Mikayla’s blog

Gilgamesh Performance

I first read Gilgamesh in my 9th grade English class back in high school. I do not recall which translation we read of the text, but I do remember that we had an assignment to develop a creative interpretation of the piece. My friend and I decided to create a song titled “Where is Enkidu” (to the tune of the Black Eyed Peas’s song “Where is the Love?”) for our project. We envisioned the song to serve as a eulogy following the death of Enkidu. In the song, my friend vocalized Shamhat’s role in the epic and shared her pain over losing her lover. For my role, we created the fictional character of “Menkidu” who we imagined to be the love child of Enkidu and Shamhat’s lovemaking.

I will likely regret sharing this, but I found the music video we made to record the song. But since this class is titled “Performing American Literature”, I feel as though I must share this (very mediocre) performance. It is quite possibly the most cringe-worthy video of me available on the Internet, so I hope you get a good laugh. Please keep in mind that I am 14 years old in this video and am only now aware of how incredibly off-pitch I sound. Enjoy!

Link (Links to an external site.)

Reading Children’s Books (4/22/2017)

I have found it pretty challenging to determine what age group I am addressing in writing my children’s book. Writing for a 4-6 year old age bracket is a very different situation than writing for children 6-8 or 8-10. In trying to learn more about the language, I have spent time reading a range of children’s books to discover the language those authors used in their work.

Some of my favorite books that I have read (which I highly recommend to adults of any age) are: Where the Wild Things AreGoodnight MoonBlueberries for SalHappy to be Nappy, and If I Ran for President.

Children’s books are a performative medium because they are often read aloud to young children who cannot read yet. To learn more about this performative aspect, I plan to watch videos of authors reading children’s books aloud. I believe that will aid me in trying to discover my “voice” for this project.

Stereotypical Images (4/27/2017)

Last year, I was enrolled in Professor David Blight’s course “Problems with American Historical Memory: The Civil War”. For my final paper, I analyzed the “Uncle Remus” stories published by Joel Chandler Harris. Harris was a Southern newspaper columnist in the 1860s-80s. In 1877, he published his first “Uncle Remus” tale in the Atlanta Constitution. Harris, a white man, employed the fictional Uncle Remus to tell moralistic children’s stories like the Brer Rabbit tales.

Uncle Remus mirrors the Uncle Tom stereotype created by Harriet Beech Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The stereotype perpetuates the a view of a happy, subservient black man content with his inferior position in American society. This figure plays out in countless popular media narratives from books, plays, to movies. In my paper for Professor Blight’s class, I investigated the role of Uncle Remus in Disney’s 1946 animated film Song of the South. Today, few copies of the film exist as it is recognized as being a very racist depiction of the antebellum South.

The children’s book I am writing for this class is my attempt to rectify some of the damage done by the proliferation of the “Uncle Tom” stereotype. That will be tricky, though, seeing as how pervasive it is in the popular imagination.

Below are some images from Song of the South and a clip of the film’s infamous song Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.

Prior Inspiration

In working through the themes for my final project, I now realize how formative my final paper was for Professor Blight’s class. It sparked my interest in the Uncle Tom stereotype and in how we represent people of different races to children. Below are some excerpts from my final paper:

On the Uncle Remus Stories:

One of the most jarring aspects of the book is the language used in the conversations between the young boy and Uncle Remus. The boy, who is about seven years old, speaks perfect English while Uncle Remus responds in “dialect” that is difficult to read—both intellectually and emotionally. Harris makes the power dynamics within the relationship clear as his literature shows superiority is independent of age and entirely based on race and perceived intellect. In the introduction of his book, Harris reassures readers that an “air of affectionate superiority Uncle Remus assumes as he proceeds to unfold the mysteries of plantation lore to a little child” is the result of the boy’s admiration of Uncle Remus’s stories.[1] Harris was careful not to disrupt the established racial constructs of the day and set out to create a nonpolitical body of entertainment for readers around the country. However by imbuing his stories with “a genuine flavor of the old plantation” he misrepresented the past and showed it as one in which blacks were happy under slavery.[2] Harris describes Uncle Remus as someone “who has nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery.”[3] For his thousands of readers across the country, Harris narrowed the slave’s experience into “pleasant memories” and created an idealized past that his readers could accept. Harris’s writings in Uncle Remus’s voice are troubling given the personal beliefs he shared in editorials for the Constitution. In this sense, Harris favored profit over politics and cultivated his white readers’ conservative beliefs rather than challenge them as he did in his nonfiction writings.

