Category: Uncle Remus

Unpublished Letter to the Editor of TIME

In April TIME Magazine ran a feature on slavery and the Civil War by noted journalist David Von Drehle. It was pretty good, but I took issue with a paragraph about Southern coping mechanisms during Reconstruction:

“But people were eager to forget. And so Americans both Southern and Northern flocked to minstrel shows and snapped up happy-slave stories by writers like Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris. White society was not ready to deal with the humanity and needs of freed slaves, and these entertainments assured them that there was no need to. Reconstruction was scorned as a fool’s errand, and Jim Crow laws were touted as sensible reforms to restore a harmonious land.”

As soon as I read the article I wrote and sent in a letter to the editor. They didn’t publish it, so here you go.

David Von Drehle truly grasped of the influence of storytelling in “150 Years After Fort Sumter: Why We’re Still Fighting the Civil War,” his piece about slavery’s role in the Civil War. That’s why it’s shocking he could so casually dismiss the gravity of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus tales.

Harris’s depiction of plantation life is a far cry from “happy slaves, all faithful to a glorious lost cause,” as Von Drehle writes. The figure of Uncle Remus in particular is a subversive, developed character who tricks his audience—both the little white boy in the stories and the reader of the stories themselves—into witnessing nuanced lessons of cultural understanding and empathy. Fittingly, Uncle Remus introduced the world to Br’er Rabbit, one of literature’s greatest trickster heroes.

Harris first heard these stories while he grew up working amongst slaves on a Georgia plantation during the Civil War. Just a few years after the Jim Crow laws were enacted, he celebrated and preserved African-American culture and folklore that was widely derided and may have otherwise been lost. In doing so, he also satirized the very “plantation school” writers that Von Drehle lumps him in with.

If Von Drehle bothered to study the Uncle Remus tales, as I suspect he has not, I think he’d be delighted to find “Americanism at its best”—literature that tears down borders.

Lain Shakespeare
Executive Director
The Wren’s Nest House Museum
Historic Home of Joel Chandler Harris

For a more detailed look at this particular issue, take a look at “Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong.”

 

Now In Print: Everything You've Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong

I’ve wanted the Wren’s Nest to put out a newspaper for a few years now.

Joel Chandler Harris cut his teeth as a printer’s devil for a newspaper before making a name for himself at the Savannah Morning News and the Atlanta Constitution. Newsprint seemed like an appropriate marketing gimmick, but that was about as far as we got.

When Huey + Partners surprised us with these awesome print advertisements, it was clear we had to use them somehow.

While we sat on our hands, Noisy Decent Graphics and McSweeney’s created their own delightful, short-run newspapers.

Then earlier this year Lauren over at Lampe-Farley read “Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong” and was all like, “Hey idiot! This is your newspaper right here.” And you know what? She was right, for a few of reasons.

• Amelia‘s mom had already said the same thing.
• Some folks have no idea who Uncle Remus is.
• Some folks are uncomfortable talking about Uncle Remus.
• Some folks think Uncle Remus is NOT OK.
• The essay’s been popular online, but many readers drop out after Part 1.

It seemed like a great way to marry marketing and mission, so we put Lauren to work. A few weeks later, our newspaper was born:

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Thanks to Greg at Lampe-Farley for the video.

The whole paper looks great, but I’m especially happy that Zach from Crafty Mice let us use his Brer Rabbit poster to serve as the centerfold. This photograph doesn’t do it justice, but I’m gonna show it to you anyway.

We had our newspapers printed just in time for the Decatur Book Festival. Naturally, we’re bringing in a scrappy team of newsies to distribute the thing.

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If you can’t make it to the festival, send your address to lain@wrensnestonline.com, and I’ll mail you a copy.

What do y’all think? Will people pick this up? Or will I be making a lot of hats and boats all winter?


Glee Season Finale — Sue Sylvester and the Briar Patch

Last night’s episode of Glee got off on the right foot with a snarky nod to Song of the South. Sue Sylvester, the deliciously evil cheerleading coach, takes a shot at Will Schuster, the dopey glee coach:

“Your hair looks like a briar patch. I keep expecting racist, animated Disney characters to pop up and start singing about living on the bayou.”

Gosh, I’m not sure whether to buy Sue a drank or punch her in the throat.

I’m thankful that the writers at Fox (a) finally made a fresh joke about Will’s hair; (b) specified that the racist characters are Disney’s; and (c) had Sue Sylvester deliver the line on the season finale.

Yet as much as I like getting folks to think about the Uncle Remus stories, I can’t say that I’m thrilled that this dimension of Song of the South is being perpetuated in prime time. Sue Sylvester is always over the top, and this is no exception. But given the film’s, uh, reputation I don’t think people will take it as such.

And seriously, how many people watch Glee? Millions!

How many people have watched this video of Akbar telling the story of Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch? Like, 4. And half of them can’t tie their shoes.

It’s awesome that Glee provided such a great reference to Brer Rabbit, but it’s a shame that it further brands him as something so negative.

Also, can we talk about how it’s at least a little ironic that a show so reliant on stereotypes is calling out other stereotypes?

Jack Sparrow Before Johnny Depp and Pirates of the Caribbean

Before Johnny Depp’s role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, there was Jack Sparrow, original gangsta, from the Uncle Remus story “The Fate of Mr. Jack Sparrow.”

Curtis tells a wonderful version of the story. As Uncle Remus explains, Jack Sparrow is a tattler who meets his demise whilst tattling atop Brer Fox’s snout.

I guess the little boy hadn’t seen The Wire yet.

Disney put out both Pirates of the Caribbean and that movie based on the Brer Rabbit tales — oh, what is it called again? — but I think the similarities may stop there. Then again, I haven’t seen the Pirates films so what do I know.  Can anyone who has seen ’em connect the dots?

Joel Chandler Harris offers this note on the text at the end of the story:

Previously:

• 1937 Uncle Remus Illustrations by Fritz Eichenberg
• “I bin mixin’ up wid fokes now gwine on eighty year”

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