Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Monday, June 18, 2012

Don't Throw Me in That Brier Patch!

Wren's Rest
It would be difficult to teach the Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris these days.  In some ways, they make the controversies about the racial aspects of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn seem almost frivolous.  Harris (1848-1908) was, roughly, Mark Twain's contemporary (Twain was thirteen years older, died two years later).  Like Twain, he was a journalist (he worked at the Atlanta Constitution for about thirty years) who also wrote popular fiction.  His home, the Wren's Rest, is a museum now in Atlanta.

Born in Georgia before the Civil War, he had close contact with slaves, listened to their stories, tried to capture their dialect and their humor in print.  His principal literary character, Uncle Remus, says the 4th edition of Oxford Companion to American Literature (1965), was "whimsical, lovable, ... once a slave ... [but] now a trusted family servant who entertains the young son of his employers with traditional fables of his race."  Many today find all that a bit patronizing--a romantic view of the slave-master relationship.  And so it is.  But ...

When I was in school, his stories (with the spelling standardized) were in our readers, and then there was that Disney film, The Song of the South (1946), a film that blended live action scenes featuring Uncle Remus with animated characters from his stories (Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, et al.) as will as the birds and other critters that fluttered and fussed around Uncle Remus (James Baskett) while he sang the most famous song in the film,  "Zip-Ah-Dee-Doo-Dah." (Song on YouTube: "Zip").  The era of political correctness has caused Disney from time to time to pull the video from distribution.  (It's not currently available from retail outlets--but plenty of copies on eBay.)  On Snopes.com you can read about the controversy surrounding the film--the portrayal of Uncle Remus, the reasons that many find aspects of the film offensive.  (Info re SONG OF THE SOUTH)

But I didn't really want to write about Harris today but about one of his stories, "How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp for Mr. Fox," a story probably more well-known as the tar-baby story.  The fox, recall, has caught the rabbit with the tar baby (this story is in A Song of the South) and is preparing to do what foxes do when they catch rabbits.  He says (in Harris' words) that he plans to "bobby-cue" the bunny.

Not what the bunny wants.

But our bunny is as clever as his direct descendant Bugs (they have the same last name!), and he tells the fox: “‘I don’t keer w’at you do wid me, Brer Fox,’ sezee, ‘so you don’t fling me in dat brier-patch. Roas’ me, Brer Fox’ sezee, ‘but don’t fling me in dat brierpatch,’ sezee."

Translation: Roast me if you want, but please--please--don't throw me in that brier patch!

Well, they go back and forth, the fox making dire promises, the rabbit pleading not to be cast into the brier patch.

And we know what will happen, of course: The fox, deciding that he will indeed toss the bunny in the prickers (what could be worse than inflicting on a creature its worst fear?  Think: Fear Factor and Room 101 in 1984).

Which, of course, is precisely what our bunny wants: The brier patch is home.  And just before the bunny runs off toward his cleverly won freedom, he cries back to the fox: “‘Bred en bawn in a brier-patch, Brer Fox—bred en bawn in a brier-patch!’ en wid dat he skip out des ez lively ez a cricket in de embers.”

Here's a link to the whole story (it's not very long): "How Mr. Rabbit ..."

That story delighted me as a kid--just as did the stories of those human scamps Tom and Huck.  (And, even later, The Odyssey.) The clever one saving himself from the threats and violence of the bigger, the meaner.  All of that had great appeal for a small boy like me navigating his way across a childhood sea that surged with monsters seen and unseen.

But as I got older (and then really older), I began to see a different sort of message in that story.  I saw--as I probably should have years earlier--that it is really a story about figuring out what your brier patch is--and then making sure you live in it.  I think of myself.  For some people, I would guess, spending time (decades!) with middle school students would be, well, unpleasant.  A circle of Hell.  But for me?  A brier patch.  And how about reading 100 pages a day of an assigned book?  Every day.  Seven days a week.  Fifty-two weeks a year.  Cruel and unusual punishment for some.  For me?  Brier patch.

If I were making a commencement speech this year, I would urge graduates to find their brier patches.  And to live in them the rest of their days.  Why?  Because it's where they belong.  It's where--all their days--they'll be as happy as a rabbit that just outfoxed a fox.

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