated by additional contact.” Ironically, race relations in the United States is such a tar baby. Dare to make any kind of comment on the subject and you’ll find a thousand willing to parse what you said, for both good and ill.

Thus the Treasury of Laughter enters the world of Joel Chandler Harris. And this is the last and only equivocation you’ll hear from us on the subject.

And for good reason. For good or ill, Joel Chandler Harris’ recordings of the “Uncle Remus” story introduced traditional American folklore to an appreciative world, and not just an appreciative world both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. Per Wikipedia:

The tales, 185 in sum, became immensely popular among both black and white readers in the North and South. Few outside of the South had ever heard accents like those spoken in the tales, and no one had ever seen the dialect legitimately and faithfully recorded in print. To the North and those abroad, the stories were a "revelation of the unknown." Mark Twain noted in 1883, "in the matter of writing [the African-American dialect], he is the only master the country has produced."

The stories introduced international readers to the American South. Rudyard Kipling wrote in a letter to Harris that the tales "ran like wild fire through an English Public school.... [We] found ourselves quoting whole pages of Uncle Remus that had got mixed in with the fabric of the old school life.” The Uncle Remus tales have since been translated into more than forty languages.

James Weldon Johnson called the collection "the greatest body of folklore America has produced.”

So let’s have some fun.

First, we see the wily Brer Rabbit using his own fleabaggishness to keep Brer Fox at bay:

“Hol’ on dar, Brer Rabbit,” sez Brer Fox, sezee.

“I ain’t got time, Brer Fox,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, sorter mendin’ his licks.

“I wanter have some confab wid you, Brer Rabbit,” sez Brer Fox, sezee.

“All right, Brer Fox, but you better holler fum whar you stan’. I’m monstus full ur fleas dis mawnin,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.

Here we hear Harris’ wonderful ear for the dialect of the south, precursor, perhaps, to today’s Ebonics. Coming from a linguistically bland corner of the nation, I’ve got to say that reading Harris’ transcription is a challenging delight.

Harris’ story, of course, is familiar. Less familiar is that on an annual basis starting in 1888, Harris wrote seven Uncle Remus collection, cataloging for the world the vast imagination of the African-American south.
And maybe I’m full of hot air. But I’ll always enjoy Brer Rabbit’s reverse psychology, his quick with that outwits even after he’s been outwitted:

“I don’t keer w’at you do wid me, Brer Fox,” sezee, “so you don’t fling me in dat brier-patch. Roas’ me, Brer Fox,” sezee, “but don’t fling me in dat brier patch,” sezee.

“Hit’s so much trouble fer ter kindle a fier,” sez Brer Fox, sezee, “dat I speck I’ll hatter hang you,” sezee.

“Hand me des ez high as you plase, Brer Fox,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, “but to fer de Lord’s sake don’t fling me in dat brier patch,” sezee.

“I ain’t got no string,” sez Brer Fox, sezee, “en now I speck I’ll ahtter drown you,” sezee.

“Drown me des ez deep ez you please, Brer Fox,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, “but do don’t fling me in dat brier-patch,” sezee.

“Der ain’t no water nigh,” sez Brer Fox, sezee, “en ow I speck I’ll hatter skin you,” sezee.

“Skin me,” Brer Fox, sezee, “snatch out my eye-balls, t’ar out my years by de roots, en cut off my legs,” Sezee, “but do please, Brer Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch,” sezee.

Okay. So maybe Harris carries the dialect thing a bit too far.

Of course we know what happens. Brer Fox throws him in the brier patch, a patch similar to the one Brer Rabbit was born in. Brer Rabbit escapes to live to outfox Fox another day, much like another literary rabbit would do once he escaped from Mr. MacGregor’s garden. And my world is richer for having read Brer Rabbit do the outfoxing, political correctness be hanged. Or drowned. Or whatever.

No comments:

Post a Comment