[1] Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings—The Folklore of the Old Plantation, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1881), 3.

[2] Harris, Uncle Remus, 3.

[3] Idib, 12.

Song of the South Description:

Song of the South premiered on November 12, 1946 at the Fox Theater in Downtown Atlanta. The film is ninety minutes long and is a hybrid live action and animated film. Text on the screen at the beginning of the movie reads, “Out of the humble cabin, out of the singing heart of the Old South come the tales of Uncle Remus, rich in simple truths, forever fresh and new.” The film tells the story of a little boy, Johnny, who goes to live on his grandmother’s plantation in Georgia with his mother, Miss Sally. His father leaves the family for unexplained business reasons, and the boy is left lonely and lost on the plantation. He finds a father figure in Uncle Remus who regales Johnny and Toby, a young black boy living and working on the plantation, with stories of Brer Rabbit. As Uncle Remus narrates the tales, the live actors fade away as the animated portions of the film play out on screen. Brer Rabbit’s tales of trickery and cunning help Johnny when his new friend Ginny’s older brothers bully him and Ginny after Ginny gave Johnny one of the family’s newborn puppies. Johnny even uses the reverse psychology shared in the tar-baby story to get the boys in trouble with their mother. He tells the boys that they can do whatever they want to him as long as they do not tell their mom about the puppy. Like Brer Fox, the boys fall in to Johnny’s trap and tell their mother, who chastises them and says Ginny can give the puppy to anyone she wants. As Johnny continues to use Brer Rabbit’s tricks, however, he gets into hot water with the bullies and ends up fighting the boys. Uncle Remus breaks up the scuffle but Miss Sally, believing the Brer Rabbit stories are encouraging Johnny to act out, forbids Uncle Remus from telling her son any more tales. Upset by the situation, Uncle Remus decides to leave the plantation. When Johnny learns of this, he gets upset and attempts to chase down Uncle Remus’s departing carriage. He cuts through the plantation’s bull meadow and a bull tramples him. He falls unconscious and lays on his sick bed, and finally wakes to the sound of Uncle Remus’s voice telling him another Brer Rabbit story. Johnny recovers, and the movie ends with Johnny, Ginny, and Toby skipping around the plantation together. Brer Rabbit and other animated characters enter the live action world as the kids and Uncle Remus end the movie singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.”

Selection from Conclusion:

Uncle Remus is a stock figure that narrows a complicated racial past into an appeasing story to whites seeking a false image of racial reconciliation. Harris created literature in service of a market of nostalgia that crossed Union and Confederate lines. It fed into the South’s “Great Alibi” rhetoric present in the decades following the Civil War as the South struggled to come to terms with its loss. The Great Alibi painted the South as the victim—the unfortunate recipient of the North’s destruction of their idyllic plantation lives. Harris’s stories spoke to the white Southerners who adopted the Great Alibi and even reached past the Mason-Dixon Line. Amidst the turbulent climate of Reconstruction, Northern readers lauded Harris as the creator of a new brand of American folklore, even if it was not his to share. Harris appropriated the Brer Rabbit stories, which were passed down through generation of slaves, and welded them to Uncle Remus who was a stereotyped character born out of white imagination.

Robert Penn Warren wrote, “When one is happy in forgetfulness, facts get forgotten.”[1] The consumers of Uncle Remus and Song of the South are able to forget the facts of the brutal reality of slavery. In this case, popular culture and historical fact clashed, but popular culture won because these works created a plantation past consumers could accept and enjoy. It is easier to accept a lie rather than confront the truth and Uncle Remus and Song of the South fans favored an idyllic past rather than the truth of America’s troubled racial history. In times of racial turbulence, generations of men and women turned to Uncle Remus to grant them an image of what they wished African-Americans could be: happy, subservient, and satisfied with inequality. Since 1986, Disney buried Song of the South so that it is nearly impossible to find online, on VHS, or DVD. Yet in the age of the Tea Party and with the rise of Donald Trump, in the midst of protests and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, perhaps Uncle Remus will again find his audience. It seems many might be nostalgic for those “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” days.

[1] Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961), 60.

Comments are closed.