Pete Candler2 Comments

Next Door is a World Away

Pete Candler2 Comments
Next Door is a World Away

When I was in grade school, the West End neighborhood of Atlanta was a regular stop on the field trip circuit. Developed initially in the 1880s, the neighborhood eventually became the epicenter of middle-class African-American culture and education in Atlanta. But that isn’t why we went there. We went to see the Wren’s Nest, the stately Victorian home of Joel Chandler Harris, the one-time editor of the Atlanta Constitution. But that’s not what he’s known for. He is famous for a series of trickster tales he “wrote” from 1880 until his death in 1908, stories he attributed to a fictional enslaved raconteur he called Uncle Remus.

I was struck then by the architecture and design of the place: the latticed arches along the huge front porch, the William Morris-ish wallpaper in the dark study, and Harris’s enormous, many-chambered roll-top desk. All of this our tour guide pointed out to us. 

There is a lot they left out. 

Harris was born in Eatonton, and spent his late teens during the Civil War as a printer’s devil on the Turnwold Plantation nine miles north of town. He had applied to work there under the direction of Joseph Addison Turner, who ran maybe the only plantation-based periodical in American history. The weekly Countryman was of a piece with Turner’s vision for Turnwold as a place devoted to “corn, cultivation, and literature,” and enjoyed a wide readership during the War. Turner used The Countryman—unsurprisingly—to advocate for slavery, and made his rag into “one of the most passionate and articulate promoters of Confederate nationalism to be found in the seceded states.”1 “Independent in Everything—Neutral in Nothing,” The Countryman declared itself. And Turner was as uncompromising about politics as about typefaces: “Nothing,” he wrote, “save the hellhole at Petersburg, can shock the nerves of a sensitive man, so much as the bad grammar, and terrible typographical blunders which we daily meet with.”2  But it was his ardent defense of slavery and visceral resentment of “yankees” that kept readers coming back. In one characteristic comment, Turner managed to find a way to praise both the typographical and racial sensibilities of Confederate leaders who, “in the teeth of the prejudices of the nations of earth [had dared] to plant, as the cornerstone of their new constitution, the inequality of the races, and write in bold, legible letters, in their organic law, the word SLAVERY.”3

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Harris worked under Turner for four years, until The Countryman collapsed after the War, thanks in so small part to Turner’s arrest by Union troops for disloyalty. When he moved to Savannah and then Atlanta, Harris did not seem to have taken Turner’s love of political provocation with him. His attitude towards the people he had spent hours with in the slave quarters on Turnwold diverged from his old mentor’s, too. A freckle-faced redhead son of an Irish immigrant mother and an unknown father, Harris was bullied as a kid, and even as an adult. Whatever the cultural impact of his stories were to be a hundred years later, he felt at least some qualified sense of kinship with the enslaved people on Turner’s plantation.

He learned the tools of the printing trade there, but it was the people of Turnwold that gave Harris his most fertile material. From enslaved men and women like Old Harbert and Aunt Crissy, Harris heard folk tales about crafty creatures, and put them into the mouth of a fictional character based partly on Uncle George Terrell, “an old slave who baked ginger cookies in his Dutch oven to sell in Eatonton on Saturdays.” The 1940 WPA Guide to Georgia, which has a soft spot for the “happy Negro” stock character, wrote that “children of the planters liked to visit the old man’s cabin and sit before a snapping fire amidst the spicy smell of the cakes, listening to his stories.”

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Even in the midst of the predominantly African-American West End, the legacy of Harris and his Uncle Remus stories is very much alive, if more visibly complicated than it used to be: in one sense Harris had brought widespread attention to a rich trove of African-American folk tales, which he tried to reproduce faithfully in their original dialect. Harris was at best a kind of amateur folklorist unaware of its practice as a real, albeit very young, “scientific” discipline, but he did more than simply record the stories he heard took from Turnwold Plantation. He then repackaged and reframed them, and in putting them in the mouth of a narrator with “nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery,” he made a tacit claim about the nature of enslavement. White readers ate them up not least because they confirmed Jim Crow prejudices about slavery as a “natural good.” But black readers did not need them, since they were already part of the oral tradition still being handed on in homes like that of Alice Walker, who grew up hearing her parents tell the stories of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox, entirely without the mediation of Joel Chandler Harris.

