Southern Negro Folklore

It seems only the other day that Max Muller, in the second volume of his "Chips" (1869), called our attention to the importance of the comparative study of Folk-lore. Already the literature of the subject makes a respectable library, and in the volume before us we have a contribution from a new and almost unworked field. The half-dozen examples of negro tales published a few years ago in "Harper's Monthly" and the "Riverside Magazine" served only to whet the appetites of lovers of legend; and we trust that Mr. Harris has not now exhausted his repertory in this entertaining collection. He calls attention in his introduc- tion to the difficulty of persuading the negroes to "acknowledge to a stranger that they know anything of these legends; and yet to relate one of the stories is the surest road to their confidence and esteem." Just so Mr. Dasent, as quoted by Max Muller, says, " it is hard to make old and feeble women, who are generally the depositaries of these national treasures, be- lieve that the inquirer can have any real in- terest in the matter. They fear that the ques- tion is only put to turn them to ridicule."

In his well-written introduction. Mr. Harris raises the question as to the origin of these myths, without, however, undertaking to an- swer it. So far as appears, they have nothing in common with the Aryan cycle of popular tales, which has until now been the principal object of investigation. On the other hand, they are found very widely spread in South as well as North America. Did the Indians get them from the negroes, or the negroes from the Indians? Mr. Herbert H. Smith, author of "Brazil and the Amazons," as quoted by Mr Harris, is positive that the negroes brought them from Africa; but considering their wide dissemination among the American natives, and their distinctively American character in many cases, we should hesitate to consider this as settled. We must wait for a careful ex- amination of the native folk-lore of Africa as the next stage in the investigation; the single illustration from Upper Egypt, not a very ex- act resemblance at that, is not enough to found a theory upon. We must remember, what students in the comparative sciences are prone to forget, that resemblances in language, myth- ology, institutions, and legend, may often be as easily explained by analogy of circumstances and way of thinking as by identity of origin.

It is not so much the stories themselves, as their prevailing character, that appears to point to an origin distinct from that of the old world myths. The hero of the tales is the Rabbit; it is, says Mr. Harris, "a fable thoroughly characteristic of the negro; and it needs no scientific investigation to show why he selects as his hero the weakest and most harmless of all animals, and brings him out victorious in con- tests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox. It is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness; it is not malice, but mischievousness." We would note that in one of the Zulu tales eited by Max Muller ("Chips," vol. ii., p. 210) the hare-- —and the Amercan rabbit is a hare--—outwit the lion and compasses his death. These stories, indeed, of the rabbit and fox, form a distinct cycle--—a sort of invertedReineke Fuchs; "it progresses," says Mr. Harris, "in an orderly way from a beginning to a well- defined conclusion, and is full of striking epi- sodes that suggest the culmination." We do not see why, this being so, he has not arranged the stories so as to show this development, but has interrupted the " Rabbit cycle " with inde- pendent stories like the Deluge, the Deceitful Frogs, and several Bear stories.

But it is not merely as a collection of folk- lore that this book deserves notice. It is a valuable study of dialect, or rather affords valu- able materials for such a study; for the com- piler does not enter into the subject at all, ex- cept to point out the differenee of dialect in a parallel story taken from the " Riverside Magazine." This is from the sea-island region while Unele Remus lives in the neighborhood of Atlanta. These two dialects do not, after all differ very materially from each other, but are very different from the "Jim Crow" negro talk of the border slave-states, with which the people of the North are most familiar--—tosay • nothing of the mongrel "nigger-talk" of the minstrels and the newspapers, which is neither fish, flesh, nor fowl.

There is a third point of view in which this volume will be found to possess great interest, and value--—as bearing upon the questin of reconstruction and the future of the South in one of its most important aspects: the sentiments and habits of the negroes themselves. Uncle Remus's "Story of the War," testifified to as "almost literally true," has a moral for those who cannot see how the freed slaves should ever act politically with their old masters. Unquestionably there was a class of slaves typified by Uncle Remus, "who has nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline slavery--—and who has all the prejudces of caste and pride of family that were the natural results of the system." No Northerner who has lived in the South in association with the freed slaves needs to be reminded of these "prejudices of caste and pride of family; or of the undisguised contempt with which their proteges often looked upon them, as compared with the real gentlemen and ladies who used to have them flogged. It seemed, an unaccount- able servility of spirit; nevertheless it was a fact, and one of some importance in the problem of reconstruction."

Lastly, the editor says that he is advised by his "publishers that this book is to be included in their catalogue of humorous publications"; and if there are any who do not care for folk- lore, or for linguistic study or for reconstruction, it will be hard if they cannot pass a fore- noon with rare enjoyment, laughing over the adventures of "Brer Rabbit." We should like to give one of the stories in full, in order to illustrate this feature. This would, however, require too much space, and we will only give the conclusion of the " Story of the Deluge. ' The deluge, according to the story, was caused by the crawfishes, who "bo'd inter de groun' en kep' on bo'in twel dey onloost de fountains er de earf."

"Where was the ark, Uncle Remus," the little boy inquired, presently.
"Noah's ark," replied the child.
"Don't you pester wid ole man Noah, honey. I boun'he tuck keer er dat ark. Dat's w'at he wuz dere fer, en dat's w'at he done. Leas'ways, dat's w'at dey tells me. But don't you bodder longer dat ark, 'ceppin' your mammy fetches it up. Dey mout er bin two deloojes, en den agin dey moutent. Ef dey wuz enny ark in dish yer w'at de crawfishes brung on, I ain't heern tell un it, en w'en dey ain't no arks 'roun, I ain't got no time fer ter make um en put um in dere. Hit's gittin' yo' bedtime, honey."

The illustrations are excellent, and add a great deal to the fun of the book.



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