Sunday, August 24, 2014

Uncle Remus, Aesop and Pogo

Last week, in a local shop, I came across a book I hadn't seen in decades, Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus:  His Sayings and His Songs.  The book, not surprisingly, was printed in 1957, and, with happy memories of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, the tar baby and the brier patch, I bought it.

The Uncle Remus books remain in print, but there's no great mystery to their contemporary low profile.  They purport to relate folk-tales told by the plantation slaves and former slaves in the Old South.  Their offense is manifold.  Uncle Remus speaks in a thick dialect which in itself many would find most offensive, incorporating numerous racial terms now universally intolerable, up to and including the "n-word."  The atmosphere of the slave quarters is one of easy contentment, the very picture of  the antebellum argument that plantation slaves led happy, care-free lives under the eyes of kind and solicitous masters.  To the extent that Chandler has fictionalized, he is accused of falsifying.  To the extent that he accurately transmits the folklore of the slaves, he is damned for cultural appropriation.

All of this is understandable.  Much of it is unavoidably accurate.  And yet in a real sense, because there is genuine artistry in the animal tales, it's a shame that our concern about current, seemingly intractable, racial issues might require our abstention from such pleasures that, to an outsider, would seem entirely innocent.  As with Lincoln, who, in a speech given shortly before his death, said that he always loved the tune, "Dixie," and who, having captured it fair and square, had no compunction about having it played, it would be nice if the Uncle Remus stories could be subject to a similar capture.

That our concern is not slavery in general, but our slavery, our slaveowning, slavedriving heritage, is shown simply enough by considering the figure of Aesop.  Admittedly he's a shadowy figure, and what we think we know of him rests on the flimsiest evidence.  Nevertheless, what is most commonly said of him is that he was a slave.  And knowing that fact--if it is a fact--makes not a bit of difference to our enjoyment of his animal fables.

Now of course there was no real "Uncle Remus."  He was a combination of many slaves and ex-slaves Harris knew and would listen to when first employed on a Georgia plantation, the illegitimate son of a young Irish immigrant mother.  But the reality of Uncle Remus or Aesop is really beside the point.  Greek and American slavery were real.  But Greek slavery is far enough away from us that it doesn't spoil The Fox and the Grapes for us.

Another serious sticking point is the dialect.  It was something that Harris was quite serious about.  He wanted to write the tales just as he heard them, in the very speech used by the slaves.  That technique didn't necessarily demean or mock those who used it, but we hear it, so to speak, on the other side of "Amos 'n Andy," after it has become, not merely put to comic use, but itself, alone, a form of ridicule and smug superiority.

Which brings me to the case of Walt Kelly's Pogo.  I have loved the Pogo comic strips since I was a kid.  (No, to be more accurate, since I was a teenager, since the Pogo strips in the newspaper utterly baffled me when I was in elementary school.)  Kelly, though a northeasterner, wrote Pogo in an invented dialect that hews close to that of the deep South (not surprising, since the strip is set in the Okefenokee swamp).  He actually began in the forties with a comic about a young African-American named Bumbazine living on the edge of the swamp, and having adventures with his talking animal friends.  From the one exemplar I've seen the dialogue is just barely in dialect.  As the strip developed, Bumbazine disappeared, and animal characters took over, and the language became a thing of wonder.

"Mam heerd tell a man over here figgers he's gon run for public office...mam sent the tads over to be kissed up.  Us can't bear kissin' the ugly li'l' sprats ourselfs but we understan's you politicians kisses 'em free of charge."  That's Mr. Frog bringing his tadpoles to Pogo.

"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't sayin' nothin', en Brer Fox, he lay low."  That, of course, is Harris.

What's the difference here?  Obviously in neither case do the animals have any human ethnicity.  Nevertheless, in the case of Pogo, the dialect is somewhat non-specific.  In the tar-baby story the particular ethnicity of the fictional story-teller is directly expressed in the dialogue of the animals.  I myself don't find the use of the dialect offensive, but I understand how others could.

One probably intractable problem with Harris, at least for the foreseeable future, is his free use of terms for African-Americans which remain, in most contexts, unprintable.  There exists, of course, one still-popular work that has managed to overcome that issue, Huckleberry Finn.  But that book's importance in American literature, coupled with Twain's irreproachable humanitarian bona fides, give it a pass that is probably unavailable to Uncle Remus.

That leaves us with two unpalatable alternatives:  setting aside the Uncle Remus stories entirely, or bowdlerizing them.  Those of us of a certain age may conceivably plead that, since our characters are fully formed and too rigid to bear much improvement or corruption, we can privately enjoy these stories without much risk.  But for children, and school libraries, and popular media, they unhappily probably belong with Disney's (partly-scrubbed) Song of the South in the "unsuitable and quarantined" vault--at least in their original form.

There was much talk, with the election of President Obama, of the entry of the United States into a "post-racial" era.  Well, most of that talk has now run up against reality.  Much as I love the Uncle Remus stories, I know how they can be, and would be, used in shameful and unsavory ways.  I am glad we don't have actual censorship, and I am sure that a day will come when they can be read, enjoyed and criticized as freely as Aesop's fables.  But we are still far from that day.  


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