Celebrating Black History Month with A Song

In celebrating Black history month this year, I thought it would be fitting to finally recognize a triumph of African American literature that has, ironically, been falsely accused of racism. That achievement is embodied in a 1946 Walt Disney movie entitled Song of the South. I assume many of you have not seen the film because Disney has succumbed to the accusations of racism by refusing to re-release it in any form. Nonetheless, you may at least recognize the film’s buoyant Academy Award winning song, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” which arguably forms the musical backbone of the movie.

Song of the South takes place on a Georgia plantåation about ten years after the Civil War. The main character is Uncle Remus, an elderly Black storyteller who captivates the children with Aesop-like fables derived from Africa. The tales center on a prankster named Br’er Rabbit who must use his wits to escape from the predatory intentions of Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. As the film’s credits acknowledge, Uncle Remus was an invention of an American writer by the name of Joel Chandler Harris.

Joel Chandler Harris, the illegitimate son of an Irish-American woman, was born in rural Georgia in 1848. At the age of 13, poverty forced Harris to quit school and go to work on the nearby Turnwald plantation. In his free time, however, the curious teenager spent countless hours in the slave quarters, listening to fables recounted by various chroniclers of African culture. The stories were told in the prevalent dialect, and certainly included references to animals interacting with humans, including a spirited trickster akin to Br’er Rabbit himself.

After the Civil War Harris left Turnwald, eventually becoming a newspaper writer, a prolific author of novels and magazine articles, and ultimately editor of a respected publication in Atlanta. As editor, he advocated unpopular causes in the post-Civil War South, such as racial reconciliation and bringing industry to Atlanta. Harris, however, is most noted for publishing dozens of stories taken from those he heard in the Turnwald slave quarters, and told through the mouth of Uncle Remus, who was a composite of the authentic plantation storytellers.

That, then, brings me to the Disney movie itself. In summary, the film portrays three of these Uncle Remus fables in such stunning animation and humor that I believe they would still bring unmitigated laughter and joy to any American child. But I also believe that the animated parables narrated by Uncle Remus, combined with other events in the film, provide five moralistic themes which are even more relevant today than they were in 1946. Those events, and the themes that they reveal, are set forth below.

Event 1. Johnny is an upper class, seven-year-old boy from Atlanta who, with his mother, visits his grandmother’s plantation. His father, a newspaper editor who is disliked by his wife and his readership because of what he writes in the paper (a fictional recreation of the real Joel Chandler Harris, perhaps) remains home. Johnny befriends Toby, a poor Black boy and Ginny, a poor, lower class White girl. They play happily together throughout the movie, despite their obvious class and racial differences.

Theme 1. People should not be judged by their class or color.

Event 2. Johnny attempts to run away from the plantation because he needs his father. It also turns out that Ginny’s father has been away from home, which may explain why her brothers have become incorrigible bullies, and Ginny is so happy to see her father upon his return.

Theme 2. Children need a father.

Event 3. Based on their words and deeds, such as when the bigger bully paraphrases Br’er Bear by telling Toby that he’s gonna knock his head clean off, the two brothers are the personification of Br’er Bear and Br’er Fox, and it is Johnny and Toby who sufficietly understand some of the lessons from Uncle Remus’s fables to save Ginny’s puppy from her brothers who want to drown it.  

Theme 3. Sometimes the powerless have to stand up to the strong and the arrogant.

Event 4. Uncle Remus is a kind, intelligent Black man, content to live out his remaining years telling moralistic folk tales to the children on the plantation. He and Johnny develop a warm friendship, and the three animated stories in the film serve to cheer up Johnny, as well as Toby and Ginny, when problems begin to overwhelm them. Providing such guidance to children gives Uncle Remus enormous happiness.

Theme 4. Black men can be happy in America despite the injustices they have suffered.

Event 5. Johnny’s mother is a rich, upper-class elitist who doesn’t want Johnny playing with lower class Ginny or associating with Uncle Remus. It is her arrogance and ignorance that cause most of the conflicts in the story, culminating in so much anxiety for her son, that he runs away and is almost killed

Theme 5. Elitist values are damaging our children.

Despite offering movie patrons these timeless themes in a most entertaining form, and despite the fact that the film’s hero is Black and his antagonists are White, elitists of every color allege that the film is rife with racism. When pushed for specifics, however, these allegations stem from the depiction of Uncle Remus as a happy Black man, some aspects of his narration, and a snippet of some sharecroppers and the songs they sing. For reasons explained below, however, I believe that these criticisms are not only unwarranted, but fail to appreciate the literary merit that the African-originated Uncle Remus stories deserve.

