Friday, September 6, 2019

The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation: Invisibility - Part 2

In 1946, Walt Disney released Song of The South.

Apparently, Disney paid Joel Chandler Harris' family ten thousand dollars for the rights to the Brer Rabbit stories in 1939.

This movie with the Zip-a-dee-doo-dah song has gone missing from the American landscape.

I can honestly say that I do not recall much about this movie. I remember this song. I remember some of the animated stories, but I don't recall anything of the plot.

I read the plot of this movie on Wikipedia and I was really amused.

This movie was about a little white boy who is helped by the black characters in the movie both animated and real to deal with his problems on the plantation. This is not shocking. Who was making movies for and about black folks in 1946? Most films that had black characters were full of racial stereotypes and very specific images of what white people thought black people were like. How many black screenwriters were around in 1946? Heck. A big chunk of the nation was still segregated.

All the same, I can see why Disney was attracted to the Brer Rabbit tales.

Folktales exist because the folk need them. Their messages are universal and they run through our lives and touch us in lots of ways.

I have no doubt you have heard a story from another culture that touches you or moves you. You've read books or watched films from other cultures that touch you or move you. You've encountered festivals, practices, or celebrations that speak to you.

If I had my way, Jolabokaflod would be a major American tradition and we would do it four times a year.
The Christmas Eve Book Flood

Come to think of it, my family members often end up spending part of Christmas Day like this because one thing my family definitely does is give each other books.

I am considering instituting this in our household officially now that I am no longer dealing with really little children from various siblings.

That's neither here nor there.

The point is, there are stories and traditions that appeal to all of us for different reasons.

The issue with the Song of The South is not that Disney decided to use the stories that Joel Chandler Harris heard in his childhood to make that movie. The issue is that Disney had absolutely no idea what those stories were about or what they were used for in their own culture. Joel Chandler Harris probably didn't know either. Not because he didn't know the stories, but it is unlikely any of the black folks who told them to him would have let him into the deeper secrets behind the stories.

In the first clip, Brer Fox and Brer Bear are shown as lumbering, foolish stereotypical sounding African Americans. If Disney had any understanding of what these stories were about, that fox and bear would have been presented as extremely foolish southern white characters.

All of Brer Rabbit's stories were about how important it was for enslaved Africans to be smarter, more resilient, stronger, and more determined than the enslavers all around them. Brer Rabbit is the only trickster who cannot be ultimately caught and punished. He is the only one who always walks free after thinking his way out of trouble. Fighting makes things worse. Thinking solves everything. Being cunning keeps you alive.

One would not guess that is the point of the Brer tales from Song of The South.

When you remove the people who created the stories from the equation of sharing the stories, tales can lose their purpose and power. It can even make the characters who are behaving in certain ways seem immoral, stupid, or mean. If the question, "Why are they doing that?" comes up at the end of a tale, and you don't know the answer, then something has gone awry in the telling.

Even though the stories can mean different things to different people, it is important to understand why they were told.

When you take a story out of its context, tell it without understanding the why of the tale, you make the people who told that tale invisible.

You mask the purpose of those tales.

You make their voices silent.

You cover up their need.

You ignore their truth.

You transfer potential wealth out of a community. Wealth in the form of both money and cultural richness.

Defining a group of people based on your lack of understanding of who they actually are will create misunderstandings.

When Disney took those tales, repurposed them, profited from them to the tune of millions of dollars, and at no point gave any voice to the people who originated those stories, they silenced Brer Rabbit in an odd way.

Nobody has put out another big national Bruh Rabbit project. Why?

Because Disney tainted the idea of Bruh Rabbit. The images they used, the language, the whole plot of the tale is considered racist and insensitive.

Instead of thinking, "Disney did it the wrong way," the Bruh Rabbit tales themselves are now somehow racist and insensitive!

I've seen librarians and teachers get nervous when they realize I'm about to tell one!

I get these questions from people:

Is it okay to tell them?
Is it okay to share them?

I was working with a business that was interested in southern folklore, but they were leery about using even a generic rabbit for fear someone would think it was Brer Rabbit and they would get "in trouble".

There is nothing wrong with telling Brer Rabbit tales.

I go into schools all over the country. I sometimes ask if anyone has ever heard of Brer Rabbit. Hardly any of the children have. Most of the adults haven't heard of him either.

I give the explanation for who he is and what he did. The audiences love the tales. Who wouldn't? They are fabulous!

Here is a good place to start

The reason why Bruh Rabbit stories were told is uncomfortable for some people.

The reason why they persist is that they are wonderful fun and speak to the downtrodden or those treated unjustly. They can certainly be used for that.

Just don't forget why they were told and where they came from. When you are telling these stories, don't let that part of it go. It speaks to a time in our cultural history that still shapes policies and procedures in our nation.

I know there are those reading these words and thinking that I am making too much of this. How can you make a culture invisible by misappropriating their stories? Honestly, one would think stories are everything!

What happens if you effectively misappropriate? Well, you get things like this.

Steve King, a representative of Iowa in 2016 had this to say about non-white non-Christian people.

“I would ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people you are talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”

I would like to say that this man is alone in this foolishness, but he is not.

The misappropriation of stories and images and ideas distorts them. If the people who have worked to disinherit "others" define how those "others" think, feel, behave, and look at the world, they control how that group can be treated.

This is where stereotypes are born.

What are the images we have gotten historically of people we don't want to think of as decent or worthy human beings? How have we defined them? I won't post any of those images here. You can find them if you like. Distorted images of the Irish, Italians, Jewish people, African Americans, Polish people, Muslims, Hispanics, people from Asia, and homosexuals are still with us and are still being passed around in some communities.

The way we tell stories about people matters.
The way we think about them...or don't think about them also matters.

Ask yourself some questions:

 Are you living on land that was appropriated from an earlier nation?

What First Nation People used to inhabit the lands around where you are now living?

How did those First Nation People live?

Where are their descendants today if there are any?

What are the circumstances around which your land was transferred from First Nation People?

To not see someone's stories is to not see their contributions.

To appropriate their stories is to make them invisible.

To make them invisible can impoverish them in the mainstream culture and drive them further away from either being seen or appreciated.

The Storytelling Component:

Why are you telling this story?

Do you know where this story originated or why it originated?

Who are the people behind this tale?

Have you changed the tale to fit a thing you want to say despite the tale saying nothing of the sort? Do you know if you have done this?

Can you truly tell this story and honor the people who told it?

Not every story has a strong cultural lens that needs to be confronted, but some do. Doing your homework helps.

 Next Up: I only know this because I've stepped into wasps nests: Learning From Our Mistakes

Part 2 - The Cost of Cultural Misappropriation: Invisibility 

Happy Telling!


  1. I remember the movie (story and song) from childhood. I thought a rabbit was so smart and brave. When I grew, became a teller (and teacher) I did lots of folktale research and found out about the background of theses stories. Then the books of Brer Rabbit started to disappear from the shelves of children's libraries. They were considered controversial and inappropriate because of the inproper poor quality language used. You pose interesting thoughts. I try to respect when I tell stories. I hope I succeed.

    1. We all do the best we can. Nobody is perfect, but we keep learning and hopefully we get better. There is nothing wrong with the stories. What is wrong is the lens through which we look at them!

  2. When learning more about the Gullah people years ago, I was interested in the stories that brought me back to that childhood movie. I loved the song. I loved the stories and quick witted rabbit. I distinctly remember being uncomfortable with the black and white relationships in that movie though. I was glad to bump into the stories without the Disney mess around them. I loved reading them in the Gullah language. Thanks for this reminder and giving more to consider.