Monday, October 20, 2014

Brer Rabbit :: A Controversial Figure

Warning: Long post. There was no way around it.

A few weeks ago, publishers and readers were celebrating Banned Books Week. I saw people online taking up the cause for banned books and encouraging the rest of us to do the same. I thought about reposting something on behalf of those declaring the right to read any book they liked but, upon reflection, I realized I couldn't do that and be consistent with my own beliefs at the same time. The fact is that there are, quite frankly, several books I would like to "ban". I think there is some sense to the idea of banning a book if you believe that words have power to influence, which I believe that they do.

Let me quickly follow up that last comment with the further clarifying statement that, although I believe it makes sense to ban books, I don't believe that governments should be the ones deciding which titles we, the people, should be given access to. I think individuals should retain the rights and capability to ban books for themselves and for their soul's health. Furthermore, I think I should have the right as a parent to ban certain books from my home and/or from my children's education experience. When my kids grow up they can make their own reading decisions as I will no longer be responsible for their reading choices. But for the time period in which I am responsible, I think it's a good idea to use wisdom in what we put before eyes and digest internally in our hearts and minds.

To give a specific example of one book I would declare a ban on for our household, and would like to see others do the same, take 50 Shades of Grey. I think that book is hideously degrading and destructive to all females of all races and all cultures. Why anyone tolerates this story is completely beyond me. I cannot see how this book serves society or the world well. I do not understand how people can rail against the unfair treatment of women on the one hand and read and support 50 Shades of Grey on the other. You can't get clean water and dirty water out of the same well. Make a choice, make a statement, be consistent.

Which ultimately brings me to Brer Rabbit. (Whew!)

Like many modern readers, I am familiar with Brer Rabbit thanks to the Walt Disney Company. Back in 1946, Disney released Song of the South which told the story of Uncle Remus and the characters of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear. Raise your hand if you remember the story of Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby! It's folklore at its finest. Now, Song of the South has since received a bad rap as our culture has (ever so slowly) changed (for the better) and we are united (with only extreme and disgusting exceptions) in our declaration that slavery is bad. Let me be perfectly clear: slavery was wrong, it is wrong, and it will forever be wrong. And yet, here in America especially, we have many stories and great works of literature which were born during the time when slavery was practiced. Do we read those stories and remember a time gone by, or do we boycott (or ban) them for containing information about things we do not like? This seems to be the hot button question as relates to Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit and the desire of some to effectively ban the story from modern readers.

Now let me set the stage for my reading of Brer Rabbit. A friend recently allowed me the opportunity to rifle through her old school books and take whatever I liked to read with my own kids. In her collection of books was a Giant Treasury of Brer Rabbit (retold from the stories of Joel Chandler Harris). I snatched the book up right quick! The kids and I read this collection of Brer Rabbit stories over the course of the past few weeks. Then it came time to sit down and write up a review of it and I began doing a little Internet exploration about Brer Rabbit and the author of the Uncle Remus tales, Joel Chandler Harris. I had no idea what amount of controversy surrounded these tales but, let me assure you, there is a great deal of it.

Let me also say that I tried to find individual book reviews on these stories but came up lacking. I checked Goodreads and people seem very hesitant to offer their opinions on it. There is a virtual silence on these stories which I find somewhat baffling (and also, truth be told, terrifying).  Why aren't people talking about this book? Should we not be talking about Brer Rabbit? Is he taboo? Will people harrass me endlessly online if I dare mention that we read and enjoyed the stories? Should I fear such things? We shall soon see. By this posting you'll see that I concluded that to refrain from talking about a book out of fear is unacceptable. You, the reader, might not like what I have to say and you are as entitled to your opinion as I am to mine according to rules of logic. Hence this post.

I discovered in my internet-based research that many African Americans do not appreciate the literary "works" of Joel Handler Harris. The stories, as told by Harris, were stories which he was told by African American slaves. Harris wrote these stories down into a series of Uncle Remus books. The character of Uncle Remus is based on a particular slave that Harris personally knew who told stories of trickster Brer Rabbit and his cunning actions and behaviors towards the likes of Brer Fox and Brer Bear. In fact, several slaves told Harris such stories over time. There is a question of why it is that slaves opened up to Harris well enough to share stories from their homeland, but the general consensus seems to be that Harris was a humble fellow with enough insecurities of his own that he felt rejected by society and felt comfortable in the company of slaves. It seems a reasonable explanation that he made friends and they talked.

