23 Feb 2011

kaigou: this is what I do, darling (5 bookstack)
A bit ago I posted a link to an author's advice on Trying to Write the Southern Accent, and one of the comments reminded me of one of my favorite childhood stories... and its problematic representation of Southern Black American (and former-slave) speech. I quote, from the original:
"Didn't the fox never catch the rabbit, Uncle Remus?" asked the little boy the next evening.

"He come mighty nigh it, honey, sho's you born--Brer Fox did. One day atter Brer Rabbit fool 'im wid dat calamus root, Brer Fox went ter wuk en got 'im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun wat he call a Tar-baby, en he tuck dish yer Tar-Baby and he sot 'er in de big road, en den he lay off in de bushes fer to see what de news wuz gwineter be. En he didn't hatter wait long, nudder, kaze bimeby here come Brer Rabbit pacin' down de road--lippity-clippity, clippity-lippity--dez ez sassy ez a jay-bird. Brer Fox, he lay low. Brer Rabbit come prancin' 'long twel he spy de Tar-Baby, en den he fotch up on his behime legs like he wus 'stonished. De Tar-Baby, she sot dar, she did, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

"Mawin'!" sez Brer Rabbit, sezee--"nice wedder dis mawnin'," sezee.

Tar-Baby ain't sayin' nothing', en Brer Fox, he lay low.

"How duz yo' sym'tums seem ter segashuate?" sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.

Brer Fox, he wink his eye slow, en lay low, en de Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nothin'.

It's much easier to find revisions of this text than the original. One of those revisions posted online has a forward that says, "Harris retold the fables in the dialect used by the African slaves. Later retellings, such as the version of the story given here, have been in standard English, which makes the tales easier to read but takes away the charm of the original."

If you read the revised versions (behind the cut), you'll see what I mean: I don't think they realize where the so-called charm comes from. I do think it's true that the original exoticizes the slave dialect a great deal. It's so extreme, it alienates the reader, like it's letting you in on mysterious (getting near on Magical Negro territory, here) Other-stories, and your ticket to play is paid by the time you spend parsing out this unfamiliar not-English... but the exotic is not the source of the story's charm.

[That said, I should also note that while Harris may've propagated the image of the former slave as somewhere between lyrical and illiterate, he did also do a great service for later linguists, in putting so much effort into authentically and faithfully recording the actual speech. Even if he did do it via phonetic spellings, some of which are just plain baffling (I never have figured out what 'segashuate' means, but I think it might be 'suggest') -- he still managed to notate historical and actual speech patterns. Before him, most had discounted slave-speech as just Bad English, instead of understanding it as a communicative and evocative language in its own right. Some of the linguists even imply that had Harris not set the precedent, it might not've been until the WPA Historical Records Survey that anyone would've captured a contemporary speech record. In that sense, as difficult as the text is to read, to linguists and historians looking for long-standing patterns in the African-American creole, it does have value as a kind of historical record.]

Two edited versions, a few explanations of some of the phrases/words, and childhood memories of a Georgia storyteller. )
kaigou: this is what I do, darling (4 usual suspects)
Joel Chandler Harris' home is in Atlanta, and I just came across some of the storytellers who tell the various Brer stories -- because there's not just Brer Rabbit, there's Brer Coon, and Brer Vulture, and Brer Lion, even. I have no idea whether we actually saw a storyteller at The Wren's Nest, though I thought it had been at the High Museum. And all of the storytellers are much too young to have been the one I saw, but if you imagine a deeper voiced Akbar Imhotep, then you'd be getting close. His accent's a little softer, but still.

To hear the story of how Brer Coon gets his meat, click on the first link on this page from the Wren's Nest site (audio only). There are some clips from several of the other storytellers, as well. (I also recommend swinging by the biographies for the staff.) Then scroll down to the bottom of the storyteller's page and listen to Woodie Person's telling about the time Brer Gator Meets Trouble. It's a classic, and one more example of how each of the critters in the various stories have their own personalities. (Me, I like Brer Gator. Not as much as Brer Rabbit, but very close.)

They've started doing videos of some of the stories being retold. Click here for Mr. Imhotep retelling Brer Terrapin Learns to Fly or go here for Curtis Richardson retelling Brer Lion Meets Mr. Man. I have no earthly idea why the youtube embedding isn't working.

If you're wondering, Mr. Imhotep speaks with the Georgia accent I heard for most of my childhood. Listening to him talk is like a short visit back home.