Dec 092017
 

Today is the birthday (1848) of Joel Chandler Harris, a US journalist and author best known for his collection of Uncle Remus stories. Harris was born in Eatonton, Georgia, where he served as an apprentice on a plantation during his teenage years. He spent most of his adult life in Atlanta working as an associate editor at the Atlanta Constitution. The Uncle Remus collection has had a mixed reception over the years. Some see it as racist, and an unwarranted appropriation of African-American folktales, while others see it as a groundbreaking and highly influential body of literature. There’s room for both views.

Harris’ mother, Mary Ann Harris, was an Irish immigrant, and his father, whose identity remains unknown, abandoned Mary Ann and the infant shortly after his birth. The boy was named Joel after his mother’s attending physician, Dr. Joel Branham, and Chandler was the name of his mother’s uncle. Harris remained self-conscious of his illegitimate birth throughout his life. A prominent physician, Dr. Andrew Reid, gave the Harris family a small cottage to use behind his mansion. Mary Harris worked as a seamstress and helped neighbors with their gardening to support herself and her son. She was an avid reader and instilled in her son a love of language.  He wrote later in life, “My desire to write—to give expression to my thoughts—grew out of hearing my mother read The Vicar of Wakefield.” Dr. Reid also paid for Harris’ school tuition for several years. In 1856, Harris briefly attended Kate Davidson’s School for Boys and Girls, but transferred to Eatonton School for Boys later that year. He had an undistinguished academic record and a habit of truancy. Harris excelled in reading and writing, but was mostly known for his pranks, mischief, and sense of humor. Practical jokes helped Harris cloak his shyness and insecurities about his red hair, Irish ancestry, and illegitimacy, leading to both trouble and a reputation as a leader among the older boys.

Harris quit school at age 16 to work. In March 1862, Joseph Addison Turner, owner of Turnwold Plantation nine miles east of Eatonton, hired Harris to work as a printer’s devil for his newspaper The Countryman. Harris learned to set type for the paper, and Turner allowed him to publish his own poems, book reviews, and humorous paragraphs. Harris lived on Turnwold Plantation, Joe Harris and had access to Turner’s library where he read Chaucer, Dickens, Sir Thomas Browne, Arabian Nights, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Thackeray, and Edgar Allan Poe. While at Turnwold Plantation, Harris spent hundreds of hours in the slave quarters during time off. He was less self-conscious there and felt his humble background as an illegitimate, red-headed son of an Irish immigrant helped foster an intimate connection with the slaves. He absorbed the stories, language, and inflections of people like Uncle George Terrell, Old Harbert, and Aunt Crissy. The African-American animal tales they shared later became the foundation and inspiration for the Uncle Remus tales. George Terrell and Old Harbert in particular became models for Uncle Remus, as well as role models for Harris. Turner shut down The Countryman in May 1866 and Harris left the plantation with useless Confederate money and very few possessions.

Harris bounced around newspapers in the South until in 1876 he was hired by Henry W. Grady at the Atlanta Constitution, where he would remain for the next 24 years. In addition, he published local-color stories in magazines such as Scribner’s, Harper’s, and The Century. Not long after taking the newspaper job, Harris began writing the Uncle Remus stories as a serial to “preserve in permanent shape those curious mementoes of a period that will no doubt be sadly misrepresented by historians of the future.” The tales were reprinted across the United States, and Harris was approached by publisher D. Appleton and Company to compile them for a book. Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings was published near the end of 1880.

Here’s his arguably most famous retelling of a slave tale: “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby”

“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 w’at he call a Tar-Baby, en he tuck dish yer Tar-Baby en he sot ‘er in de big road, en den he lay off in de bushes fer to see what de news wuz gwine ter 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 wuz ‘stonished. De Tar Baby, she sot dar, she did, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

“`Mawnin’!’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee – `nice wedder dis mawnin’,’ sezee.

“Tar-Baby ain’t sayin’ nuthin’, 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’ nuthin’.

“‘How you come on, den? Is you deaf?’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Kaze if you is, I kin holler louder,’ sezee.

“Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

“‘You er stuck up, dat’s w’at you is,’ says Brer Rabbit, sezee, ‘en  I’m gwine ter kyore you, dat’s w’at I’m a gwine ter do,’ sezee.

