Jim Crow Museum
1010 Campus Drive
Big Rapids, MI 49307
I recently discovered the Jim Crow Museum website and I love what you have done. American history has largely been whitewashed, at least in my personal experience, and I think it's extremely important for people to see the racist images you have collected and to realize how pervasive, casual, and brutal racism was in the Jim Crow era, especially in the context of an honest, open discussion of past and present race relations. The website is fascinating and I spend hours every time I visit it and have been thinking about what I've read and seen there pretty much constantly. I love all the essays and letters you include; it's great to read all the different opinions people have about your museum and its purpose.
So here is my question: There is not a lot on your site dealing with Uncle Remus. I suppose I would be considered a nostalgic on the topic. My mother read me the stories and I saw nothing offensive in them for most of my life, because I didn't experience them in the context of racism or nostalgia for the Antebellum South. I assumed Uncle Remus babysat the children and was called "uncle" because he was a close family friend, and that the dialect was just how people talked at that place and time. I don't remember any stereotyped images in the illustrations. To my worldview as a young child growing up in a racially diverse community in Los Angeles in the 80s, there was nothing offensive about the book, and the races of the main characters meant nothing to me. I have deeply loved, even been obsessed with, both rabbits and folklore for my entire life, and I am very reluctant to give up the Uncle Remus stories because of the racist history surrounding them.
What particularly troubles me is that the Uncle Remus stories are derived from African American folklore, and I think it's outrageous to throw them away because of their associations. I've studied Native American groups that have lost all or virtually all their native folklore, and I think it's an immense loss, and if some stories had survived, even if they were collected in a racist context and appropriated as part of White culture, I would consider them valuable. I've had arguments about this with my boyfriend, who thinks everything to do with Uncle Remus is odious. I would like to read the stories to my children someday, perhaps in the Julius Lester version, but I don't want to do something harmful because I'm being naive.
What are your thoughts on enjoying and perpetuating pieces of American culture that came out of a racist tradition, such as Uncle Remus stories or Stephen Foster songs or Gone With the Wind? Is there a responsible way to do so or should all of these things simply stand as reminders of our country's dark past? I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on the topic, and also to see more info about Uncle Remus, Joel Chandler Harris, and Song of the South on your site.
Thanks for reading my long letter, and thank you so much for founding the Jim Crow Museum!
-- July 4, 2007