Author: Jim Auchmutey

Of rabbits and presidents

Joel Chandler Harris wrote editorials for The Atlanta Constitution for almost a quarter of a century, through seven presidential elections, and one thing is clear from his columns: He despised partisan rancor. With a bitterly contested presidential election upon us, we’d like to look back at his opinions of several presidents.

Harris promoted the New South, the creed popularized by his newspaper colleague, Henry Grady. They meant slightly different things by it. For both, the New South meant looking forward and not being imprisoned by the past and the resentments of the Civil War. But Grady, though no defender of slavery, did espouse a version of white supremacy. Harris, according to his most recent biographer, Walter M. Brash (Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus and the “Cornfield Journalist”), believed that the emancipated were equal to whites and deserved to be treated that way.

Harris’s attitude toward the opposing presidents of the Civil War is telling. He did not care for the Confederacy’s Jefferson Davis because he couldn’t quit fighting the war and exhibited what Harris called a “restless petulance.” Abraham Lincoln was another matter.

As a teenager growing up on a middle Georgia plantation during Sherman’s March to the Sea, young Joe Harris did not think highly of the commander in chief who ordered the invasion. “During the Civil War, he despised Lincoln,” Brasch writes. But two decades later, writing for The Constitution, Harris had come to regard the assassinated president as “one of the greatest men in history.”

It’s worth noting that we have found three portraits of Lincoln in the Wren’s Nest archives this year. They do not appear to have been used as dart boards.

In 1900, Harris wrote a four-part fictional series in The Saturday Evening Post about a Confederate plot to kidnap Lincoln. The plot fails because the Confederate spies charged with nabbing the president fall under the spell of his wit and humanity and refuse to carry it out. 

Among the readers who enjoyed the story was Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote Harris a letter shortly after becoming president in 1901, thanking him for his efforts in “the blotting out of sectional antagonism.” Roosevelt was the only president Harris knew personally. When Teddy visited Atlanta in 1905, he sent word that he wanted to meet Harris because he and his family admired the Uncle Remus stories so much. The president later sent a stuffed owl to the Wren’s Nest so it could watch over the Harris family (its glassy eyes still look over the family room). He also invited the author to visit him in the White House, which Harris, who generally avoided
such social occasions, did in 1907. 

After Harris died the following year, Roosevelt came to Atlanta and gave a speech to help raise money to turn his house into a museum. His successors in office, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, also endorsed the drive and allowed their names to be used as honorary board members.

Harris would have appreciated the fact that Taft was a Republican and Wilson a Democrat. In fund-raising, as in life, nonpartisanship has its advantages.

Hollywood South

Some of the most beloved — and controversial — movies ever made have been set in the South. Think of To Kill a Mockingbird … and The Birth of a Nation. Forrest Gump … and Gone With the Wind.

And there’s that 1946 movie that’s of special interest to Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus aficionados, Song of the South, which has managed to push both buttons at different times.

In the Wren’s Nest’s sixth online book talk this year, we’ll discuss Hollywood’s take on the South with Ben Beard, author of the forthcoming volume, The South Never Plays Itself: A Film Buff’s Journey Through the South on Screen. (Here’s the link to register for the session, which will start at 4 p.m. next Sunday, Nov. 8.)

Beard, a film critic and librarian, lives in Chicago but grew up in Pensacola and Atlanta, and has a native son’s interest in how his region has been depicted in the movies. “The South remains a complicated place on the big screen,” he writes, “somehow more racist and less racist than the rest of the country, more violent and less violent, urbanizing and progressing, yet always losing something too.”

Beard surveys scores of titles from more than a century of movies. He lingers on The Birth of a Nation (1915), the first blockbuster, which established the language of narrative film but grotesquely glorified the Klan; Gone With the Wind (1939), which he regards a very good movie but very bad history; A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), in which Tennessee Williams established the lurid mood of Southern drama; To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), which he regards as an exemplary movie even though he thinks Atticus Finch is overrated; Nashville (1975), Robert Altman’s exploration of country music and conservative politics; Forrest Gump (1993), which he considers an irresistible gimmick; and 12 Years a Slave (2013), which he thinks comes to the closest to telling the hard truth.