White kids in Atlanta like me grew up thinking that the Uncle Remus stories were Harris’s invention. We inherited the logic of the WPA Guide, which describes Harris as the “creator” of the Remus tales. He has renamed the narrators, putting his stories at one remove from the actual lives and stories of the people from whom he heard (some might say stole) the stories that made him famous and wealthy. 

In another sense, the Remus stories are—whatever Harris intended—often radically subversive tales, detailing in a fabulous style the inculturated forms of clever resistance that made black survival on plantations possible. This part of the stories is often inaccessible to white readers, who often receive—as I did—the stories as hilariously witty accounts of the “happy Negro,” winsome late-afternoon yarns spun by the “elderly, kindly, cottony-haired darkie, seated in a rocking chair,” as Walker says.5 

The image became commodified in Walt Disney’s Song of the South, released in 1946. The film is, fittingly, a hybrid of live-action and hand-drawn animation, since the Remus stories themselves are a blend of oral history and cartoonish fictionalization. Disney’s version—as with all Disney versions of folk or fairy tales—effectively turns the Uncle Remus stories into a mass-cultural product, killing off the living vitality of the stories as a living tradition. It solidified in the cultural imagination the image of the compliant Negro, bluebird on his shoulder, singing zip-a-dee-doo-dah.

When the film world-premiered at the Fox Theatre in Harris’s adopted hometown of Atlanta, Walt Disney himself was in attendance. But James Baskett, who played Uncle Remus in the film, was not. In segregated Atlanta, Baskett was barred from the Fox as well as from the gala festivities hosted by the Junior League and others. Two years later—shortly before his death, in recognition of his work in Song of the South, Baskett became the first African American man ever to be awarded an Oscar. It was an “honorary” one.

Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.

The film premiered at the Fox Theatre, November 12, 1946, exactly one week after Eugene Talmadge easily won the general election for Governor on a staunchly segregationist platform. Ol’ Gene was too sick to celebrate publicly, and sat out election night in a hospital room (he would die six weeks later, and never take office). But the overt racism of the election was an auspicious backdrop to the sanitized Old South nostalgia of the premiere. Talmadge’s explicit warnings to African-Americans against voting in the primary earlier that summer had led to at least one black man’s death and were associated with the lynching of George and Mae Murray Dorsey, and Roger and Dorothy Malcom at Moore’s Ford in July. But that November, Atlanta was abuzz with Disney fever: while, reporters were feeding a seemingly insatiable appetite for premiere-news. Even the arrival of Pinto Colvig, the voice of Pluto and Goofy, was considered newsworthy. 

The next week, the “gay-a-luh occashun” at the Fox was front-page news. The Constitution carried photos of a beaming Walt Disney making a grand entrance, candids of gussied-up young moviegoers, reviews from a young Celestine Sibley and Doris Lockerman (who two years later would become the first woman associate editor at a major American newspaper). Sibley—who was still writing for the paper when I was out of college—casually noted that “James Baskete [sic], the Negro actor who portrayed Uncle Remus, did not appear.”

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The film has effectively been taken out of the Disney rotation, and has never been released in any home video format in the United States. Walker saw the film in Eatonton as a young girl, but it did not have the effect Disney desired. 

I don’t know how old I was when I saw this film—probably eight or nine—but I experienced it as a vast alienation, not only from the likes of Uncle Remus—in whom I saw aspects of my father, my mother, in fact all black people I knew who told these stories—but also from the stories themselves, which, passed into the context of white people's creation, I perceived as meaningless. So there I was, at an early age, separated from my own folk culture by an invention. 

