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The Complicated History of Uncle Remus

Posted by Stacy Reece on

By Stacy Reece

When I was growing up, Bugs Bunny was my hero. Ever wise and wisecracking, Bugs Bunny was one step ahead of his foes and always got the last laugh. What I didn’t know as a child was that the story of this devious rabbit had far deeper roots than some cartoonist in Hollywood dreaming up entertaining content for American children.

The dynamic of Bugs Bunny and his adversaries have American roots in the Uncle Remus stories written by Atlantan Joel Chandler Harris. These stories were told to him by slaves when he worked on a Georgia plantation in the 1860s. In turn, these stories have their roots in West African lore, specifically Anansi, the spider, and Adanko, the hare. These stories represent the universal desire of oppressed people everywhere: that the weak can outwit the strong with ingenuity and cunning.

But few people today know about those deep roots or about what Harris’ intentions were in writing the Uncle Remus stories. When the Wren’s Next, Harris’ Atlanta home, which is now a museum, asked Down South House & Home to create a line of dishtowels based on Arthur Burdett Frost’s original illustrations, we knew we needed to understand more.

The reputations of Harris, who died in 1908, and the characters from his stories have taken a beating over the century — labeled as racial stereotypes and throwbacks to Old South nostalgia. Harris was accused of appropriating slave stories and profiting from them. Disney’s reviled 1946 movie, Song of the South, didn’t help much, either. Even Alice Walker, one of the South’s greatest African American writers, has dismissed Harris’ work.

All these criticisms have obscured Harris’ intentions. Few modern Southerners know that during Harris’ 25-year stint at The Atlanta Constitution, from 1876 to 1900, he consistently wrote editorials calling for racial reconciliation. In 1905, Harris and his son Julian launched Uncle Remus Magazine, and in a letter to the business giant Andrew Carnegie, Harris made his intentions clear.  

I have it in my mind to fit the magazine to such gentle and sure policies of persuasion with respect to the negro question, which is also the white man's question, that honest people cannot resist them—and, in the main, the people of the south are both honest and kindly. This, briefly, is the great work that I have set before me. I do not say that I am the only man who can carry it on, but no other man is in a better position to do it, provided the magazine weathers the financial crisis that seems to have struck the whole country. You see, I am not asking any financial aid for myself. If the magazine is doomed, I have no other things to turn to. What I am anxious for you to do is to join hands with us, so that the policies and principles I have in mind—the obliteration of prejudice against the blacks, the demand for a square deal, and the uplifting of both races so that they can look justice in the face without blushing—may be definitely carried out.

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of opinion, I think it is safe to say that Harris preserved a critically important part of Southern storytelling that may have been lost in the fog of oppression and bigotry that clouded the South in the years following the Civil War.

What I find remarkable about the Harris manifestation of these African stories is their origin from an unlikely bond between a shy and affable printer’s apprentice and an elderly slave who shared the stories of his people in a time when the question of slavery was being settled by the Civil War. Every time I read an Uncle Remus story, I am always in awe of the care Harris took to preserve the dialect of the enslaved people who told him their ancestral stories. These stories not only influenced such characters as Bugs Bunny but also writers like Mark Twain and Rudyard Kipling.

And today, the Wren’s Nest is dedicated to Harris’ true vision — a south in which the races have reconciled. Today, African American storytellers reinterpret the Uncle Remus stories for visitors to the museum, and the Wren’s Nest is increasingly becoming a center of learning and exchange for the city’s literary community. The Wren’s Nest’s executive director, Melissa Swindell, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Our goal is to make the Wren’s Nest a center for the preservation of African American folk tales and slave narratives, as well as promoting storytelling on a larger scale. Everybody has a story.”

At Melissa’s suggestion, we created a towel line based on Frost’s original drawings. You can buy them when you visit the Wren’s Nest or you can buy them from our store. Either way, a portion of the proceeds goes to support the Wren’s Nest’s admirable mission.

We hope you love our first line of towels dedicated to Southern literature — and that you make happy memories with them in your kitchen. And go visit the Wren’s Nest. It’s a lovely spot that will make you fall in love with Br’er Rabbit all over again.

Check out The Wren's Nest Collection.


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