Criticism No. 1. The movie depicts a false picture of slavery because Uncle Remus is treated nicely and appears to be very happy. Depicting slaves as being happy in their bondage is a virulent form of racism.

Response. The movie takes place during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, so neither Remus, nor any of the other Black people in the movie, are slaves.

Criticism No. 2. Even if the movie takes place during Reconstruction, since it is set on a Georgia plantation, the viewer will mistakenly think that it really does take place before the Civil War when Black people were slaves.

Response. Actually, Uncle Remus comes and goes as he pleases, and even decides, early in the movie and again near the conclusion, that he is going to leave the plantation and travel to Atlanta. That being the case, he’s obviously a free man, and not a slave. (There are other reasons why this movie takes place during the Reconstruction-era, but this is the most obvious.)

Criticism No. 3. Uncle Remus speaks in a strong dialect and behaves deferentially to the White grandmother who owns the plantation. This stereotypical behavior is racist.

Response. Yes, Remus speaks in the then-prevalent dialect and behaves deferentially to the plantation owner, but this is an accurate depiction of the times. If it is wrong (and it is) to rewrite history by pretending slaves were happy in their bondage, it is equally wrong to re-write history to pretend Remus didn’t speak and act the way they did in the movie.

Criticism No. 4. The fact that the Black sharecroppers who work on the plantation have chosen not to leave even though they are free to do so, falsely depicts Blacks as being timid and afraid to set out on their own. And that is racist.

Response. The two-minute depictions of sharecroppers in the nearly two-hour film play no role in the plot. In any event, the undeniable fact is that during the Reconstruction era thousands of Black people chose to remain in the South and work as sharecroppers, despite the hard life that it entailed. If the mere depiction of such an accurate historical fact is racist, then other depictions of Black sharecroppers in the many other motion pictures where they appear would have resulted in similar criticisms—but, of course, they haven’t.

Criticism No. 5. The sharecroppers sing a song in which they thank the plantation master because “he” is letting them stay on the plantation to work. This is racist because it seems to praise the man who was their former slave owner.

Response. This is false, not only because there is no such person in the movie, but because the “He” referred to in the song is not a person, but God—who the singers are thanking because they have lived long enough to see their children at play.

Criticism No. 6. In beginning his narration in the movie’s first animated fable, Uncle Remus speaks favorably of the past. This is racist because Remus is speaking favorably of the time when he was a slave.

Response. Uncle Remus is, by far, the kindest, wisest person in the movie, so it is absurd to argue that he was speaking favorably of slavery. More importantly, it must be remembered that Uncle Remus was the vehicle for telling folk stories from Africa. Thus, the long time ago he’s referring to, “when critters were more friendly with the folks, and the folks were more friendly with the critters,” is not the recent past when he was a slave but, if not completely fictitious, a reference to the time when his ancestors lived in Africa.

Criticism No. 7. In one of the stories that Uncle Remus tells, Br’er Rabbit gets caught in a tar baby. The tar is, of course, black, so getting caught in something black is racist.

Response. Not only is this quite a stretch, but it must be remembered that this is an African-derived fable. Indeed, Joel Chandler Harris noted that a sticky figure motif was a common theme in the African folk tales he heard as a teenager.

Clearly, the criticisms of the movie are so thinly supported by fact or logic that they lead me to wonder whether the real complaint is not racism, but either an objection to the values that the movie teaches or an attempt to foment discord for political purposes. As James Baskett, who played Uncle Remus in the movie, and won an Academy Award for his efforts, explained: “[the movie’s critics were] doing my race more harm in seeking to create dissension than the movie ever could.”

Similarly, Hattie McDaniel, the female Black co-star in the movie stated: “If I had for one moment considered any part of the picture degrading or harmful to my people, I would have not appeared therein.”

In view of the foregoing, it is time to finally acknowledge that the Uncle Remus stories told in “Song of the South” represent a cache of insightful, heart-warming African-originated literature. Thus, if any legitimate complaint is to be made about this film, it should be that Joel Chandler Harris appropriated this remarkable achievement for his own profit. On the other hand, if he had not done so, this extraordinary contribution to our culture by Black Americans might have been lost forever. And then there’d be no song to sing at all. 

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