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Monday, December 16, 2013

December 16, 2013: Representing Slavery: Uncle Remus

[A couple weeks ago I finally had the chance to see the amazing film 12 Years a Slave, one of the greatest American cultural representations of slavery. In this week’s series I’ll AmericanStudy some other cultural representations, leading up to two posts on 12 Years—one from me, one a special guest post!]

On the racist caricature and myth that’s also something more.
There are few ways in which I would claim to have had any opportunities that my boys don’t have—the opposite is far more frequently the case, which of course is precisely as it should be—but one complex and interesting such opportunity is that I had the chance to see the Walt Disney film Song of the South (1946) as a kid. I confess to not knowing the details of where or when I saw it with my Dad, but I’m sure it was in a theatrical re-release, as the film has to my knowledge never been released on home video in any format. I don’t think that’s any great loss to America’s youth or film cultures, but on the other hand as you would expect I’m not a big fan of suppressing or censoring any American text; certainly I would hope that if and when any kids do get to see it, they have the benefit (as I did, and as my boys would) of a parent who’s able to frame some of the contexts (of race, region, and slavery) into which the film fits, but it does also contain some funny and impressive (and I believe largely non-controversial) animated versions of Brer Rabbit stories, and a few (perhaps more controversial, but not any worse than Peter Pan’s “What Makes the Red Man Red?”) catchy tunes.
Song was based pretty closely on Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings (1881), the first in the series of books that late 19th-century Southern journalist and folklorist Joel Chandler Harris wrote about that title character and his “legends of the old plantation.” I’ve only read the first two books in that series, Uncle and its 1883 sequel Nights with Uncle Remus—I wrote about them, in an extended version of what I’ll say in this post, as part of the “race question” question in my dissertation/first book—and certainly in some key ways found them as objectionable as the worst elements of Song of the South and as (I believe) the images conjured up by the name Uncle Remus in our collective consciousness. Uncle’s version of that title character embodies in multiple ways some of the most ideologically and socially disgusting characteristics of the plantation tradition: a former slave who wishes only to return to and recapture the world of slavery, who (in the Reconstruction-focused “Sayings” portion of the book in particular) full-throatedly rejects the potential advancements of the Reconstruction era (freedom, education, opportunities outside of the plantation world, etc.), and who seeks to influence his young post-bellum white audience through these beliefs. And through one particularly unhappy choice Nights extends and amplifies those qualities, moving the setting and characters back to the antebellum era, and thus making clear the mythologized reasons for Remus’s preference for the world of slavery and all of its benefits for himself, his wife, and his fellow slaves.
I don’t want to elide any of those aspects of Harris’s books, but I would nonetheless also note some of the much more complex and even progressive qualities of Harris’s work in these texts. In my book’s analyses I linked those qualities to the interconnected concepts of “voice” and “dialogue” on at least three levels: the ways in which Uncle Remus’s “Brer Rabbit” stories themselves create a set of voices that seem, at least times, quite clearly allegorical for some of the less happy and idyllic sides to the world of slavery; the ways in which both books, and especially Nights, create an evolving and at times quite powerful and inspiring dialogue between Remus and the young white boy who is his audience and (I would argue) student; and the presence in Nights of three other slave voices in Remus’s cabin, each with his or her own identity and perspective (including on slavery itself), creating an exemplary, powerfully African American dialogic space from which the boy likewise can and does learn. Obviously those are interpretative points, and it’s possible to read Harris’s books quite differently—but at the least that’d mean reading them for yourself and figuring out where you come down on these questions.
Next representations tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?


  1. You probably saw the same theatrical re-release I did, in 1986. We used to have a bootlegged VHS copy from the UK, so I've seen the film as an adult. I actually showed it in an evening class once. We'd been studying fairy tale evolution, which led to a discussion about the representation of women and people of color in Disney films. Song of the South came up in conversation, and when I mentioned that I had access to a copy, the class voted to adjust our schedule to add it to the syllabus. (That was a great class! I miss those people! They were awesome at civilized discourse.)

    One of the many reasons that I wish it were available at least to university libraries and film studies programs is that there are some very interesting depictions of class in the film that rarely get mentioned. A comprehensive analysis of race and class in Song of the South would be a valuable project, I think.

  2. Very cool, thanks Jaime! I can't imagine that it's anywhere near as racist and offensive as *Birth of a Nation*; so while I get Disney wanting to control its image, I'd say it should certainly be available for at least those kinds of analyses.