Born and Bred in a... snap bean farm
July 7, 2011 1:50 PM   Subscribe

The Wren's Nest, so named for the birds that took up residence in the mailbox, is the former home of author Joel Chandler Harris, the man behind the Uncle Remus tales. Located on the west side of Atlanta, the house--now a museum--was neglected, in disrepair and in debt until 2006, when Harris' great-great-great-grandson Lain Shakespeare took over as executive director.

In the five years since then, the house has been restored, the museum is a viable enterprise, and the entire operation has been revitalized with weekly storytelling, a publishing company for young writers, savvy use of social media and a campaign to honestly confront the misconceptions and racial stereotypes surrounding Harris, the house, and his Uncle Remus character.

Today, Shakespeare announced he was stepping down from his position.
posted by Maaik (19 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Harris was born in Eatonton, about an hour east of Atlanta. He is commemorated there with the Uncle Remus Museum. It tends to eschew political correctness, but if you happen to be taking a leisurely drive down I-20 it is worth a look if you are interested in Harris and his stories. It is small enough that it can be gone through in less than an hour.
posted by TedW at 2:02 PM on July 7, 2011

I wrote the index for a collection of his letters to his children.
Good lord, that was 1993.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:23 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Atlanta Magazine article also mentions that The Wren's Nest is the oldest house museum in Atlanta. I don't know if that's much of a distinction or not, but the fact that Lain stepped in and started turning things around when he was 23 is pretty impressive. I was still (mostly) worried about beer and girls at that age.

Cool post. I'd never known anything about Harris before.
posted by KGMoney at 2:28 PM on July 7, 2011

Gosh, I totally didn't expect to see this on MetaFilter! Thank you for mentioning it.

I wanted to clarify two things: (1) KGMoney, I'm still mostly worried about beer and girls, and (2) Everything You've Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong might be helpful in shedding some light on Harris's agenda. It's a 5-part essay (modeled after Errol Morris's Opinionator work) that I tried to keep as objective and not-boring as possible.
posted by Lain Shakespeare at 3:53 PM on July 7, 2011 [29 favorites]

Nice. Love those illustrations by A.B. Frost too.
posted by marxchivist at 4:15 PM on July 7, 2011

That 5-part essay attempting to portray Harris as subverting plantation racism is interesting reading, thanks, even if I'm not sure it's new to suggest 1) there was arguably something progressive in giving a Negro character the main voice in fiction in the late 1800s, and 2) Harris might have intended with the Remus stories to do something to ease tension between the races for his racist white audience.

Lain's point that some of the criticisms of Harris over the years have misrepresented his intentions and are probably too offhandedly dismissive is well-argued, but I still think he's overstating things a bit.


Because I've always found it really hard to care much about Joel Chandler Harris when there's Charles W. Chesnutt around to read.

Let me explain.

Chesnutt's Conjure Tales from the late 1880s are extensions of the Uncle Remus tradition, but were written by the son of free blacks with enough white blood in his ancestry to pass but who chose to identify himself as a Negro author. I think you'll notice a difference.

I think it's clear Chesnutt wrote with the same intent to convey obliquely subversive messages in stock conformist terms that Lain tells us Harris attempted, but because the stories come from a man with a more courageous take on race relations they seem much more interesting to me than those of Harris. Chesnutt's old Reconstruction-era ex-slave, Julius McAdoo, uses his stories to directly manipulate his new carpetbagging Northern couple landlords to get what he and his fellow slaves need. Check Po' Sandy, for instance, in which Julius tells a sadly fantastic story of a slave turned into a tree to stop the couple from using the lumber in an old schoolhouse, which we later find Julius and friends have had their eye on for their new church. It's fascinating stuff if you're at all interested in the history of race in America; the stories do everything Lain wants us to believe Harris did, but in my opinion much more sharply.

