I use the surname Terrell for the black characters in my novel If You Walk Long Enough. That name has a history back to the 1800’s and the early years of the Turnwold Plantation, Eaton, Georgia.
Between 1862-1864 a young man, Joel Chandler Harris, lived at Turnwold and became enamored of the Gullah tales of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and other whimsical characters. Originally, the tales emerged as oral history told by Turnwold slaves. Harris tuned his ear to their dialect and began collecting the stories using Uncle George Terrell, a plantation slave, as the model for the fictional Uncle Remus, a kindly old freedman. Not until 1880 were the tales published in book form whereby, they made popular a new literary practice based on the oral folklore traditions of African American slaves.
One story (my favorite) was of Brer Rabbit meeting a tar baby, a form dressed in doll clothes cleverly made to look like a person, when in fact, it was a lump of tar. Brer Rabbit greets the figure and when he receives no response, socks him. His hand sticks to the tar. The form offers no response. Another whap. No response. This continues until Brer Rabbit is completely stuck on the sticky form. Along comes Brer Fox and Brer Bear. After much back and forth and pleas from Brer Rabbit, the pair throw the rabbit, stuck in the tar, into the briar patch. The joke’s on Brer Fox and Brer Bear, as Brer Rabbit wiggles out using the briar vines to pull himself free.
Joel Chandler Harris, a Savannah journalist, counted Mark Twain among his fans. The stories were mostly moral lessons about escape, the value of cunning, and overcoming submission. They bring to mind Aesop’s Fables. The speech patterns and rhythms of southern blacks reflected age-old wisdom as enslaved individuals outwit their masters much like the clever Brer Rabbit and wily Brer Fox outwit a multitude of fellow creatures—and each other. They are tricksters similar to those found in stories told by White Mountain Apache and Caribbean folk as well as other groups of storytellers.
Harris eventually made his home in Atlanta where he worked for the Atlanta Constitution. He lived in the city with his family at the Wren’s Nest. A beloved Georgia journalist, he wrote for children, giving his animal characters human characteristics much to the delight of his young readers.
Today the Wren’s Nest, a treasured Atlanta landmark, offers tours, storytelling, and a glimpse into the South before the Civil War. Although today these tales are considered racially inappropriate, stereotyping, and sad nostalgia for the Old South, readers might ask what if Uncle Remus is read with a touch of irony and a tip of the hat to cleverly evading cultural conventions? Think about it. You know, like Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox would have thought. Like the Terrell’s used social and cultural expectations to their benefit in my novel If You Walk Long Enough set in 1970 South Carolina.