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Revival of the Resilient Brer Rabbit



(p. C23) When Robert Weil, the editor in chief and publishing director of Liveright, approached Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Maria Tatar with the idea of putting together "The Annotated African American Folktales," the two Harvard professors responded with a mix of excitement and trepidation.


. . .


"The Annotated African American Folktales," which came out in November [2017], contains more than 100 African and African-American folk tales as well as introductory essays and commentary to provide historical context. It draws from the rich, undersung work of folklorists from West Africa to the Deep South.


. . .


Professors Gates and Tatar . . . tackle controversial parts of folklore history, dedicating a chapter to the work of Joel Chandler Harris.


. . .


The decision to include Harris's work in this collection produced lively discussions between Mr. Gates and Ms. Tatar. "I felt uncomfortable with it," Ms. Tatar said. But Mr. Gates disagreed. The exchange proved to be a key moment of collaboration.

"In my house, growing up in Piedmont, West Virginia, we collected Mother Goose and Joel Chandler Harris," he said. "My father used to tell Brer Rabbit stories to my brother and me all the time."


. . .


In the late 19th century and early 20th century, African-Americans debated whether these folk tales were worth preserving. Some people considered the stories remnants of slavery rather than evidence of ingenuity.

The novelist Toni Morrison, however, has played an important role in validating these stories by integrating them into her writing, Ms. Tatar said.

While Ms. Morrison's novels contain traces of innovative uses of folklore, "Tar Baby" is the most obvious and the one Mr. Gates was particularly eager to include in this collection. Not only is it one of his favorite stories but he also finds the appearance of the tar baby in many cultures "haunting." The original folk tale is the story of Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit. Angry that Brer Rabbit is always stealing from his garden, Brer Fox makes a tar baby. Brer Rabbit comes across the figure and tries to start a conversation. He grows frustrated by the lack of response and hits the tar baby, only to find his paw stuck in what is a doll made of tar and turpentine.


. . .


Folk tales give us "ancestral wisdom," they teach children lessons about compassion, forgiveness and respect, said Ms. Tatar. They take us "back to the people who lived before us." They help us "navigate the future."

Mr. Gates couldn't agree more. He has dedicated this labor of love to his 3-year-old granddaughter. He wants the book to be not just for her and black children of her generation, but for all American children.



For the full commentary, see:

LOVIA GYARKYE. "Folklore Reclaimed From History's Dustbin." The New York Times (Fri., DEC. 15, 2017): C23.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date DEC. 14, 2017, and has the title "From Two Scholars, African-American Folk Tales for the Next Generation.")


The book by Gates and Tatar, is:

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and Maria ‚ÄéTatar, eds. The Annotated African American Folktales. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2017.


The book by Joel Chandler Harris, is:

Harris, Joel Chandler. Uncle Remus. New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1895.






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