Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Robin in a Wren's Nest

A few weeks ago, I learned a bit about Atlanta's literary history at the Wren's Nest, former home of Joel Chandler Harris, creator of Uncle Remus. Remus is a fictional (compilation) character who narrates African-American folktales, often featuring the folktale trickster character (who is likely the most famous character in Harris's retold stories) in the form of Br'er Rabbit.

The Wren's Nest is like many other house museums--frozen in time and kept mostly as it was when the family lived there.

Old furniture, family portraits, and beloved personal items sit long unused. Rare and expensive books and memorabilia live in glass cases. Couches and chairs are off limits.

And like other museums, this one has a tour. In the dark front room, I sat with other curious visitors in front of a large set of movie props from a now controversial Disney film called Song of the South. We were soon given a short talk about who Harris was, how he came to create the character of Uncle Remus, how popular he and his characters became, what his personality quirks were, what his family was like, and how Disney took the stories to a larger public. We were then given a tour of the house and learned who Harris's famous friends were and how he, along with the illustrator he worked with, helped change children's literature forever.

Though the man himself and the history behind his work were fascinating, the best part was easily listening to one of their live storytellers, called Ramblers. At the end of the tour, our Rambler, 
Akbar Imhotep, brought the gloomy front room to life with his energy and humor in an interactive performance of tale after tale with historical information sprinkled in-between.

It was all very informative and entertaining, but one thing seemed to be missing--a discussion about the political and social issues surrounding the stories. There's a reason Song of the South isn't easily available for purchase. There's a reason Harris had such a strong negative reaction to the now classic illustration of the Uncle Remus character. But there's also a reason the stories are kept alive even though they're often attached to negative stereotypes. I'd have liked to hear a discussion about those things, but maybe that shows I've been a student too long, expecting a house tour for the public (children included) to be a critical discussion of the texts!

Wren's Nest staff did hand out the paper below, available in bulk for classroom use, and told me to call if I needed more copies, which they'd gladly mail. Or even better (for the trees), the article can be read online here: Everything You've Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong. That's where the critical aspect of the issues came into the tour, but I'd still love to go to a discussion there sometime about the stickier issues that flow beneath the smiling storyteller character. I'll talk more about the critical aspects of the Remus tales and how my class responded to the stories in Part 2. Till then, if you're interested, here's a good place to start learning more: Uncle Remus.

“[I]t’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.” ~ Judy Blume