I have just returned from vacation and will be keeping my distance from most people since I have been out of state. That said, I’m pretty sure no one can catch anything worse than irritation from reading my blog posts – so here goes. Mikel and I visited several waterfalls, crossed a pretty good ‘sky-walk’, took a tube ride in the Chattahoochee, went on a dolphin tour, kayaked in the Atlantic, put in some time on the beach, visited old friends, spent time with my sisters, did a little fishing, and toured several museums. Among the museums, the smallest and perhaps most interesting was the Uncle Remus Museum. I report on this with some trepidation as the whole ‘Uncle Remus’ thing – considered so innocent in the days of my childhood – is a matter of great controversy today. I have also subsequently come to realize that many members of the last couple of generations don’t know anything about Uncle Remus or his cast of characters: Brers Rabbit, Fox, Bear, et al. So, a brief reminder – Joel Chandler Harris grew up in the late Ante-Bellum south and spent part of his childhood on a plantation where he had some association with actual slaves. Harris became a newspaper man and, later in his life, wrote a series of children’s stories about a little boy (himself) who loved to hear the stories told by an elderly black man on the plantation – Uncle Remus. The stories are related in a thick deep south dialect and involve a community of animals who behave like human beings.
Even the fairly sanitized Disney version (Song of the South) is frowned upon these days (The film has not been re-released since 1986 and has never been released in any home video version in America.) and the elements of it that are still present in the theme parks are in the process of heavy revision. I doubt there remains a public school in the United States in which any of the Uncle Remus stories are told in any form.
Editors at the time advised Walt Disney to make it clear that the film was set post-civil war – after the slaves were freed. Disney did not take that advice. The great weakness of the Disney story is clear – it presents a sanitized version of an old south in which the white people live in mansions and the black people live in shacks (charming Disney-ized shacks but shacks nonetheless) and the white people are definitely in charge and the black people are definitely not but everyone, including the black people are OK with the arrangement and it’s all one big happy community. This was a serious mis-step on Disney’s part but cut Walt this much slack – the film was released in 1946. Even if we all should have known better – some of us didn’t. Some of us weren’t even born yet!
But here’s the big disconnect for me. The Disney version – which is the version most familiar to most of the population – is no more true to the original story(s) than are the Disney versions of Robin Hood, Pocahontas or the Hunchback of Notre-Dame – which is to say – not very. The original stories (in all cases) are both better and worse but in any case, ought to be judged on their own merits. The Uncle Remus stories are, by and large, older African folk-tales recast to make use of American Flora and Fauna (Brers Rabbit and Fox take the place of Brothers Leopard and Antelope, etc.) The point of the stories is the same in the American versions as in the older African versions – sometimes your enemies are bigger and stronger than you and have sharper teeth and claws. Fine: outwit them. The outwitting process may well involve deception and mis-direction but you survive as opposed to being gobbled up.
In their original context the stories were harbingers of hope for an oppressed people who often dared not say certain things in plainer language. Forget racism for a moment – by modern standards Brer Rabbit was a sociopath. But before we get too upset at the way he deceives Brer Wolf into volunteering to be locked into a chest and scalded to death, let’s remember that Brer Wolf had been busy devouring Brer Rabbit’s children. Think about it for a minute. It bothers me that Brer Rabbit so cavalierly arranges for the innocent Brer Possum to meet a fiery end. But even though Brer Possum did not eat up all the butter (Read the story for yourself – if you dare!) his innocence was marred by the despised cowardice he showed in leaving Brer Racoon to face the dog alone! Again, think about it for a minute.
Should the Africans have been brought here as slaves? Absolutely not! But they were here. Was their English a little accented and did their grammar depart somewhat from the English norms? No more so than any other first-generation people learning to speak a strange language. Remembering and preserving these things does not strike me as racist nor does any particular dialect strike me as an indicator of ignorance or lack of intelligence. And did they sometimes have to live by their wits in a situation where all other forms of power were in other hands?
Well, I will cease my rant and say only this. Set Disney aside for a moment and judge the Uncle Remus stories for what they are. I hate to see history – even the black parts – maybe especially the black parts disappear. I believe there is a light at the end of the darkness. But we won’t get there by pretending the darkness didn’t exist. Pronounce it Brers or Brothers – all men are mine.
Pastor and Author Terry Bailey, Senior Minister of Indian Run Christian Church