Tag: Uncle Remus

President Obama, Doug Lamborn, and Dealing with the Wonderful Tar-Baby Story

This week Brer Rabbit seemed to take President Barack Obama by storm.

First, Representative Doug Lamborn (R-CO) likened the president to a “tar baby.” Then, Pat Buchanan said “don’t throw me in that briar patch” shortly before referring to the President as “boy.”

The terms stem from “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” and “How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp For Mr. Fox” recorded by Joel Chandler Harris. In case you’re rusty, here are both stories told together (as they usually are) by Akbar Imhotep:

[vimeo 10765411 450 253]

The phrase Akbar uses in the story and the phrase we heard from Rep. Lanborn are different.

The tar baby of Akbar’s story didn’t carry a derogatory connotation when it was told over the course of generations between enslaved Africans. Nor did it carry that connotation when Harris first heard the story while working on a plantation, nor when he wrote the story down at the Atlanta Constitution.

“Tar baby,” however, has evolved into a derogatory term when used in an insulting way. In fact, its connotation reaches so far and so far afield of its original definition that it’s difficult to say in conversation without whispering.

Just so we’re clear — I think Rep. Lamborn’s comment was offensive and intended to be offensive. Enough politicians have used the term (Mitt Romney & John McCain, for instance) that Lamborn knew the whirlwind of criticism and publicity he was entering. It’s shameless to insult President Obama through racist epithets and unfortunate to further hold America’s greatest folklore hostage with political rhetoric. (I’m less sure about Buchanan’s bumbling.)

Most media outlets that I know about have covered either the “tar baby” story or the “briar patch” one. Miss Nannie saw the story on The View, and then 50 Cent let loose on his twitter account.

While I’m thrilled that Brer Rabbit is getting a lot of attention, I’ve gotta say it’s near impossible to combat so much negative misinformation. If you run into 50 Cent, politely refresh his memory on Brer Rabbit.

You can imagine the “tar baby” is a bizarre problem to have for a small house museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of Joel Chandler Harris and the heritage of African American folklore Everyone knows it’s bad, but few are clear on its origins.

We’ve come up with two strategies at the Wren’s Nest to set the record straight about this particular Brer Rabbit story and the 190 Brer Rabbit folk tales that Harris collected —

(1) Tell our entire story. Be it through storytelling performances or research like Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong, we won’t shy away from the controversy or the awesomeness of Brer Rabbit

(2) Change the story that’s being told by bringing the legacy of Joel Chandler Harris to the 21st century. This means instituting the KIPP Scribes Program, which pairs professional writers with the 5th graders to record an important family story. It also means collaborating with the Atlanta Opera to develop their first ever commissioned work and uplift African American folklore in new ways. Or partnering with StoryCorps to record the stories of our neighbors.

Other, less publicized strategies include “drinking beers at key moments,” “sighing quite a bit,” and remembering that sometimes controversy can be a good thing.

Otherwise, I can only describe this particular situation as “a difficult problem that is only aggravated by attempts to solve it.”

What else can we do? What else should we do? What would you do?

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:

[youtube 2BuyROejFSU]

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.

[youtube ABo2MlYdsdU]

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?

Everything You've Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong (Part 5)

This is the final installment of a five-part essay.

“Ef dez yer tales wuz des fun, fun, fun, en giggle, giggle, giggle, I’d a-done drapt um long ago. W’en it come down ter gigglin’ you kin des count ole Remus out.”


Wayne Mixon, in his excellent 1990 article “The Ultimate Irrelevance of Race,” explains that the last decade of Harris’s life was one of the most extreme periods the United States had seen in terms of racism, rioting, and lynching. Atlanta’s race riot occurred in 1906, and during the same year Harris published some of his last Uncle Remus tales.

One story in particular depicts Mr. Man on the hunt for Brer Rabbit with his dogs. They had him cornered, but weren’t able to “tree” him. Mixon goes on:

The little boy then asks, “Why didn’t the dogs tree Brother Rabbit? Don’t you remember how you told me that the dogs on the place here could tree ‘possums?” Remus, unable to answer, utters “a heart-rending groan, as though he was suffering some fearful pang.” The little boy comes to the rescue by saying “I reckon that was before dogs had trained to tree things.”

