After our recent Brer Rabbit escapade, I became curious. Were the Uncle Remus stories in fact racist, or was it the setting and other baggage that tainted our memory and had made them so?
I don't know that I have ever read Uncle Remus before now. I well remember my Golden Book of Uncle Remus, but I doubt I was able to read it. It was a frequent bed time story, but probably not much after I turned 4 or 5. I saw the Disney released Song of the South, and once in VHS. The movie was fifty something years ago. The world is much changed.
So, I went to the library and pulled Uncle Remus, The Complete Tales, by Julius Lester off the shelf. 700 pages neatly hidden in the Black Experience section. The purists amongst us will remember that the Uncle Remus stories were written by Joel Chandler Harris between 1876 and 1918 in what was believed by Mr. Harris to be the familiar slave dialect in his part of the south.
Mr. Lester's work is a modern retelling of the old classics. It is his opinion that the originals were written in such a dialect as to be near impossible to decipher for a modern reader. His belief, is that the only way for the stories to live was to retell them in a way 21st century readers would understand. He expected the stories to be rewritten in another couple of generations in a way understandable to people of that time.
Frankly he succeeded.
At their heart, the Uncle Remus stories are black folktales. Folktales from all cultures are stories originally told by and to adults, which if the children were quiet they may be allowed to listen to. As such they have important messages to convey. Folk messages translate into all cultures.
Mr. Lester's work tells the stories, without the unnecessary backstory in a mix of modern white and black English. Their cadence is distinctly black, the stories feel modern. Yes the original tales as told by Joel Chandler Harris stories are racist to our ears. The Uncle Remus stories conveyed by Mr. Lester are not.
As I was reading the book I was thinking constantly of Ms. Mindless's class of Washington DC first graders. They would love the stories. A great story teller would have her class mesmerized.