We were not surprised to hear that Brer Rabbit will no longer be part of Disney theme parks as the company redesigns Splash Mountain, a log flume ride based on characters from the 1946 film Song of the South.
The movie has always been a double-edged sword for Brer Rabbit lovers. The cartoon portions made the tales come to life for generations, but the live action parts featuring Uncle Remus included a depiction of the aftermath of slavery that was recognized as problematic and hurtful even in the 1940s. Disney had been considering changing the rides for several years and had come under increasing pressure to do so in recent weeks. The company has announced that it will re-theme the attraction around The Princess and the Frog, a 2009 animated film that featured the studio’s first African American princess.
It seems like a wise decision to us.
Fortunately, Disney’s version of Brer Rabbit is not the only one available to fans of the iconic trickster. The Wren’s Nest encourages those who loved the ride and its characters to seek out the stories themselves. Our storytellers perform every Saturday, sharing the stories in a way the emphasizes their origins in the African American oral tradition. You can also read the stories in Joel Chandler Harris’s books or in more easily accessible modern versions like Van Dyke Parks and Malcolm Jones’s JUMP! and Julius Lester’s The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. If you want to preserve Brer Rabbit, we encourage you to read, listen to, and share to stories. Or you can donate to The Wren’s Nest to help continue to preserve them (wrensnest.org/donate).
Even if Brer Rabbit will no longer be the star of a theme park ride, it doesn’t mean that he and other critters need to disappear from our culture and memories.
(Want to try your own hand at a Brer Rabbit illustration? Check out our new drawing challenge here!)
When you think of Brer Rabbit, chances are the first image that pops into your head looks something like this:
Or possibly just this:
This is understandable given that this is the way animator Wilfred Jackson depicted Brer Rabbit in Disney’s Song of the South and Disney is pretty pervasive in every part of pop culture today. It’s the way he’s shown on the Splash Mountain ride, in the former comic strip, and on all types of merchandising.
But before Jackson/Disney’s interpretation of the character, depictions of the tricky rabbit were a little less cartoon-ish and a little more dapper.
All of the above illustrations were done by Arthur Burdett Frost (or A.B. Frost).
Frost was born in 1851 in Philadelphia, PA. He was a largely self-taught artist, working mostly with pen and ink but also dabbling in watercolors and engravings. Initially working as an engraver’s apprentice at the age of 15, he was told that he “had no talent for drawing.” Fortunately, he didn’t take this criticism to heart and in 1874, he illustrated Max Adler’s anthology, Out of the Hurly-Burly as a favor to a friend. The surprisingly popular book helped launch Frost’s career as an illustrator. He illustrated for numerous magazines like Harper’s Weekly and Punch as well as Lewis Caroll’s poetry book, Rhyme? and Reason? Frost is also credited with helping to create the American comic strip style of illustration that we are familiar with today. His talent was well-established when Harris enlisted him to illustrate his book.
But Frost was not the original illustrator.
In a letter to the editors of the Evening Post (who had been publishing Harris’s Uncle Remus columns), Harris asked them to advertise the first volume, declaring that it would be published by “Messrs. D. Appleton & Co.” and that Mr. Frederick S. Church would be doing the illustrations.
Church was also an established illustrator with Harper’s Weekly and Harris felt that Church could“[catch] and [express] the humor that lies between what is perfectly decorous in appearance and what is wildly extravagant in suggestion.”
Despite Harris’s claim in one of his letters to Church that he was “a compiler merely” of the illustrations for his book, he took them very seriously. In fact, he also told (and cautioned) Church, “The success of the book will depend upon these illustrations, and I trust, therefore, that you will not enter upon it as a task, merely, or allow yourself to be hurried.”
Church and another illustrator named James H. Moser created the images for Harris’s first book, Unlce Remus His Songs and His Sayings. Unfortunately, the drawings ultimately did not live up to what Harris had in mind. Harris “appreciated their fanciful charms,” but felt Church’s “animal delineations fell short” and “the spirit was good, but the art crude” for Moser’s depictions of Uncle Remus. So he moved on to a new illustrator. Enter Frost.
And Harris was definitely excited about Frost’s drawings of Brer Rabbit! After receiving Frost’s illustrations of the trickster and his nemesis Brer Fox, Harris wrote,
“You have breathed the breath of life into these amiable brethren of wood and field… The book was mine but you have made it yours, both sap and pith.”
