I met Lain while working on a piece about Brer Rabbit. I became interested in how someone five generations removed interacts with a literary lineage which is still controversial to this day. It wasn’t a heritage he at first embraced, as I discovered.
What was your experience with the Uncle Remus stories growing up? Were you always aware of your lineage - or was there a moment of revelation later in life?
My first memory of the Uncle Remus stories was reading them with my grandmother, though not the one on the Harris side of my family. My father's mother had been long familiar with the stories. I'm sure she read them as a child, but as a mother she shared the stories with my aunt, uncle, and father. My aunt even demanded that her 9th birthday include a Brer Rabbit themed party at the Wren's Nest. This was, of course, well before my father met my mother, who descended directly from Harris.
or later in college in my African-American literature class. I felt a vague connection to the stories, but it was probably the same feeling someone has when a childhood friend achieves some level of fame or notoriety: it serves as a fleeting anecdote, but that's about it. Growing up with the last name "Shakespeare," the Harris side of my lineage garnered significantly less attention. Atlanta History Center
.Every year I would visit the Wren's Nest in December to cut the cake on Harris's birthday. And every year I would be annoyed that I had to visit that dusty old house. I was well aware of my lineage, and that lineage was a chore. By the time I was 12 and could say no, I did, and I stopped going to the Wren's Nest.
.The Brer Rabbit stories would arise from time to time, say during a school visit to the
Given your reluctance, how did you eventually come to embrace the heritage and the Wren's Nest? How did you come to be the executive director and what exactly does that entail?
I was skeptical at first about the Wren's Nest. Since Harris and Brer Rabbit had always been a part of my life, I thought they were "good," but when as I grew older and heard things about "Uncle Remus" and "tar babies," I thought that perhaps this legacy wasn't so good. In short, I'd heard and assumed, but I'd never really given Harris's legacy much thought.
institution. It's seemingly always been here, and every old codger in Atlanta has a story about it. The opportunity to help resurrect it was too good to pass up. Atlanta
.I took the job because the Wren's Nest is an
.Luckily, the more I read of and about Harris, the more I thought that this guy hadn't really gotten a fair shake over the past sixty or so years. His achievement and the achievement of the storytellers before him were of international importance, yet they'd all been swept under the rug based on a questionable and iconic Disney film. Everyone else, it seemed, was like me: hearing and assuming without thinking or knowing. Once I'd researched the matter for myself, there was no way I couldn't be involved. The story is too juicy.
.My aunt had served on the board of the Wren's Nest's governing body. She knew they were out of options. The rest of my family who had been donors to the organization were fed up, too. My aunt and my father asked me if I was interested, and the board guaranteed a small salary for my first 90 days on the job.
.In theory, being executive director means hiring and training the right people, ensuring there's enough money in the bank, and serving as liaison to the board of directors. In reality, it means answering the phone on one ring, developing a brand, creating a website from scratch, establishing programs and partnerships, keeping the lights on, raising money for operations, raising money for capital projects, overseeing those capital projects, and representing the Wren's Nest in public. There are a lot of balls to juggle, and so far we have avoided having too many of them hit the ground.
I'm glad you brought up race, because it does seem like the elephant - Brer Elephant? - in the room when you talk about Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus. I’ve several times come across a quote from the author Alice Walker - whom I generally admire - wherein she accused your ancestor of "stealing a good part of my heritage." How would you respond to that?
Alice Walker's comments stem from a lecture given to the Atlanta Historical Society in the early 1980s. When I read her speech, I wasn't surprised by the vitriol toward Harris, but I was shocked by how nebulous and confused her argument seemed to be. There's quite a bit of emotion, but seemingly not a lot of thought given to the argument. Most of her ire and critique is directed toward Eatonton, Disney, and Harris's daughter-in-law, if I remember correctly.
Harris didn't "steal" Alice Walker's inheritance. It was given to him. And it was given to him as it was given to her, orally, by older people with lessons to teach speaking to younger people with lessons to learn. It was the closest thing he had to an inheritance of his own, and in his work he accomplished, in addition to the skillful textualization of a rich African American oral tradition which made him famous, the intimate personal testimony that Nietzsche found at the heart of all great achievements of mind--'a kind of involuntary and unnoticed memoir." Chandler
.As far as stealing heritage, you could certainly argue that writing down folklore is inherently destructive. Once in print, the words are dead on the page. And, if they're as successful as Harris's versions of Brer Rabbit, they hinder the oral tradition, where the stories are alive and evolving. Still, I don't think theft is in order. Robert Cochran said it best:
....continued in Part Two