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Tar Baby Notes


This is a great American classic, but it poses problems that must be dealt with.

It was collected over a hundred years ago from African-American social tellers by a white man. Judging from his writings, Joel Chandler Harris was a (normal for his time, place, and position) genteel pig on the subjects of race and slavery and gender, but from all accounts (Mark Twain's, for one), he was also a fine storyteller, a good collector, and a gifted dialectition.

Several black performers have adapted the Chandler tales, pretty much as written. Jackie Torrence is one-- she's very good, isn't she?-- and Danny Glover is another, far more disappointing. I'm also disappointed in Julius Lester's texts. He's too good a writer, I think; he just can't bring himself to make an unwriterly text, which is what you need for an oral tale.

Here are the originals. They are American classics, but it's impossible for a child to enjoy the stories by reading them in the original, the dialect is too hard to interpret.

Most people around my age know of the "Uncle Remus" stories through the Disney film "Song of the South." There are plenty of minstrel-show echoes in that interpretation, enough to be offensive even without the "Happy Plantation Uncle" frame story, and it is neither great literature (which the original is) nor great cartooning.

Some white people of my acquaintance were read the Chandler stories as children, in a spirited and embarrassing approximation of the dialect. Some of them had an instinctive aversion to their mom or dad or brother making their voice go that way. Some enjoyed it (it is very good, the timing is wonderful, and it's good language) as children, and liked to read it that way themselves, but whenever they try it on me, it makes my skin crawl. Because the history is so cruel, and because the blackface stereotype was so imbedded in popular performance (for a long time, in a lot of areas, the only travelling shows there were, were Tom shows), it's just automatically offensive to a lot of people, including me. Far worse than dumb hillbilly, ching-chang-Chinaman, lazy Mex, and Bucktooth Jap (though those are all bad enough), because the history is longer, more intimate, crueller, and more unequal-- because the problem is worse.

It's too weird to do anymore; and it always was some weird. If you are tempted towards a black dialect, and you're white, please don't, unless you can develop your interpretation in front of black audiences, including black adults. I'd be glad to discuss this further, if anybody wants to email me.

My feeling about folktales in general is, the way they work, they've always been told by contemporary people telling old stories in a contemporary way, among a bunch of people who regard eachother as normal folks, people you might be related to; if not now by blood, perhaps someday by marriage.

Anyway, problems schmoblems, this tale needs to be told. It's as much a part of core American culture as "Three Bears" or "Red Riding Hood" or "The Tortoise and the Hare." It's an axiom and an archetype, and a really good tale.

It's a great story for boys to tell. The whole first bit is all you need to say about getting caught up in machismo. Like the new-boy fight scene at the beginning of Tom Sawyer, it rings instantly and compellingly true to those of us who have "been there."


"Brother Fox and Brother Bear"

It's "Bre'r Fox" and "Bre'r Bear" and "Bre'r Rabbit" in the book. This was originally pronounced something like "Bro." Many people say "Brayer" which is a misreading of the phonetic spelling. "Brayer Bear" is hard to say and to hear. "Brayer Rabbit" sounds like "Briar Rabbit." Try "Bruthah."

" Mr." would also be ok.


"Didn't say nothing" (or maybe "dint say nuthin'")-- I'm not sure why, but this is better than either "didn't say anything." or "said nothing." It just is. I believe the double negative is creeping into polite usage, and eventually will be as accepted as thoroughly in American English as it is in French. But, anyway, folk stories are best when not told in polite language, but rather in a vigorous vulgate. At least half of the kids I've helped tell this tale said it like that naturally.


"Hit you with this fist"-- Or,"Pop you a good'n," or whatever the kids around you are saying.


Pricker Patch --Of course. the classic line is "Don't throw me in de briar patch." One persistant problem with the story is the confusing similarity (to the innocent Northern child) of "Br'er" and "Briar"-- many kids call this story "Briar Rabbit," which I find distracting. I've never heard anybody around here say "briar," they all say "pricker." [This is one of many reasons why I like Peter Amidon's treatment of "Briar Rose"-- "Thorn Rosa," he calls her.]


"I was born in the pricker patch" The original-- "Born and bred in the Briar Patch"-- is cleaner, and axiomatic, but it is not readily understood by kids without explanation, and stories are much better when they need no explanation.