Tales and Their Tellers 10: Brer Rabbit Reincarnate, a Conversation with Lain Shakespeare

Remember way back when I wrote the third installment of this column, The Signifyin’ Rabbit, all about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox and Uncle Remus and storytelling in the Deep South, and the transformation of Trickster Anansi?In researching the topic, I came across a site called, The Wren’s Nest, which is a large farmhouse in Atlanta, Georgia which had been the home of Joel Chandler Harris from 1881 through 1908, and is now both a National Historic Landmark and a museum. They host a whole catelogue of events for visitors – including concerts, book festivals and in-house storytellers, all serving to keep the legacy of Harris and Brer Rabbit alive and well.

The Executive Director of the Wren’s Nest is a man named Lain Shakespeare. His brief biography on the site reveals that he is the great-great-great Grandson of Joel Chandler Harris. That’s three “greats.” I became interested in how someone five generations removed interacts with a literary lineage which is still controversial to this day. Its not all just funny rabbits.

Just last April, for example, Time magazine ran a story on slavery by David von Drehle. In the article, Drehle wrote, “…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.”

Lain took issue with this characterization of his ancestor, and wrote back with his characteristic lucidity. I’m reposting it here with his permission:

David Von Drehle truly grasped 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.

Clearly, the legacy of Chandler is one that Lain does not take lightly. Last year, I had the chance to speak with him, and I discovered that it was not a heritage he at first embraced.

Lain Shakespeare

What was your experience with the Uncle Remus stories growing up?  Were you always aware of your lineage – or was there a moment of revelation later in life?

My first memory of the Uncle Remus stories was reading them with my grandmother, though not the one on the Harris side of my family. My father’s mother had been long familiar with the stories. I’m sure she read them as a child, but as a mother she shared the stories with my aunt, uncle, and father. My aunt even demanded that her 9th birthday include a Brer Rabbit themed party at the Wren’s Nest. This was, of course, well before my father met my mother, who descended directly from Harris.

Every year I would visit the Wren’s Nest in December to cut the cake on Harris’s birthday. And every year I would be annoyed that I had to visit that dusty old house. I was well aware of my lineage, and that lineage was a chore. By the time I was 12 and could say no, I did, and I stopped going to the Wren’s Nest.

The Brer Rabbit stories would arise from time to time, say during a school visit to the Atlanta History Center or later in college in my African-American literature class. I felt a vague connection to the stories, but it was probably the same feeling someone has when a childhood friend achieves some level of fame or notoriety: it serves as a fleeting anecdote, but that’s about it. Growing up with the last name “Shakespeare,” the Harris side of my lineage garnered significantly less attention.

Given your reluctance, how did you eventually come to embrace the heritage and the Wren’s Nest?  How did you come to be the executive director and what exactly does that entail?

I was skeptical at first about the Wren’s Nest. Since Harris and Brer Rabbit had always been a part of my life, I thought they were “good,” but when as I grew older and heard things about “Uncle Remus” and “tar babies,” I thought that perhaps this legacy wasn’t so good. In short, I’d heard and assumed, but I’d never really given Harris’s legacy much thought.

I took the job because the Wren’s Nest is an Atlanta institution. It’s seemingly always been here, and every old codger in Atlanta has a story about it. The opportunity to help resurrect it was too good to pass up.

Luckily, the more I read of and about Harris, the more I thought that this guy hadn’t really gotten a fair shake over the past sixty or so years. His achievement and the achievement of the storytellers before him were of international importance, yet they’d all been swept under the rug based on a questionable and iconic Disney film. Everyone else, it seemed, was like me: hearing and assuming without thinking or knowing. Once I’d researched the matter for myself, there was no way I couldn’t be involved. The story is too juicy.

My aunt had served on the board of the Wren’s Nest’s governing body. She knew they were out of options. The rest of my family who had been donors to the organization were fed up, too. My aunt and my father asked me if I was interested, and the board guaranteed a small salary for my first 90 days on the job.

In theory, being executive director means hiring and training the right people, ensuring there’s enough money in the bank, and serving as liaison to the board of directors. In reality, it means answering the phone on one ring, developing a brand, creating a website from scratch, establishing programs and partnerships, keeping the lights on, raising money for operations, raising money for capital projects, overseeing those capital projects, and representing the Wren’s Nest in public. There are a lot of balls to juggle, and so far we have avoided having too many of them hit the ground.

I’m glad you brought up race, because it does seem like the elephant – Brer Elephant? – in the room when you talk about Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus.  I’ve several times come across a quote from the author Alice Walker – whom I generally admire – wherein she accused your ancestor of “stealing a good part of my heritage.”  How would you respond to that?

Alice Walker’s comments stem from a lecture given to the Atlanta Historical Society in the early 1980s. When I read her speech, I wasn’t surprised by the vitriol toward Harris, but I was shocked by how nebulous and confused her argument seemed to be. There’s quite a bit of emotion, but seemingly not a lot of thought given to the argument. Most of her ire and critique is directed toward Eatonton, Disney, and Harris’s daughter-in-law, if I remember correctly.