The South is not a movie genre like the Western, Beard writes, but setting a film in this region is a creative choice that communicates something. If a director wants Anywhere, USA, she sets it in Ohio or Iowa, not Louisiana or Georgia. The South is a character in itself, with a backstory and an accent.

So what does Beard think of Song of the South, the 1946 Disney version of the Uncle Remus stories, which the studio has come to feel so squeamish about that it has not released it in the United States since the 1980s?

Beard grew up watching the film numerous times as a kid. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” is imprinted on his mind. Yet now, in his 40s, the idea of re-watching the movie fills him with dread.

It’s complicated. Why don’t we let him explain during the book talk?

The man in the dashiki

Akbar Imhotep, who celebrates his 35th anniversary as a storyteller at the Wren’s Nest this fall, did not know a single Brer Rabbit tale when he started performing at the house in late September 1985.

He began by telling African folk tales that were similar to the Uncle Remus stories Joel Chandler Harris popularized. One day the executive director at the time, Madeline Reamy, pulled him aside and asked, “Akbar, when are you going to tell some Uncle Remus stories?”

“As soon as I learn some,” he answered.

He learned some, and has been telling them ever since at the Wren’s Nest and in schools and community centers across Georgia.

Akbar is an important figure in the history of the Wren’s Nest. He has been associated with the house longer than just about anyone, including Joel Chandler Harris himself. More importantly, he represents a change in the way the Wren’s Nest presented its history and the legacy of the Brer Rabbit stories.

The Wren’s Nest had storytellers before Akbar, but they were usually people impersonating Harris or Uncle Remus, many of them holding forth at a plantation cabin in the back yard. Akbar was different. He was the first storyteller who personified the African origins of the majority of the Uncle Remus stories. He told African tales that were antecedents of the Harris stories and underscored their cultural roots by wearing a dashiki. 

“What was I going to wear: a suit and tie?” he says.

Akbar comes from Perry, Ga., where he fell under the spell of biblical stories and an uncle’s storytelling at an early age. After a stint at the University of Georgia, he settled in Atlanta during the 1970s and went to work as a stagehand and then as a puppeteer at the Center for Puppetry Arts. You can hear him talk his background in an interview we did this summer.

When he first visited the Wren’s Nest with a school field trip group, he knew next to nothing about the house or the stories that had made it worthy of being a National Historic Landmark. Over the years, he has come to embody them.

We’re very glad he discovered us and helped interpret this legacy for new generations.

Congratulations, Akbar! May the story go on and on.

Are we haunted?

Denise Roffe has seen a full-bodied apparition — what most people would call a ghost — three times. 

The first time was when her mother died and she saw her form passing through a garden and entering a house in Stone Mountain, Ga. The second time was when she saw a woman dressed in old-fashioned finery in the ladies’ lounge at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta. 

“We were doing a paranormal investigation,” Denise recalls, “and I saw her for just a second with my flashlight. I screamed.”

The third time? That would be at the Wren’s Nest last year. More on that later.

Denise is co-founder of the Southeastern Institute of Paranormal Research, a group of ghost-hunters who use small electronic equipment to measure sounds, energy fields, and other manifestations of spirits who have gone before. She and her colleagues led several nights of ghost-hunting sessions at the Wren’s Nest last year, drawing more than 200 people. They can’t hold the sessions in person this year because of the pandemic, but we’re offering them virtually on Zoom for six evenings in September and October starting this Saturday. (For tickets and dates, CLICK HERE.)

Denise inherited her interest in the paranormal from her father, who saw his grandmother’s ghost when he was a child and spoke often of such mysteries with his daughter. She has been ghost-hunting for more than 20 years, the last 12 with the SIPR. She has written a book about ghosts — “Ghosts and Legends of Charleston” — and has led dozens of investigations  in Savannah, Charleston, and Atlanta-area landmarks such as the Fox and the Southside Theatre Guild in Fairburn, where a theater troupe performs in a vintage movie house.