“Brer Fox, he sorter chuckle in his stummick, he did, but Tar-Baby ain’t sayin’ nothin’.

“‘I’m gwine ter larn you how ter talk ter ‘spectubble folks ef hit’s de las’ ack,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Ef you don’t take off dat hat en tell me howdy, I’m gwine ter bus’ you wide open,’ sezee.

“Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

“Brer Rabbit keep on axin’ ‘im, en de Tar-Baby, she keep on sayin’ nothin’, twel present’y Brer Rabbit draw back wid his fis’, he did, en blip he tuck ‘er side er de head. Right dar’s whar he broke his merlasses jug. His fis’ stuck, en he can’t pull loose. De tar hilt ‘im. But Tar-Baby, she stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

“`Ef you don’t lemme loose, I’ll knock you agin,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, en wid dat he fotch ‘er a wipe wid de udder han’, en dat stuck. Tar-Baby, she ain’y sayin’ nuthin’, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

“`Tu’n me loose, fo’ I kick de natal stuffin’ outen you,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, but de Tar-Baby, she ain’t sayin’ nuthin’. She des hilt on, en de Brer Rabbit lose de use er his feet in de same way. Brer Fox, he lay low. Den Brer Rabbit squall out dat ef de Tar-Baby don’t tu’n ‘im loose he butt ‘er cranksided. En den he butted, en his head got stuck. Den Brer Fox, he sa’ntered fort’, lookin’ dez ez innercent ez wunner yo’ mammy’s mockin’-birds.

“`Howdy, Brer Rabbit,’ sez Brer Fox, sezee. `You look sorter stuck up dis mawnin’,’ sezee, en den he rolled on de groun’, en laft en laft twel he couldn’t laff no mo’. `I speck you’ll take dinner wid me dis time, Brer Rabbit. I done laid in some calamus root, en I ain’t gwineter take no skuse,’ sez Brer Fox, sezee.”

Here Uncle Remus paused, and drew a two-pound yam out of the ashes.

“Did the fox eat the rabbit?” asked the little boy to whom the story had been told.

“Dat’s all de fur de tale goes,” replied the old man. “He mout, an den agin he moutent. Some say Judge B’ar come ‘long en loosed ‘im – some say he didn’t. I hear Miss Sally callin’. You better run ‘long.”

I’m not going to venture too far into the deep, dark, murky waters of Uncle Remus criticism. Disney’s Song of the South makes Uncle Remus and slavery in general into a playful, happy-go-lucky romp that is a travesty of the truth, but Harris is not responsible for that image; that’s on Disney’s scorecard. Harris seems to me to be genuinely caring for the tales and making an honest effort to present them in authentic voice. My professor at UNC when I was taking an MA in folklore had nothing good to say about Harris because the Uncle Remus tales were not verbatim transcriptions of narratives from slaves. This critique is just rank anachronism. In Harris’ day there were no professional folklorists with tape recorders faithfully notating tales and songs. The Grimms documented peasant tales and then edited them for publication, even though they were scholars of language and could have given verbatim versions. Andrew Lang was a professional folklorist, and he too dressed up folktales for publication. The only reason folklore as a discipline got started in the first place – as a branch of anthropology – was that early folklorists believed that uneducated peasants were the unwitting bearers of the riches of ancient cultures, and even though the modern tales and songs repeated by poor rural laborers were debased in comparison with the original high art that spawned them (because the peasants were careless with the treasures they had), the glories of old could be glimpsed in them. I hope I have contributed to showing that this point of view is complete nonsense. In comparison with the scholars, I would say that Harris’ retellings of the slave tales are probably truer to the original than those of the scholars.

I could also get into whether Harris was appropriating African-American culture because he was a privileged white man, whether he was patronizing to African-American voices, etc. etc., but I won’t. Figure it out for yourself. There is no doubt in my mind that he preserved something that would have been lost otherwise. Among other things he helped the cause of anthropologists who wanted to counter the popular falsehood that African slaves arrived in the U.S. with nothing, and their subsequent acculturation was entirely Euro-centric. NO !!! Africans brought African culture (of various types) with them and it had a profound influence on the development of music, art, and literature in the United States. Many of the Uncle Remus tales have clear antecedents in West, Central, and South African animal trickster tales, the animal in question being either a hare or a spider. Some tales, virtually identical in basic form with Brer Rabbit tales, still exist in traditional African settings, the tar baby story being very common in numerous African cultures.

Uncle Remus makes reference to hoe cakes, or Johnny cakes, now and again, so here’s your recipe. Hoe cakes are griddle cakes similar to American breakfast pancakes, but with cornmeal mixed into the flour, and rather smaller. They have been popular in the South since plantation days. Nowadays some cooks add flavorings such as vanilla or nutmeg, but old-fashioned hoe cakes have none. They are usually eaten with butter and syrup. I suppose Aunt Jemima syrup is cutting a little close to the bone.

Hoe Cakes

Ingredients

1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
2 eggs, beaten
2½ tsp baking powder
2 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
¾ cup milk
½ cup water
⅓ cup melted butter
butter for frying

Instructions

Mix the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and pour in the milk, water, egg, and melted butter. Mix the ingredients thoroughly to form a smooth batter.

Heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat and, when hot, add a knob of butter and let it melt. Using a ladle that holds about 2 tablespoons, drop the pancake batter into the hot pan to make the hoe cakes one at a time. Do not overcrowd. I can usually make 4 in one batch.

Let each hoe cake fry until brown and crisp on one side. The top will bubble a little and start to set.  Turn with a spatula and brown the other side.

Serve immediately with butter and syrup.

Mar 192016
 
Livingstone

Livingstone

Burton

Burton

I love coincidences. Today is the birthday of TWO eminent African explorers: David Livingstone (1813) and Richard Burton (1821). Both deserve a post in their own right. However, juxtaposing them allows for some comparisons. I’m not going to dribble on about either at great length. If I pique your interest you can explore more on your own. There’s plenty of material online.

This is a good (brief) site on Livingstone that cuts to the heart of the matter:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/missionaries/david-livingstone.html

This is a strange, but compelling, view of Burton from a blog on “manliness”:

http://www.artofmanliness.com/2009/01/13/sir-richard-francis-burton/

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David Livingstone (19 March 1813 – 1 May 1873) was a British Congregationalist pioneer medical missionary with the London Missionary Society and an explorer in Africa. His meeting with H. M. Stanley on 10 November 1871 gave rise to the popular quotation “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” (which some say he rehearsed for months beforehand, whilst others believe is apocryphal). Livingstone was one of the most popular national heroes of the late 19th century in Victorian Britain, and he had a mythical status which operated on a number of interconnected levels: Protestant missionary martyr, working-class “rags to riches” inspirational story, scientific investigator and explorer, imperial reformer, anti-slavery crusader, and advocate of commercial empire. His fame as an explorer helped drive forward the obsession with discovering the sources of the River Nile that formed the culmination of the classic period of European geographical discovery and colonial penetration of the African continent.

At the same time, his missionary travels, “disappearance” and death in Africa, and subsequent glorification as posthumous national hero in 1874 led to the founding of several major central African Christian missionary initiatives carried forward in the era of the European “Scramble for Africa”.

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Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS (19 March 1821 – 20 October 1890) was a British explorer, geographer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, cartographer, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer, and diplomat. He was known for his travels and explorations in Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. According to one count, he spoke 29 European, Asian and African languages.

Burton’s best-known achievements include a well-documented journey to Mecca, in disguise at a time when Europeans were forbidden access on pain of death; an unexpurgated translation of One Thousand and One Nights (commonly called The Arabian Nights in English after early translations of Antoine Galland’s French version); the publication of the Kama Sutra in English; and a journey with John Hanning Speke as the first Europeans to visit the Great Lakes of Africa in search of the source of the Nile.

Burton defied many aspects of the pervasive British ethnocentrism of his day, relishing personal contact with exotic human cultures in all their variety. His works and letters extensively criticized colonial policies of the British Empire, even to the detriment of his career. Although his university education was aborted, he became a prolific and erudite author and wrote numerous books and scholarly articles about subjects including human behavior, travel, falconry, fencing, sexual practices, and ethnography. A characteristic feature of his books is the copious footnotes and appendices containing remarkable observations and information.

Burton was a captain in the army of the East India Company, serving in India (and later, briefly, in the Crimean War). Following this, he was engaged by the Royal Geographical Society to explore the east coast of Africa and led an expedition guided by the locals and was the first European to see Lake Tanganyika. In later life, he served as British consul in Fernando Pó, Santos, Damascus and, finally, Trieste. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded a knighthood (KCMG) in 1886.

Both men believed in British colonialism, but neither subscribed to the bigoted racism of the day. Livingstone was a staunch abolitionist, considering slavery to be an unchristian evil perpetrated on Africa by greedy opportunists. He railed against the practice in Britain and Africa. Both men respected local customs, being more interested in documenting them than changing them. Livingstone owed his ability to survive in previously unexplored parts of Africa by taking a soft approach with the locals. Others before him and gone off into the bush with large groups of men armed with guns and rifles, hoping to hack and bully their way through. Most of them died for their troubles. Burton and Livingstone both traveled light, and took the trouble to befriend local leaders. In several instances, they owed their survival to this tactic.

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Here’s a great example from Burton. Burton’s camp was attacked by a Somali raiding party. He writes his recollection of a time when his encampment was attacked by Somalis in First Footsteps in East Africa:

The enemy swarmed like hornets with shouts and screams intending to terrify, and proving that overwhelming odds were against us: it was by no means easy to avoid in the shades of the night the jabbing of javelins, the long heavy daggers thrown at our legs from under and through the opening of the tent…The revolvers were used by my companion with deadly effect: unfortunately there was but one pair.

In the confusion of the battle, Burton turned to strike a man approaching him, but he was a colleague. Just before striking down his friend he recognized him, and in the moment of hesitation that followed, he was speared through the face by one of the Somali raiders:

I turned to cut him (his colleague) down: he cried out in alarm; the well known voice caused an instant’s hesitation: at that moment a spearman stepped forward, left his javelin in my mouth, and retired before he could be punished.

The spear went through one cheek and out the other, knocking out four teeth and damaging the roof of his mouth. With the spear lodged in his mouth Burton managed to fight his way out and then wandered up the beach through the night and into morning before coming across help. The boat which Burton stumbled upon just happened to be crewed by local men to whom Burton had previously shown great hospitality, and they received him and tended his wounds. The spear left him with a scar which you can see in portraits.

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Both men are noted for having better relations with locals in Africa than with fellow Europeans. Livingstone was well known for his inability to get along with other Westerners. He fought with missionaries, fellow explorers, assistants, and (later) his brother Charles. He had little patience with the attitudes of missionaries with “miserably contracted minds” who had absorbed “the colonial mentality” regarding the natives; Burton likewise.

A story that haunted Burton up to his death (recounted in some of his obituaries) was that he came close to being discovered one night when he lifted his robe to urinate rather than squatting as an Arab would. It was said that he was seen by an Arab boy and, in order to avoid exposure, killed him. Burton denied this, pointing out that killing the boy would almost certainly have led to his being discovered as an impostor. Burton became so tired of denying this accusation that he took to baiting his accusers, although he was said to enjoy the notoriety and even once laughingly claimed to have done it. A doctor once asked him: “How do you feel when you have killed a man?”, Burton retorted: “Quite jolly, what about you?”. When asked by a priest about the same incident Burton is said to have replied: “Sir, I’m proud to say I have committed every sin in the Decalogue.”

These allegations coupled with Burton’s often-irascible nature were said to have harmed his career and may explain why he was not promoted further, either in army life or in the diplomatic service. As an obituary described: “…he was ill fitted to run in official harness, and he had a Byronic love of shocking people, of telling tales against himself that had no foundation in fact. Men at the FO [Foreign Office] … used to hint dark horrors about Burton, and certainly justly or unjustly he was disliked, feared and suspected … not for what he had done, but for what he was believed capable of doing.” Whatever the truth of the many allegations made against him, Burton’s interests and outspoken nature ensured that he was always a controversial character in his lifetime.