Harris was born to an unwed mother and felt the sting of his illegitimate birth all throughout his life. He is described as being a quiet sort, bashful, who preferred the four walls of his own home to outside life and company. He worked as a reporter for a newspaper in Atlanta but eventually quit because he felt that too many requirements were being placed upon him to write what the paper wanted him to write instead of what he felt/thought for himself. After walking away from his career in journalism, Harris stuck to home and wrote over twenty books, the most popular being stories from Uncle Remus about Brer Rabbit and the lot.

The most historically worthy point in favor of the Uncle Remus books is that Harris is the first person to have documented the dialect of the African American slaves with whom he kept some company. If you read the stories in the original, you can catch the flavor of the speech patterns and language of the slaves at that point in history. (Actually, reading the stories in the original is now difficult for modern readers.) Critics and historians seem in agreement that these books are unique in writing out text, story and dialogue in this fashion which makes the books noteworthy for that reason alone. Still, many African Americans dislike the fact that Harris is credited with these tales as they came from a different land and culture and were only forcefully brought to American shores. I can understand that feeling of irritation. Except, at the same time, almost all older legends have been documented by someone or another, and not always by the original source. I'm a little hesitant to take up that offense against Harris because plenty of people of European descent told tales to each other before they were ever written down. I think you will find this a fact in most any culture and I don't find myself begrudging the eventual source. I'm usually grateful to be able to hear the story at all and that's my own viewpoint on Brer Rabbit. I think there is room to be glad that Harris wrote them down and preserved them in the off chance that they would be lost.

Could an African American have written them down for us at a later time? Yes. That could have happened. We can most definitely trace the stories back to Africa but they were written down by Harris. I guess you could complain about that. Before I move on from this complaint, it would also be remiss of me not to note the fact that the Cherokee Indians also had similar tales which were published before the Uncle Remus books were published. Harris also acknowledged this when speaking of "his" stories. Again, it does not seem that he tried to cover up or shy away from these facts.

The second concern about the books lies in the character of Uncle Remus. You cannot get away from the fact that Uncle Remus is a slave. In the introduction to the Giant Treasury of Brer Rabbit, there is an Introduction given by Anne Hessy who says:

"As the racial stereotypes of the nineteenth century are inappropriate today and may be offensive to many contemporary readers, we have eliminated the storytelling Uncle Remus and the little boy." 

We're back to the fact that words and stories do have influence and power over the reader. That is why you have to read wisely and well and make individual choices about what you read, why you read it, and even sometimes when you read it.  Some individuals of any variety of descents might choose to ban Uncle Remus for being "inappropriate and offensive" because he is sterotyped. A publisher might choose not to publish a certain work for that reason and I think that they would be within their rights to make that choice. It is only when they decide to be preachy about the fact that I'm going to rise with an objection.

As relates to Brer Rabbit, as a matter of history alone, these stories are interesting. They contain unique characters and rollicking dialogue which is hard to find elsewhere. The books do represent a part of who we have been in the past and I think while you absolutely should correct mistakes in the past, you shouldn't then go about denying that the past ever was. (You could try to do so but it would be folly.) If you don't remember, if you don't know what happened before you, then you are more likely to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Looking at my own individual life choices, I can look back and say that I have made certain mistakes. I really don't want to re-live them. I really wish other people wouldn't remember them. Yet, at the same time, I recognize that my past is as it is for a reason. I do not see those mistakes as purposeless but purpose-filled and I do strive to remember them so that I will make better choices in the future. Likewise, I think scrubbing out half of the Uncle Remus tales, leaving us only with Brer Rabbit, is a similar mistake. Why are we not trusting young readers to imagine the past and ask what they would have done differently? Why would we not offer them talking points and a chance to learn from the mistakes of someone else instead of leaving in danger of having to experience the wrong for themselves? We need to learn from the past. In order to do that, we must also know it. This is our history and it cannot and should not be re-written. Are we likely to be ashamed at parts? Yes, as we should be. But a sense of shame has never hurt anyone as much as sheer ignorance.

