Laura Gibbs

My Winter Read-Cation: Remember Brer Rabbit...?

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Dec 19, 2018

As I mentioned in my earlier post today, I took a 10-day vacation from blogs and Twitter right after finishing the semester... you could call it a "read-cation" -- I didn't travel anywhere, but instead I relied on the magic travel made possible by books! Life is stressful right now, and I needed a new project that I could work on to take my mind off things, something that would be really exciting and useful, but also a project that would involve some more-or-less mindless activity that I could use to unwind. Some people knit or do needlepoint; I make websites, ha ha. So, here is my new project: BRER RABBIT: TALES of a TRICKSTER.


screenshot of blog post


I'm guessing most people are familiar with the character of Brer Rabbit, but what you might not know is that the Brer Rabbit stories and other African-American folklore collected by Joel Chandler Harris in the late 19th-century constitute one of the most important American folklore collections of that period. Harris gathered stories from black storytellers and worked meticulously on presenting the stories in the storytellers' own style of speech -- a form of African-American vernacular English and also some stories told in Gullah. Because Harris's story collections were published before 1923, they are in the public domain, which means the texts are freely available online. However, the use of dialect makes them difficult to read. In addition, Harris presented his storytellers inside a fictional framework written in standard English in which Uncle Remus and the other storytellers are telling the stories to a little white boy. This framework was a way for Harris to placate white readers and market his books for children, but that fictional frame undermines the value of the books as folklore documents, as well as making for very uncomfortable reading nowadays. When Julius Lester wrote his brilliant modern versions of the stories, he kept the idea of Uncle Remus as the storyteller ("Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales"), but he dispensed with the little-boy frame.


My goal with this project is to do something similar to what Lester did in his Uncle Remus project, but in a public-domain format so that the resulting stories will be free for everyone to use. Because Harris's stories are in the public domain to begin with, there are no restrictions on their re-use in this way! So, here is how my project is proceeding:


1. Collect all the original Harris stories online. There are 185 stories, and I now have digital texts for 128 of them, thanks to Project Gutenberg. For the remaining 57 stories, I have page images with OCR (from Hathi Trust), but they need to be transcribed. That is the nice mindless part of this project: I like transcribing.


2. Remove the frametale from each story. The frametale with the little boy is interwoven with the story as back-and-forth dialogue between Uncle Remus and the little boy, so this is not completely mechanical, but it's not really difficult. So far I've removed the frame material from 48 of the 185 stories; here they are.


3. Standardize the spelling. This is the trickiest part, but also the most useful task! I want to keep the vernacular style of speech but not the phonetic spelling. I've tested it out on just one story so far, choosing one of my favorites: A Story About the Little Rabbits. I'll be experimenting with this some more, looking at examples from work by other people working on African-American folklore, especially Roger Abrahams (pinging Linda J. Lee who knew him in person, which is so cool; he is one of my heroes). In his African American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World, for example, Abrahams decided to normalize the verb tenses, putting story narratives into the past tense even though a free back-and-forth between past and present tense is a distinctive feature of folktale narratives. For right now, I've decided to keep the free use of past and present tense, but that's the kind of thing that I'll keep on pondering. For the rhythm, I've also decided to keep the number of syllables the same (so using the word 'scuse instead of the dictionary form excuse, etc.). But again, that's something I'll keep on pondering. My goal is to make the stories easier to read and also to keep their distinctive style, which are sometimes conflicting goals. Anyway, it's going to be a fun experiment, and different from anything I've done before.


4. Collect public domain illustrations. I've already found some great illustrated editions online so that I've got illustrations for 74 of the stories so far! I also found two inexpensive used books (one was just $5 and the other was $25), both in the public domain, which are not available online at Hathi Trust or Internet Archive, so I will be scanning those to share online too; one has color illustrations and the other has wonderful black-and-white drawings. My husband knows a lot about digital scanning (he's a photographer), so I am really grateful for his help with that part of the project. I've never done my own book scanning before. I'm also keeping an eye out now for other pre-1923 used books that I can acquire on the cheap like this in order to scan and share.


5. Collect story analogues. One of the most exciting parts of this project is that the Brer Rabbit stories are connected to African AND Native American AND European storytelling traditions! A few of the stories are unique (i.e. not documented in any written folktale source, although of course written records cover just a tiny part of the oral tradition), but most of the stories have some kind of documented parallel in either African and/or Native American and/or European folklore. The majority of the stories have African analogues as demonstrated by Florence Baer in her incredibly useful book Sources and Analogues of the Uncle Remus Tales (I found a used copy of that book for just $30). There are also quite a few stories with Native American parallels thanks to stories being shared back-and-forth among African-American and Native American storytellers throughout the southeastern U.S. You can get a sense of that from Swanton's Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians: just look at all those trickster rabbits! Swanton's book contains stories from the Creek, Hitchiti, Alabama, Koasati, and Natchez peoples; these are public domain texts which I can republish at my website. For African stories, I've got lots of public domain online sources too (list here; I'll be developing a similar list of Native American public domain books online also).


So, my goal is to create a public-domain/OER Brer Rabbit Sourcebook for college-level work, and then to create similar sourcebooks that would be appropriate for high school and for middle school students also. I'm really excited about the potential here, and also really glad to have a project that is an excuse for me to read and read and read, and type and type and type if/when I need to get my mind off things, which I suspect is going to be a big need in the year to come -- I was feeling pretty frazzled at the end of the semester... but am now feeling much better after my 10 blissful days spent in the company of Brer Rabbit and all his fellow creatures. I even bought a poster for on my wall: it's a book cover from Harris's biggest book of Brer Rabbit stories, Nights with Uncle Remus: I found it at AllPosters in their barrage of holiday sale emails. :-)


Nights with Uncle Remus poster


Mobile! I also have to say that I am really happy for how the mobile view of Blogger is working to my benefit: I've been posting stories from the books in order so that you can use the mobile Blogger to read through a book story by story by story, like Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (that's the mobile view, with forward/backward buttons that mimic browsing through the stories in the order they appear in the book): The Tar-Baby. So when I am waiting in line and on the plane tomorrow (going to Austin to spend the holidays with my dad), I can just swipe my way through all those Brer Rabbit stories, whoo-hoo!


mobile view of The Tar Baby