Pretty high praise there!
We can’t help but wonder what Harris would have thought of Disney’s Brer Rabbit…
Sadly, he had passed away decades before the movie’s release, so we’ll never know. But perhaps we can help revive Frost’s contribution to making Brer Rabbit come to life for audiences!
Written by Jim Auchmutey, Wren’s Nest Board Member
We are happy to see that Floyd Norman, our favorite animator, is being honored by Turner Classic Movies at the TCM Film Festival in Hollywood. If it weren’t for the pandemic, Norman would be at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre this weekend to receive a standing ovation from festival-goers. Instead, at 8 p.m. Sunday, TCM is showing a 2016 documentary about his remarkable career, Floyd Norman: An Animated Life.
Norman is a good friend of the Wren’s Nest. The California native was the first African-American illustrator on staff at the Disney studios. In 2013, the Wren’s Nest brought him to Atlanta for a talk at the Auburn Avenue Research Library. He drew a couple of illustrations inspired by the Uncle Remus stories (which he loves, incidentally), including this one (pictured right) showing Brer Fox and Brer Bear preparing to “bobby-cue” Brer Rabbit.
We reproduced it (with Norman’s permission, of course) on a limited number of bottles of Wren’s Nest Barbeque Sauce (pictured left).
Norman, almost 85, started to work for Disney during the 1950s, a few years after the studio released Song of the South, its animated-live action version of the Uncle Remus stories. He has often asked about that movie, even though he didn’t work on it, and usually defends it as a groundbreaking piece of animation and a product of its times.
He went on to work with Hanna-Barbera, Pixar and other animation studios, contributing to movies such as One Hundred and One Dalmations,The Jungle Book, Toy Story 2, and TV shows such as Josie and the Pussycats and The Smurfs.
Bravo, Floyd Norman. We join the virtual standing ovation.
Written by Jim Auchmutey, Wren’s Nest Board Member
One of the things we’ve been doing with our down time at the Wren’s Nest is taking stock of our archives and collection. We have some interesting and curious items dating back 150 years. A fun example: a booklet titled, “Brer Rabbit’s Modern Recipes for Modern Living,” issued circa 1950 by Brer Rabbit Molasses.
Yes, there’s a brand of molasses named for our favorite trickster bunny. Trademarked in 1907 — a year before Joel Chandler Harris died — Brer Rabbit Molasses was made for decades by a food company in New Orleans. It’s still marketed by B&G Foods, a New Jersey-based conglomerate whose stable includes 50 or so labels like Green Giant, Clabber Girl, Cream of Wheat, and Mrs. Dash.
The fashionably retro booklet includes more than a hundred recipes for breads, cakes, cookies, candies, pies, puddings, sauces, frozen deserts, and a few savory dishes like molasses-cured ham and that old rabbit favorite: molasses-glazed carrots.
If Brer Rabbit ate like this, he could forget about outrunning Brer Fox. Shoot, he couldn’t get his furry behind down a rabbit hole!
We’re eager to try Brer Rabbit Molasses in a barbecue sauce. But first we tried these molasses ginger cookies. Wren’s Nest supporter Pam Auchmutey tested the recipe using a rabbit-shaped cookie cutter that she just happened to have among her baking supplies. You never know when you’re going to need a rabbit cookie cutter!
We’ve included the recipe below so you can try making the cookies yourself at home.
Molasses Ginger Rabbits
Makes 15 cookies, using a large rabbit-head cookie cutter
2¾ cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ginger (or more for sharper taste)
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
⅔ cup Brer Rabbit Molasses (spray measuring cup with PAM to pour easily into other ingredients)
⅓ cup brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
½ cup shortening, melted
Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt and spices. Mix molasses with brown sugar, egg and shortening and then gradually add to dry ingredients to make a soft dough using a mixer. Chill dough for 1 hour. Then roll dough on floured board and cut with floured cookie cutters.
Bake on greased cookie sheet (or sheet lined with parchment paper) in moderately hot oven (375 degrees F)* for 12 minutes. Makes 15 rabbit-head cookies. Let cookies cool and then decorate with cookie icing.
*If oven runs hot like Pam’s, bake at 350 degrees F for 12 minutes.