Walker did not need either Harris’s version or Disney’s, and definitely not the doubly-appropriated Walt Disney’s Uncle Remus Stories, published by Golden Books to coincide with the release of the film. The trajectory of Uncle Remus is one example of how African-American literary material, once purchased with white wealth, becomes handed on from one white owner to the next, with each transfer of ownership another death, a further remove from the sources from which it sprang.

In Albert Murray’s estimation, Harris “was no great shakes as a writer” but “sometime old Joel’s ear was not bad, not bad at all.” Walker’s assessment is more severe. “As far as I'm concerned,” she writes, “he stole a good part of my heritage. How did he steal it? By making me reel ashamed or it. In creating Uncle Remus, he placed an effective barrier between me and the stories that meant so much to me, the stories that could have meant so much to all of our children, the stories that they would have heard from us and not from Walt Disney.”

Like its owner and his body of work, The Wren’s Nest remains a conflicted outlier. To many people it stands for a soothing nostalgic sweetness, to others it represents a nefarious white appropriation of black culture, a mythology of half-truths. African-Americans and whites both got something from Uncle Remus “in one way or another,” as Albert Murray says. Murray and Walker got that something from around the hearth at home in some version of the oral tradition going back ultimately to Africa; white kids like me got them by way of Harris, without ever having any real clue about the difference. Writing of himself in the second person, Murray writes that “there was about as much similarity between your Remus and the one Joel Chandler Harris wrote about as there is between music as you know it and the way Stephen Foster wrote it.”

Chandler’s visible legacy remains outsized in Georgia, even if few people read his versions of the Remus tales anymore. Walker’s legacy is far more subdued in her former home in middle Georgia. In one area of Putnam County, two completely divergent experiences of a common set of stories live right next-door to one another: Walker grew up scarcely a mile away as the bluebird flies from where Harris heard the stories that would make him famous.

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Along Old Phoenix Road there is a historical marker indicating the site of Turnwold Plantation, which still stands. Around the corner, on the backside of Turnwold, the similarly white-clapboarded Ward Chapel where Alice was baptized is still hanging on, barely. Recently derelict and critically endangered, it has been sort-of restored. The exterior walls have been repainted, and the weather-greyed, plywood-covered church windows are painted in bright reds, oranges, blues, to look like stained-glass. Across the road, many members of the Walker family are buried, including Willie Lee and Minnie Tallulah Walker, the parents who told Alice stories of Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox on the farm they sharecropped just up the road. There is no longer a sign pointing to it. Recently it was an Instagram-ready farm selling organic produce to local lakefronters, but is now a special events venue, rentable for Instagram-ready weddings. It’s also up for sale.

A final wooden sign points across the road to the site where Alice Walker was born. Nothing is there except a bare patch of red clay, two newish transformers in a small clearing at the base of a pole supporting power lines coming from the adjacent new subdivision. Two Mercedes SUVs pull out of the crisply manicured gate of Waters Edge, one of the many gated lakefront communities that have sprouted up along Lake Oconee in the last decade, and whizz north up Wards Chapel Road. Past the transformers, past the signs, past the past.

Nearby on Sparta Highway, a smiling cartoon rabbit in a red polo shirt, collar popped preppy-style, is waving at you, pointing you toward the Uncle Remus Museum 9.8 miles away. 

Neither Joel Chandler Harris nor Alice Walker may have gotten the literary afterlife in their hometowns that they—or anyone—might wish or expect, but they have each gotten at least part of their due. 

George Terrell, however, has not.

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References

Michael T. Bernath, “‘Independent in Everything—Neutral in Nothing’: Joseph Addison Turner, The Countryman, and the Cultivation of Confederate Nationalism,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 96.1 (SPRING 2012), pp. 24-55.

Albert Murray, South to a Very Old Place, in Collected Essays & Memoirs (New York: Library of America, 2016).

Alice Walker, “Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine,” The Georgia Review 66.3, Celebrating The Georgia Writers Hall of Fame (FALL 2012), pp. 635-637.