Remus is shaken. After nearly thirty years, it’s the first time he’s been dumbfounded by the little boy (who, by now, is the son of the original little boy). Unfortunately, this is a story Remus has heard too many times — the story of the lynch mob.

This particular exchange says so much: about the pure cruelty of lynching, about Uncle Remus’s deep connection to Brer Rabbit, about the life-and-death implications of folk tales. Remus’s initiation of the little boy is a re-education, sure, but one with a very clear intent — to foster an empathy between individuals and an empathy between races.

Just as Uncle Remus’s tales are the fictionalized reflection of a struggle between white and black, Remus’s character reflects the struggle Harris experienced during one of the most brutal time periods of the United States. He witnessed the violence and vitriol from a unique point of view at the Atlanta Constitution. Under the constraints of his audience, Harris spoke the language that was expected of him to retain his job and his ability to present his beliefs covertly to a global audience.

Despite the deepening fear and anger directed toward African Americans in the South during this time, Mixon and Robert Cochran cite clauses like these in Harris’s journalism:

• “Is it not true that a man like Booker Washington is an exception in any race?”
• “A model for the men of his race, and indeed, for the men of any race”
• “In common with the great majority of his race — in common, perhaps with the men of all races.”

Cochran picks out these kind of sentences found throughout his work at the paper, explaining that they “unveil Harris quietly but insistently pursuing an anti-racist agenda.” This agenda became louder the more he distanced himself from the paper after retiring in 1900.

Indeed, Mixon cites a 1905 letter to Andrew Carnegie that explains as much. Regarding the impetus of the new Uncle Remus’s Magazine, Harris states that “the only ambition that I have ever had, the only line of policy that I have ever mapped out in my own mind” is to “finally dissipate all ill feelings and prejudices that now exist between the races.”

The founding and very existence of Uncle Remus’s Magazine, Harris continues, is to encourage “the obliteration of prejudice against the blacks, the demand for a square deal, and the uplifting of both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing.” It’s what he could never do overtly at the Atlanta Constitution, and it’s what Uncle Remus attempted to do through the Brer Rabbit tales.

The magazine, begun in 1906 with his son Julian, quickly garnered a readership of over 250,000. Harris died two years later.

— — — — —

Let’s return to what began this diatribe:

“As the racial stereotypes of the nineteenth century are inappropriate today and may be offensive to many contemporary readers, we have eliminated […] Uncle Remus.”

This is the same story we’ve heard about Uncle Remus for the past 60 years. “Eliminated,” or hidden away in a vault. If it’s not that story we’ve heard, it’s been this one: “Irony seems lost on Harris.” Or this one: “Harris probably did not understand this part of the story.” The trouble with these stories are that they’re fiction, but fiction with consequences.

James Weldon Johnson once called the Uncle Remus tales, “the greatest body of folklore America has produced.” But what happens when you ask about Uncle Remus to someone on the street?

What do you think — would Harris, the consummate trickster, regard this as his greatest trick? Or his largest failure?

I’ll conclude (finally) with this story by contemporary author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. If you’ve managed to read this far, you simply must watch it. If you’ve managed to skim this far, let this be what you pay close attention to.

Don’t worry: it’s not about Joel Chandler Harris. But Uncle Remus? I think so.

[youtube D9Ihs241zeg]


Robert Cochran, “Black Father: the Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris.”  (via JSTOR or for free).

John Goldthwaite, “The Black Rabbit: a Fable By, Of, and For the People.” The Natural History of Make-Believe. (via Google Books).

Cheryl Renee Gooch, “The Literary Mind of a Cornfield Journalist: Joel Chandler Harris’s 1904 Negro Question Articles.” (.pdf via the Internatioal Association of Literary Journalism Studies).

Wayne Mixon, “The Ultimate Irrelevance of Race.” (via JSTOR)


Spenser Simrill, Jr. is at least partially responsible for you reading this drudgery — he sent me the Cochran and Mixon articles. Please direct your complaints to him. Amelia Lerner, co-blogger and Program Director, at least ensured that you didn’t have to read too many typos. Thanks to you both.

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