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Gullah Folktales from the Georgia Coast
a.k.a. Negro Myths from the Georgia Coast Told in the Vernacular

Charles Colcock Jones, Jr.
University of Georgia Press, xxxv + 192 pages

Charles Colcock Jones, Jr.
Charles Colcock Jones, Jr. was born in 1831 in Savannah, Georgia. His family owned over 100 slaves who cultivated rice and cotton along the Newport River in coastal Liberty County. His father, a Presbyterian minister and planter, was constantly on the road during much of Charles' childhood, fervently preaching and writing in his The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States, (1842; see link below) that, while slavery was condoned by the Bible, it imposed a Christian duty on masters to take care of their slaves' health, comfort and particularly their spiritual instruction. By the time he went to college, Charles Colcock Jones, Jr. had a passion for American Indian relics, which would lead him to become the first president of the American Anthropological Association, and publish Antiquities of the Southern Indians, Particularly of the Georgia Tribes (1873). Jones then attended Princeton and later Harvard Law School. Upon his return, he took up the practice in Savannah, where he also served as alderman and later mayor. In 1860 he married his cousin Ruth, but soon after he joined the Confederate Army, his two children and wife were dead. After the war and with a new wife, he moved to New York and returned to his practice, historical pursuits and the revision and publication of his fathers' A History of the Church of God During the Period of Revelation. His publications included his memoirs of the Civil War, including The Siege of Savannah (1874, see link below). Jones returned to Georgia in 1877 and settled in Augusta where he remained an ardent defender of the Old South and of the "compassionate slavery" ideals of his father. With the publication and great popularity of Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus tales in the Atlanta Constitution in the 1870s and in book form as Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings in 1880 (the basis of Disney's Song of the South), there began to be an serious public and academic interest in American folklore. When Harris began running out of sources for his next book, Nights with Uncle Remus, he contacted Jones. Jones, also concerned that these African American traditions would be lost, ran with the idea, collecting 57 tales over the next five years. Unlike Harris whose tales came from central Georgia, Jones collected his tales along the coast, in the region where his family had their plantations. Charles Colcock Jones, Jr. died in 1893.

E-TEXT:
The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States, 1842: 1, 2
The Siege of Savannah, 1874: 1, 2, 3 (excerpt)

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Gullah Folktales from the Georgia Coast Charles Colcock Jones, Jr., while a learned and cultured man was, even by the standards of the latter half of the 19th century, a slavery-promoting racist (for example, in his preface, he refers to the storytellers as "old plantation darkies"). However, like it or not, it was white men like Jones and Joel Chandler Harris who first preserved the pre-emancipation folklore of African Americans. But with today's political correctness even Disney's Song of the South (1946), based on Harris' Uncle Remus tales and winner of two Academy Awards, remains unreleased on video in North America (though it is available in Europe and Asia in PAL format). For all the unsavouriness of Charles Colcock Jones, Jr. the man, he did collect some very amusing and entertaining African American tales which, as Susan Miller Williams points out in her Foreword, continue to be read and interpreted in new ways, even today.

The majority of forty-something individuals have probably had some contact with Harris' Uncle Remus tales, be it through the numerous reissues and repackagings of his works, or Disney's Song of the South. However Gullah Folktales differs in a number of ways from Uncle Remus. Firstly they come from the marshy coastal regions of Georgia and the Carolinas, with a distinct dialect and culture, whereas Harris' tales came from central Georgia. In Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, Harris presents the folktales as children's stories, with a framing story of an elderly black ex-slave telling the stories to a young white boy. In contrast, Gullah Folktales presents, in a manner more reminiscent of professional folklorists, just the tales, with no window-dressing or attempt to present them for children, though he only identifies a couple of the story-tellers. Even the characters have slightly different roles in the Gullah tales: in Uncle Remus Brer Fox is the trickster, but in the Gullah tales Buh Rabbit takes on the role. Harris, in addition to the tales presents a number of plantation songs, where Jones presents no songs, but includes some essays, which while they contain some folkloric elements are largely a place where he can express his views of how nice and cosy "compassionate slavery" was for both sides.

Gullah Folktales is difficult to read, even compared to the Uncle Remus tales; however, Jones does include a convenient glossary at the end. Here for example is the first paragraph of the Gullah version of the Tar-Baby story:

Buh Wolf and Buh Rabbit, dem bin lib nabur. De dry drout come. Ebry ting stew up. Water scace. Buh Wolf dig one spring fuh him fuh git water. Buh Rabbit, him too lazy an too scheemy fuh wuk fuh isself. Eh pen pon lib off tarruh people. Ebry day, wen Buh Wolf yent duh watch um, eh slip to Buh Wolf spring, and he full him calabash long water an cah um to eh house fuh cook long and fuh drink. Buh Wolf see Buh Rabbit track, but eh couldnt ketch um duh tief de water.
To some extent I think it is easier to understand if read aloud, particularly since the material did come from oral storytelling tradition. The tales include stories of trickery and morals tales with animal protagonists (a rare few with elements of European folktales), and some humorous tales of the interaction between slaves and masters.

While these tales, or particularly their compiler, may grate on some people's sensitivities and reading them is an effort, it is an effort richly rewarded. In the tradition of Aesop, La Fontaine and Le Roman de Renart, the animal tales present a spectrum of characters from the indolent but sly rabbit, to the dangerous but dim-witted alligator, reflecting the variety of people in everyday life. Certainly anyone interested in pre-civil war traditions in the Southern US and/or African American culture should read this book, for you others read it simply because the stories are entertaining and funny.

Copyright © 2001 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.


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