“Theaters are by far the most active places for the paranormal,” Denise says. “The only thing I can figure is it’s all the energy you get when people produce a play and get together to see it.”

The other misconceptions have to do with what people see on the ghost-hunting shows that have become a TV staple. “They see people yelling at ghosts, demanding that they come out, and then something happens and everyone jumps,” she says. “The truth is that we mainly debunk. We capture sounds and electronic phenomena and analyze them. Most of them turn out to be ordinary things. A few of them turn out to be disembodied voices or some other evidence of the paranormal.”

As for that full-bodied apparition at the Wren’s Nest: During an investigation last year, Denise walked past the doorway to Joel Chandler Harris’s bedroom — the room where the author died in 1908 — and glimpsed a man standing in front of the fireplace contemplating the mantel. She saw him well enough to make out his face.

Our director then, Melissa Swindell, took Denise to the family room, where she examined photos of Harris’s children displayed on the wall. She recognized one of the faces. She believes the apparition she saw was of Julian Harris, a distinguished writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who helped his father found the Uncle Remus Home Magazine in the last few years of his life. Maybe they were having an editorial conference.

You’ve heard of living history demonstrations at house museums? We had no idea.

Brer Rabbit spills the beans

America must have been going through a dietary iron crisis during the late 1940s. In “Brer Rabbit’s Modern Recipes for Modern Living,” the Brer Rabbit Molasses cookbook we found in our archives earlier this year, the text repeatedly talks about ways to sneak iron into children’s diets with something sweet. 

They recommend putting molasses on cereal at breakfast, in cookies at lunch, on toast at snack time, and over ice cream for dessert. To wash it all down, there’s the Brer Rabbit Milk Shake, demonstrated in this quaint scene in which two rabbits dressed like waiters at the Ritz pour milk and molasses into Miss Wholesome’s glass.

Talk about the sweet life.

Brer Rabbit is a brand of molasses that started in New Orleans in 1907, while Joel Chandler Harris was alive and writing Brer Rabbit stories. More than a century later, the label is still around and is now marketed by B&G Foods, a conglomerate based in New Jersey. The recipe booklet came out around 1950. We suspect that its preoccupation with dietary iron is a hangover from World War II, when meat was rationed and families really did have to worry about making up for missing nutrients.

We’ve run two recipes from the booklet this year: Brer Rabbit Molasses Ginger Cookies (in April) and Brer Rabbit Barbecue Sauce (in July). Before we leave this culinary artifact behind, we thought we’d offer another recipe from its pages, for Brer Rabbit Boston Baked Beans — because even though Labor Day has passed, the picnic season lingers for weeks in the South.

Many thanks to our recipe tester, Pam Auchmutey. She passes along a tasting note: Despite the molasses, these beans are less sweet than your typical pot-luck baked beans, which often include maple syrup. Molasses is sweet but complex. It makes the beans rather interesting.

Brer Rabbit Boston Baked Beans

Ingredients:

2 cups dry navy beans (1 16-ounce package)

4 slices of bacon (uncooked)

½ cup molasses (more for extra sweetness)

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 ½ teaspoons salt

¼ teaspoon pepper (or more to taste)

1 small onion, chopped (optional)

1 ½ cups water from simmered beans

Directions:

   Wash bean and soak overnight in cold water to cover.

   Bring to boil in same water (to preserve minerals and vitamins), adding extra water if needed. Simmer for 50 minutes or until beans are tender.

   Drain beans, reserving cooking water.

   Place beans in a large crockpot. Season with mustard, salt and pepper.

   Add molasses and stir. Tuck bacon among beans.

   Cook on high until mixture bubbles (about 1 hour). Turn to low and cook 3 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally. If needed, add water from simmered beans to moisten.

   When fully cooked, beans will take on a brown hue. Turn crockpot to warm to serve.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

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