As far as stealing heritage, you could certainly argue that writing down folklore is inherently destructive. Once in print, the words are dead on the page. And, if they’re as successful as Harris’s versions of Brer Rabbit, they hinder the oral tradition, where the stories are alive and evolving. Still, I don’t think theft is in order. Robert Cochran said it best:

“Joel Chandler Harris didn’t “steal” Alice Walker’s inheritance. It was given to him. And it was given to him as it was given to her, orally, by older people with lessons to teach speaking to younger people with lessons to learn. It was the closest thing he had to an inheritance of his own, and in his work he accomplished, in addition to the skillful textualization of a rich African American oral tradition which made him famous, the intimate personal testimony that Nietzsche found at the heart of all great achievements of mind–‘a kind of involuntary and unnoticed memoir.”

I was always struck by the Uncle Remus story, ” Why the Negro is Black.”  It’s one of the non-Brer Rabbit stories, in which Uncle Remus is telling the young child about the origin of the Negro race.  The story goes that way back in the beginning of things, everyone was black-skinned.  There was a pool in which people jumped in, and the more they jumped in it, the more their color bleached away, until some of them were lighter-skinned, and some of them turned out white.  At one point, Uncle Remus tells the boy, “ Niggers is niggers now, but de time wuz w’en we ‘uz all niggers tergedder!”

Uncle Remus says a lot of things the little boy’s parents wouldn’t want him to hear, this story being one of them. Other examples include the times Uncle Remus implies a romantic relationship with the boy’s mom, when he disparages the boy’s dad, and when he questions the authenticity of the stories in the Bible.

But yes, I think the narrative frame that Harris concocted was so important: it’s a re-education of the little boy, one that is superior to what the little boy has been learning in school, church, and from his family. In the same vein, Harris was able to re-educate his white, southern reading audience into acceptance of African American culture and empathy with African American people without resorting to slap stick minstrelsy.

The idea “everyone used to be black” would have been particularly incendiary both for the little boy’s father and for Harris’s readership, had the idea just been presented straight-up as a possibility. There’s a powerful scene in the film True Romance where Dennis Hopper makes a similar claim and it doesn’t end well for his character. I can’t imagine it would have been less controversial in the 1880s!

One could probably write a thick book all about Uncle Remus and race relations, but could you just talk a little bit about the question of race as you’ve experienced it in your role with the Wren’s Nest?

Discussions about race come up all the time at the Wren’s Nest, especially given the reputation of the stories, the blurred lines between white and black stories, and the demographics of our neighborhood: over 90% African-American. That said, the people who are or think they would be offended by what we do tend to stay away, so it’s rare to experience anyone who is agitated or particularly baiting. Most folks are curious, are here to learn, or have had their curiosity piqued and have no idea what we’re about.

One of the most common situations is where native Atlantans or curious travelers drag along their skeptical friend(s).  We present the facts on Harris’s life, explain what the stories are about, have most people experience a storytelling performance, and welcome questions about the controversy. Obviously we’re pro-Harris, but it’s easy to present just the facts and simply by getting folks to think about Harris rather than feel or assume, a vast majority of folks have a new appreciation for Harris.

It’s an interesting contrast, that you are at once both capturing something historically, yet also encouraging its evolution.  Are your storytellers encouraged to change and invent?

Our storytellers respond to their audiences. Sometimes they’ll perform to a group of little old white ladies from Dothan, Alabama who want to hear the tar baby story told in dialect. Other times they’ll perform for the National Association of Black Storytellers and tell very much updated versions. For them, it’s about managing audience expectations. We have groups that will say, “We want you to come, but you absolutely cannot tell the tar baby story.” And that’s fine, even though I think it’s a little closed-minded. Then we have other groups who can not understand why the stories could be construed as at all controversial, which I also think is closed-minded.

So our storytellers perform this delicate balancing act of preserving the past and playing to nostalgia, while also taking freedoms with the stories that reflect who they are and what they’ve personally seen. I encourage them to use their best judgment. It’s enough for me (and for them, I think), that folks sit long enough to listen and think in a kind of fellowship of story that is increasingly rarer in the 21st century.

For myself, I’ve tried to imagine what a story would look like involving the inhabitants of Hominy Grove in a more contemporary, urban setting; the form a Trickster might take in Corporate America.

I would look no further than 8 Mile for a kind of update on Brer Rabbit. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Eminem’s character is named B. Rabbit. If Detroit is anything, it’s an urban briar patch, and 8 Mile Road isn’t all that different from the Big Road. Characters rely on their wit and their words to get by in a racially charged environment where survival is everything, and escape is hardly an option.

There’s another interesting parallel between Marshall Mathers / Eminem / Slim Shady and Joel Chandler Harris / Uncle Remus / Brer Rabbit. The actions of the persona get more absurd and terrible the farther it is from the actual person. Brer Rabbit can kill Brer Wolf, but of course Joel Chandler Harris could only write about it. Slim Shady can do and talk about horrendous acts, but Marshall Mathers can’t without having to show up in court. Given the traditions that Harris and Eminem exposed to white folks, I think they are super similar.

The Wire is another gritty, urban drama that shares a lot in common with the Brer Rabbit tales. It’s not difficult to imagine a fabulously questionable and lovable character like Omar as a modern day Brer Rabbit. The serial, enclosed narrative about survival (and not necessarily escape) echoes so much about what is great about the Uncle Remus cycle.

 

For more reviews of picture books, please visit Picture Books Review.

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