Tag: Uncle Remus

Reimagining Splash Mountain

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.

You can read more about the decision here.

Cinco de what?

One of the stranger things we’ve found at the Wren’s Nest is this book from 1993 titled Uncle Remus con chile.

Get a load of that face. Looks like our storyteller has discovered Tex-Mex and become a hipster. Love that red hot chile pepper shirt!

The book is a legitimate collection of humorous folklore from the borderlands along the Rio Grande Valley. It was one of the last volumes published by Américo Paredes, a great Mexican-American folklorist who taught at the University of Texas in Austin and helped found what is now called the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies at that institution.

Univ. of Texas Libraries

“I must apologize to the serious reader for the title of this volume,” Parades writes in the introduction, apparently wondering whether the Uncle Remus allusion is too gimmicky. The introduction is the only part of the book that’s printed in English.

He needn’t have apologized. Peredes was collecting folklore –  humorous folklore – and if that made him think of Uncle Remus and Joel Chandler Harris, well, of course.

Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone.


Animator Floyd Norman to be Honored at the TCM Film Festival

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 BrerRabbitWren’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.

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.”


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