Bottom line: If you haven't read Charles W. Chesnutt's Conjure Tales, I strongly recommend them before reading or revisiting Brer Rabbit. Chesnutt also wrote non-conjure stories, focusing on mixed-race characters and middle-class blacks in tough situations in America in the late 1800s/early 1900s, like The Wife of His Youth and The Sheriff's Children. He was widely read as the first black fiction writer in The Atlantic Monthly during that time, and his stories and novels make up an essential but mostly forgotten chunk of American literature on race.
posted by mediareport at 5:06 PM on July 7, 2011 [7 favorites]

“I’m tired of it,” says Lain’s mother, Annette. As Harris’ great-great granddaughter, she has long witnessed the disconnect between the perception and reality of his legacy, which dates back to audiences in his lifetime who personally confused him with Uncle Remus. “It makes me cry,” she admits, tears welling in her eyes. “People are not educated about Harris’ intentions, and it hurts my feelings.”

"As Harris' great-great granddaughter, she has long witnessed" -- so, like, the fact that she's related to him means, by default, that she has been alive since he was? Is it just me or does crying when talking about the perceived racism of a long-dead ancesor seem -- crazy? Man, I'd love to visit the American South, but it just seems so -- crazy.
posted by Mooseli at 3:44 AM on July 8, 2011

JCH is a cousin of mine, though explaining the pathway to that connection requires some time with the wise old women in the family who map such things out.

I'm a Southerner by roots, whether by way of my Georgia folks down in McDuffie, Wilkes, and Screven counties, or by way of my maternal side in the still Southern (if scoffed at by those further South) city of Baltimore, and grew up entirely below the Mason-Dixon, and I think there's a century of pop culture misunderstanding out there that we all just accept, rather than deal with. In films and television, a Southern accent is shorthand for stupid, everyone goes for the easy jokes, and rather than take a literature with a complicated history as such, and read it with an understanding beyond the black and white easy critiques, we just mark it "radioactive" and "not safe for children" and let it go.

I grew up reading Harris, with some pride because he's one of ours, but even as a kid, I knew that you read it as something of its time. Good stories and good storytelling are a beloved thing among Southerners, and I think it's worth opening up the reading to revive things we've too long just shrugged off as forbidden.

Need to check out the Wren's Nest sometime while I'm down there visiting family. So many of my family's storied homes (most more storied than grand) have disappeared in fires, drowned in reservoirs, and otherwise gone away, it'll be nice to have a look in with a notion that it's still a family place.
posted by sonascope at 6:40 AM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Lain, that essay was very thoughtful and I appreciate you stopping by to share the link.
posted by tizzie at 7:37 AM on July 8, 2011

I'd like to second mediareport's endorsement of Charles Chesnutt — his work is well worth your time.

One key difference between Chesnutt and Harris is that the Brer Rabbit stories were immensely popular all over the world and had a profound impact on the public imagination. AA Milne referred to Uncle Remus as his "sacred book." Rudyard Kipling memorized many passages in high school. Beatrix Potter grew up enamored of the stories and first concocted Peter Rabbit during her first illustration job — an edition of Uncle Remus tales. Chesnutt read the stories to his children, as did Kenneth Grahame. Despite Brer Rabbit's ancient roots, this world of animal personages was brand new to most of the world.

I don't mean to diminish Chesnutt's impact, so maybe it's helpful to think about it this way — Harris did for African American folklore what Eminem did for hip hop. Chesnutt, meanwhile, achieved a level of fame and respect more like, I dunno, KRS-One. He's a legendary MC, but my grandmother hasn't heard of him.
posted by Lain Shakespeare at 10:34 AM on July 8, 2011 [19 favorites]

the still Southern (if scoffed at by those further South) city of Baltimore

Baltimore is Southern like Philadelphia is Southern, viz. not at all.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 12:23 PM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

When I visited Laura plantation in LA, the guide told us that the Uncle Remus stories originated in west Africa and that variations of them were collected by a Frenchman who visited Laura. His book is on sale in their gift shop.
posted by brujita at 3:37 PM on July 8, 2011

Baltimore is Southern like Philadelphia is Southern, viz. not at all.

What are your criteria for Southern? Maryland is south of the Mason Dixon line and was a slave state.
posted by TedW at 6:00 PM on July 8, 2011

Lain, that essay was very thoughtful and I appreciate you stopping by to share the link.

Yeah, I definitely 2nd *that*, and apologize for tgetting so excited about Chesnutt that I got the tone of my comment wrong. It came out much more snippy than I intended, Lain, sorry about that. Like I said, I found the essay really interesting and well-argued, and I'm glad you stopped by, too. That KRS-One analogy is golden.
posted by mediareport at 7:13 PM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

What are your criteria for Southern?