To the question of whether or not Uncle Remus is stereotyped, again people would be foolish not to acknowledge the fact that he is a slave and his relationship to the young boy is unavoidably one of servant and master. However, Harris doesn't seem to intentionally write the character out to be the sort who doesn't have his own mind and strength of spirit. Still, this is how we are introduced to the character in the opening paragraph of Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings:

"One evening recently, the lady whom Uncle Remus calls "Miss Sally" missed her little seven-year-old. Making search for him through the house and through the yard, she heard the sound of voices in the old man's cabin, and, looking through the window, saw the child sitting by Uncle Remus. His head rested against the old man's arm, and he was gazing with an expression of the most intense interest into the rough, weatherbeaten face, that beamed so kindly upon him."

At that moment, Harris launches into the first tale of Brer Rabbit as overheard by Miss Sally. Reading through the other mentions of Uncle Remus in the original work, we see him "thoughtfully stroking" the young lad's head, or preparing to smoke a pipe, or "having nothing to do" therefore having time to tell a story or being busy with some job and telling a story while working. Uncle Remus is also referred to as a "darkey" on a few occasions which definitely makes the modern reader cringe. In the story explaining why the possum has no hair on his tale, Uncle Remus refers to some young slaves making use of the "N" word which makes us cringe even more. Certainly that is odious and offensive to our ears (and also, I agree, inappropriate) and I can see why a publisher would want to cut that out of a storybook for young audiences.

Toward the end of the book there is mention that Uncle Remus had to be coaxed to tell the stories but Harris leaves the distinct impression that the decision to relay the stories lies squarely with Remus. He doesn't have to tell the boy anything, but he chooses to.  If he wanted to make the boy behave a certain way or make him wait to hear a tale, he did so. The boy does have some known-to-us control but so does Uncle Remus. I'm not saying this to justify Uncle Remus's position in society, or the position of the boy at all. To make a slave of a man is unacceptable.  What I'm trying to do with this post is lay out the facts of how Uncle Remus is presented in the original work so that you, the individual, can decide whether or not you would ban his character altogether, sticking only with the direct stories about the animals. I didn't appreciate being told by the publisher that Remus was inappropriate without allowing me to understand the reasons why. Simply removing him from the text without explanation is, in my opinion, a bad call.

So here we beg the question: do we ban Uncle Remus as being inappropriate? I would say no. I say he is not inappropriate, but he does represent a society and a figure which we look back on with a certain amount of pity and regret. But just because you or I might look back sometimes with pity and regret doesn't mean we have to move forward with it. We must know the past and also leave it there, gleaning from it as much as we can and moving on. The idea is to make better decisions as we move forward. Uncle Remus may indeed be offensive to modern audiences and therefore it is good to remember him! Let us never make a decision as a society which will create another Uncle Remus.

I think it is interesting that publishers tout the importance of reading banned books but at the same time publish severely edited books which effectively ban half of the storyline without explanation or example. That just seems to be remarkably inconsistent. Let the individual decide to be informed or not, as they see fit.

I'm also not saying any of the above because I missed out on Uncle Remus in our reading of Giant Treasury of Brer Rabbit with the kids, although I do not think that they would be hurt by the introduction in the future when they are better able to grapple with who Uncle Remus is and what he represents. As Hessy also says in her introduction, the stories of Brer Rabbit stand alone and stand alone well. We enjoyed them as they were provided to us. In fact, the kids enjoyed them so much that they created a new game which they play together called, "Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox." (I don't understand the rules, exactly, but I do know that it involves a lot of running and laughing.)

These are rich stories which I am very glad to have shared with my kids. They are a part of our culture and I don't think they ought to be banned to the point where we forget them. Yes, the stories were born in Africa. But then they came to America where they were written down. Do African Americans "owe" Harris a debt of gratitude in this? No. Did he received the recognition of being an author? Yes, but in the introduction to the 15th edition of Uncle Remus, his songs and his sayings, Harris was also quick to give credit where credit was due. Again, by many accounts he was a humble fellow who didn't fit within the society he knew and found a kinship with some slaves who, apparently, delighted to share their stories with him. He mentions these remarkable people and never once claimed these stories as original works. He simply took up a pen and wrote down what he had been told. The rest truly is, as they say, history. And I want my kids to know it for what it was, exactly as it was. With such knowledge, the future, I trust, will look quite different.


Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

I enjoyed reading this, Carrie, and I can certainly appreciate your hesitation, thoughts, and concerns. We visited Joel Chandler Harris' home in Atlanta almost 5 years ago and thoroughly enjoyed our entire experience. I blogged about it here:

I'd definitely recommend a visit the next time you're in Atlanta!

Barbara H. said...

My first exposure to the Uncle Remus stories was on a radio station where we used to live - on Friday nights they'd play some of the old radio classics like Fibber McGee and Molly and The Hornet and such. In those it was just the animal stories - I think we had a vague idea that Uncle Remus was the man telling the stories, but not the background that he was a slave telling stories to a white boy.

I agree with you that some books should be banned, on an individual rather than a government level.

There is an objection on the part of many these days that slaves could get along with and even love their white masters. I do believe slavery is quite wrong, but I do believe there were some who made the best of it and truly loved the people they worked for (again, not justifying slavery, but I don't think we have to ban or heavily edit books that depict that time in history). I came across this in my reading about Uncle Tom's Cabin and Roots. Uncle Tom is seen by modern secular African-Americans as kowtowing and weak (though he wasn't) and Kunta Kinte of Roots was seen as brave and heroic because he hated the white man and his situation all his life (and he had plenty of reason to), and if he got too comfortable, he berated himself. But Tom, coming from a Christian background, loved his master and family as well.

We lived in the Atlanta area for 4 years and home schooled during that time, and our home school support group sometimes organized field trips. One was to Joel Chandler Harris's home. It was a neat place to visit. But I was amazed when the guide said that the Brer Rabbit stories were told by slaves as a way to make fun of their masters in a "safe" way - Brer Rabbit was the wily slave and Brer Bear was the dense, foolish master. My take was that this was the "politically correct" spin they put on the stories to make them more acceptable - I haven't read much about their background but my understanding was just what you have said, that they were folk stories passed down and Harris just happened to be the one to write them down.

I've thought, too, isn't it funny how some secular publishers will edit out what they see as objectionable material, but if a Christian wants to edit out something they find objectionable, everyone cries "censorship!" There used to be places where you could rent or buy movies that were fine except for a few words or a bedroom scene, and these places would edit out the objectionable bits and got heavily criticized for it, whereas I appreciated it.

Annette Whipple said...

Wow. As one 100% unfamiliar with the stories, this was quite a post to read. Very interesting. I like your points throughout the post.

FancyHorse said...

I grew up in the 50s and heard Uncle Remus stories as long as I can remember, and shared them with my children in the 70s. The fact that the Uncle Remus character was a slave in the American South is deplorable because the institution of slavery was deplorable, but a fact of history that should not be forgotten nor overlooked.
Aesop was also a slave, as was Homer, and where would our civilization be without their stories?

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading your post too and appreciate you providing the full story behind Brer Rabbit. I was under the impression the controversy was due solely to Disney adding a "happy slave" to JCH's stories. Now I know!

I don't think Brer Rabbit books should be banned but they really don't relate to modern life. Perhaps children in the Jim Crow era understood the concept of "Uncle" but today's children do not. How would that even be explained?

Mark Baker said...

Bravo! So many good points here. And you sound much like I did after I finally got to see Song of the South. Yes, these are not stories and situations we have today. And they shouldn't be. But they are a piece of our history, and we should learn from them, not ban them.

(And Barbara, I'm completely with you on the way some things are okay to censor, like this, while anything Christians want to leave out is automatically bad.)

Mardette said...

Believe me when I named my son Brer in 1978, I never gave a thought to it would cause anguish in his life. Thus, this excellant post will be quoted or read completely by him. He will be receiving a long historically influenced document on Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Uncle Remus stories. You have done a good job and it is appreciated.

Top  blogs