My first-grade teacher, Miss Ruby Jordon, taught me that “history” means “his story,” the story of mankind — and even though this was 1958, she assured the girls that by “mankind” women were included, too.
I have always loved history because I have always loved stories. My daddy was my first storyteller, and he was a good one. The books he taught me to read soon supplanted him. After almost seven decades I still read and seek out historical truths, which continue to offer great insights into mankind and who we are.
I study history, guts, feathers and all, and it is not always pretty because it is about humankind, and humankind is flawed. I blame it on Eve eating that apple. History is also very, very complex, and when they began to dumb down education and gave up teaching critical thinking in order to incorporate memorizing answers for standardized tests, true understanding of history was one of the first casualties.
Colonel Wheeler Davidson warned me it was about to happen in 1982 when they told him at Clarkston High School that he was no longer teaching history, but rather social studies. He was a seer.
So now we are in a season in our country where everyone — and I mean everyone — is falling all over one another to pander to people who are making demands right and left in an effort to erase history. Monuments are falling, traditions are being exterminated and perceived guilt is overriding thoughtful discussion, critical thinking and common sense at every turn. And in our rush to prove that we are not racist oppressors, we are making cosmetic changes that will not improve the quality of anyone’s life and will, in fact, create more resentment and ill feelings down the road.
And we are throwing the baby out with the bath water in many instances. We need to put on brakes. We need to stop the knee-jerk reactions, take a deep breath and think. We need to learn our history.
For instance, Walt Disney World is under attack and “they,” whoever “they” are, are demanding that Disney completely rework Splash Mountain because a ride that depicts the cartoon characters Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox and Brer Bear cutting up capers is obviously a part of a deep and sinister effort to somehow harm the sensibilities of black people. They know that the characters appeared in a movie, “Song of the South,” and having South in the title is sinful enough. But the stories about the creatures were told by an enslaved black man named Uncle Remus, even though he isn’t depicted in the ride, so Splash Mountain has to go.
Not so fast, my friend. Let me tell you the rest of the story. Please, hear the truth. Joel Chandler Harris was the son of an Irish immigrant, born in Eatonton in 1848. He never knew who his father was and was raised on his uncle’s cotton plantation. Unfortunately, in today’s climate, the fact that an author was raised on a plantation is enough to get his work discredited forever, but there is more to the story.
Because he didn’t have benefit of a father, Harris was ostracized by the other white children in Eatonton and often played hooky from school to hang out with the black children of slaves on the farm. He and his playmates would listen to the older men on the plantation tell stories. Now here is the history part, so pay attention.
Many of the stories they told were what historians call “African trickster tales,” oral folklore brought over from West Africa, by way of the Caribbean, and passed down from generation to generation. These stories had a common theme. In them, a small weak creature — representing the slaves, themselves — would constantly outsmart and get over on the larger, stronger creatures — representing the slave owners.
It was the slaves’ way of saving face and developing pride in themselves, right under the nose of their owners — thus proving the point of the stories by their very telling.
Harris listened intently, and when he was grown and became first a reporter and eventually the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, he preserved this African oral history by writing the fables down on paper, in dialect, which is as important as the stories themselves from a historical aspect.
His “Tales of Uncle Remus,” about Brer Fox and the other creatures, is the only reason these important stories are still around — and now people are trying to erase them from society, dooming the literature of the slaves themselves to permanent extinction.
This is one example of thousands and thousands of knee-jerk miscalculations based on pandering and ignorance happening across the country at this very moment.
Let him who has ears hear — including the imagineers at Disney Corporation. Splash Mountain isn’t a problem. Destroying it will be destroying African culture. All of us — black, white, brown, pink, green and gray – will suffer because the stories are entertaining and insightful and just plain fun. We all need more “zippity-doo-dah” days — not fewer.