The article you link describes antebellum Maryland well but makes Baltimore's case poorly:

A visitor who had arrived in 1860 later recalled that "Baltimore had Northern characteristics of finance and commerce which greatly resembled Philadelphia, New York or Boston, but culturally and socially Baltimore had Southern ties which were most evident." It reminds me of John F. Kennedy's quip about Washington, D.C.: "A city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm."

Maryland was divided, and as you point out, a slave state, but as you read on you'll discover that the city of Baltimore held against disunion, even when secessionist agitators and saboteurs rioted to wrest its sympathies from the United States at the outset of the conflict. Like the other border states, Maryland was part of the Union in name and muster. Our nation's capital could better be, as in the unconvincingly deployed JFK quote above, described as Southern; Washington D.C. was itself below the Mason-Dixon line and surrounded by slavers, though as the seat of the Federal government it was not sympathetic to the secessionists. Maryland was a divided state, but the city of Baltimore, a major mercantile and industrial center, was not a Southern city.

A case could be made that prior to secession, the parlors of Baltimore glittered with putative cavaliers, while the streets, docks and slums teemed with so-called roundheads. But after the hostilities ended, those pretensions were gone, and Baltimore grew into industry, finance and transport, like Philadelphia and other Northern cities.

That said, my quibble was really with the word "still." If Baltimore ever was, this is no longer so. Those further south might scoff at Baltimore being described as a Southern city; as a Baltimorean born, I too flinch to see her tarred with that brush.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 7:16 PM on July 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wow, on top of that amazing restoration job (both physically and literary-critically) also a well-crafted step-down/position shift. It does seem like a good idea to switch roles at this point, but not many people would be willing to just hand over their baby like that.
posted by bleep at 9:31 PM on July 8, 2011

As someone who's spent while in the trades in Baltimore, working in the areas that weren't made over by the Rouse Company, I can assure you that there are broad stretches of the city that bear more in common to places like Richmond, Rocky Mount, and Raleigh than they do to Philly. That isn't to say that Baltimore isn't also possessed of that rusty, old port charm of its Northern neighbors, too, but even with the ravening Cantonization of the city, the vibe is still not a Yankee vibe.

For the record, too, I count myself among those who don't think "Southern" is a brush with which one can be "tarred." What's the "tar" in the South?
posted by sonascope at 3:17 AM on July 9, 2011

I guess we see what we're looking for, and note similarities with familiar things more often than not. Having only been a visitor to Richmond, Rocky Mount, and Raleigh, or more comparably large cities like Atlanta, my perception of Southern cities may be a bit flatter than yours is of Baltimore. I agree that a trip up Route One will show you similarities among many of the towns and cities it passes through, but that corridor extends up into Pennsylvania as well, before the going gets Yankee.

I see a difference between Northeast and Northern, and don't count Philly or Baltimore as Yankee towns. That could be a big part of the difference there, in the terminology. To me, as a Baltimorean, Yankee means Connecticut and parts north -- New York is too singular and cosmopolitan for that stiff Yankee veneer -- while Baltimore and Philly are Northern without being Northeastern. I see elements of Rust Belt in Baltimore as well, real similarities to Pittsburgh, but that may have as much to do with the decay of industry as with the industry itself.

And there's the third element: Baltimore is at a real crossroads, and that may be why our perceptions differ so much. Pittsbourgeoisie may find Baltimore has some of the rusty charm of the Steel City, Southerners may discover elements of easy gentility that remind them of home, and Philadelphians may enjoy the kindred bustle and sprawl. I know people from Brooklyn who find Baltimore has a lot in common with their city. Perhaps that's the charm of Charm City; it's comfortable for many people because it's a place where you can find whatever you seek.

I apologize for the "tar" dig. It's difficult to read articles on Lost Cause propaganda sites like the one TedW linked without getting my dander up. I tried to keep my comments to the matter at hand -- historical and current perceptions of Baltimore city's location regarding the Northern/Southern divide -- and I failed. There is plenty to be said about the legacies of the past without resorting to cheap shots, and I should exercise more self-control.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 7:42 AM on July 9, 2011

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