David Livingstone died in 1873 at the age of 60 in Chief Chitambo’s village at Ilala, southeast of Lake Bangweulu, in present-day Zambia, from malaria and internal bleeding due to dysentery. His loyal attendants Chuma and Susi removed his heart and buried it under a Mvula tree near the spot where he died. That site, now known as the Livingstone Memorial, lists his date of death as 4 May, the date reported (and carved into the tree’s trunk) by Chuma and Susi; but most sources consider 1 May—the date of Livingstone’s final journal entry—as the correct one.

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The rest of his remains were carried, together with his journal, over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) by Chuma and Susi to the coastal town of Bagamoyo, where they were returned by ship to Britain for burial. In London, his body lay in repose at No.1 Savile Row, then the headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society, prior to interment at Westminster Abbey.

Burton died in Trieste early on the morning of 20 October 1890 of a heart attack. His wife Isabel persuaded a priest to perform the last rites, although Burton was not a Catholic and this action later caused a rift between Isabel and some of Burton’s friends. It has been suggested that the death occurred very late on 19 October and that Burton was already dead by the time the last rites were administered. On his religious views, Burton called himself an atheist, stating he was raised in the Church of England which he said was “officially (his) church”.

Isabel never recovered from the loss. After his death she burned many of her husband’s papers, including journals and a planned new translation of The Perfumed Garden to be called The Scented Garden, for which she had been offered six thousand guineas and which she regarded as his “magnum opus”. She believed she was acting to protect her husband’s reputation, and that she had been instructed to burn the manuscript of The Scented Garden by his spirit.

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The couple are buried in a remarkable tomb in the shape of a Bedouin tent, designed by Isabel, in the cemetery of St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church Mortlake in southwest London. The coffins of Sir Richard and Lady Burton can be seen through a window at the rear of the tent, which can be accessed via a short fixed ladder.

Mrs Beeton can be counted on for a colorful story:

THE PRICE OF A SOW IN AFRICA.—In one of the native states of Africa, a pig one day stole a piece of food from a child as it was in the act of conveying the morsel to its mouth; upon which the robbed child cried so loud that the mother rushed out of her hovel to ascertain the cause; and seeing the purloining pig make off munching his booty, the woman in her heat struck the grunter so smart a blow, that the surly rascal took it into his head to go home very much indisposed, and after a certain time resolved to die,—a resolution that he accordingly put into practice; upon which the owner instituted judicial proceedings before the Star Chamber court of his tribe, against the husband and family of the woman whose rash act had led to such results; and as the pig happened to be a sow, in the very flower of her age, the prospective loss to the owner in unnumbered teems of pigs, with the expenses attending so high a tribunal, swelled the damages and costs to such a sum, that it was found impossible to pay them. And as, in the barbarous justice existing among these rude people, every member of a family is equally liable as the individual who committed the wrong, the father, mother, children, relatives,—an entire community, to the number of thirty-two souls, were sold as slaves, and a fearful sum of human misery perpetrated, to pay the value of a thieving old sow.

I won’t vouch for the specific veracity of the story but some elements ring true. Among African herders traditionally, animals were wealth. They were not bred simply for food and other products. They were used for payment of a variety of social obligations, and the ability to breed large herds led to great power and prestige. In consequence an animal was not slaughtered idly. Rather, animals were killed ritually, usually as part of community-wide celebrations. So, a traditional recipe for you would be something like – “choose a well-fattened ox, kill it with a single spear thrust to the heart, let it bleed, then cut the meat into large chunks and boil it in large pots.”

Here’s a wonderfully entertaining and famous description of a Christmas feast in the Kalahari by Richard Lee:

http://www.waketech.edu/sites/default/files/libraryfiles/ereserves/ant220/kalahari.pdf

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Otherwise you can make ugali. Ugali (also sometimes called Sima, Sembe or Posho) is a dish of maize flour (cornmeal), millet flour, or Sorghum flour (or a blend) cooked with water to a porridge- or dough-like consistency. It is the most common staple starch featured in the local cuisines of the African Great Lakes region and Southern Africa.

The traditional method of eating ugali is to roll a lump into a ball with the right hand, and then dip it into a sauce or stew of vegetables and/or meat. Making a depression with the thumb allows the ugali to be used to scoop, and to wrap around pieces of meat to pick them up in the same way that flat bread is used in other cultures.  If you are new to this way of eating, it will take practice.