Up From the Briar Patch
Sam Burnham, Curator
Complex times call for complex solutions to complex problems. And so Disney now faces a choice to either re-theme a fan favorite or capitalize on an opportunity to do some of their best storytelling ever.
Disney’s Splash Mountain is a cornerstone of their Magic Kingdom parks in Florida, California, and Japan, Based on the controversial Song of the South film (1946) that was based on the Uncle Remus stories of Georgia author Joel Chandler Harris.
The reactions to the announcement from both sides have been to usual crossfire of “tear down racism” and “leave history alone.” But the cultural significance of the moment is lost in between those simplistic points. The stories of Br’er Rabbit and his neighbors are steeped in the history of the South and also West Africa, Harris was abandoned by his unwed father shortly after his birth and raised by his mother before dropping out of school in his early teens, He spent years in slave cabins learning the stories and perfecting the dialect from the men and women who toiled on Turnwold Plantation bear Eatonton where he lived while apprenticing with a newspaper. His own humble origins drew him to the enslaved people and made him want to relate with them. He wanted to share the oral tradition of enslaved people to "preserve in permanent shape those curious mementoes of a period that will no doubt be sadly misrepresented by historians of the future."
The dialect, stories, clothing, songs, traditions, and culture that once spanned the South are now diminished to a few hundred people on the coast of Georgia. Their stories are presently hidden in plain sight on one of the most popular rides in the Happiest Place on Earth.
Disney needs to do a risk vs reward assessment. What do they stand to lose vs what they stand to gain?
Changing the theme of Splash Mountain would pacify calls for change and be a benign step to creating new entertainment opportunities. But at what cost? Should thet bury forever the folk heroes of the oral tradition of enslaved people? Disney has the resources, the audience, and the machinery in place to do something so much greater.
Disney should partner with The Wren’s Nest in Atlanta and The Uncle Remus Museum in Eatonton to make a film that celebrates these narratives. Show their audience who Br’er Rabbit is. Shift away from the live action portions of Song of the South that people find problematic. Focus on the characters who appear in the ride, the subjects who make up a fable tradition as rich as Aesop’s. Give film audiences and park visitors an experience with the wit and wisdom that these stories celebrate.
Provide a space outside the ride for authentic storytellers to share the narratives for park visitors. Present these stories for a mainstream audience in a way that educates and entertains. Use the queue line to expand on the stories. They could even tie in scheduled ring shouter performances or other appropriate cultural demonstrations in that space. The possibilities are endless. Make it culturally appropriate, make it historically accurate. Tell the story.
If racism and poor cultural representation are the stubborn stumps we can’t dislodge, Splash Mountain can be a stick of dynamite to loosen things up a bit.
Do the right thing, Disney. Do not bulldoze the Briar Patch. Elevate the king of that briar patch. Tell his story and those of his neighbors with the help of people who know them best. Don’t sweep him into obscurity. Tell an even bigger story, the right story, the real story.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire