Located in Atlanta’s Historic West End, The Wren’s Nest is the historic home of Joel Chandler Harris, well-known for compiling and adapting the African American Brer Rabbit folktales. In the century since Harris’s death, the home has been converted into a museum, and now serves as an anchor of the Atlanta arts community, especially in its neighborhood. This week, we met with Akbar Imhotep, the site’s resident storyteller, and Kalin Thomas, its Program Director, to discuss the complicated history of The Wren's Nest and their vision for its future. We also discuss how storytelling can build relationships in communities, connect people with their heritage, and to help people heal.
Imhotep first visited the Wren’s Nest with the Phillis Wheatley YWCA while he was working as a puppeteer for Atlanta’s Center For Puppetry Arts. Imhotep has been affiliated with the site for more than three decades. In addition to his interest in storytelling, he was attracted to the museum’s efforts to use storytelling to connect with the surrounding community. Thomas came to the center three years ago, first to film there for her job at Atlanta Interfaith Broadcast (AIB). She became a mentor in the center’s youth writing program, Scribes, and she now serves as the site’s program director.
Joel Chandler Harris recorded the Brer Rabbit tales he heard when he was a young boy between the ages of 14 and 17 working on a plantation. Although he is a white man, he lived among the enslaved people while he worked on the plantation. When he took a job at the Atlanta Constitution, he turned the stories into cartoons for the newspaper, and they became so popular that he compiled the stories into a book. His first book was incredibly successful, and he went on to produce several volumes of the folktales. Harris’s collected stories, perhaps the most famous of which is “The Tar-Baby,” are collectively referred to as "Uncle Remus Tales." Many of these tales originated in Africa and were told and retold by enslaved Africans across the South. Alcée Fortier collected variants of the same folktales in Louisiana, where Brer Rabbit is referred to as Compair Lapin.
Harris’s legacy is contested. On the one hand, if Harris had not collected the folktales, they might have been lost throughout the generations, and in some ways, his publication made the folktales acceptable. On the other hand, artists who shared stories with Harris received no money for their publications, Disney used the stories as the basis for Song of the South, which has been panned for its offensive portrayal of black southerners, and the museum itself remained segregated until the mid-1980s. Thomas believes African Americans should reclaim the tales and revisit them again because they are interesting stories with useful lessons, especially for children. They’re also part of black heritage, having traveled and lived in many different places.
Considering the museum’s complicated racial history, they also see the site as a place for healing through sharing stories. While they believe Tar-Baby, for instance, wasn’t originally meant to be a racist tale, adaptations and interpretations have imbued the story with new meanings, and they hope to foster a sense of healing by telling the truth—making sure people know the history of the author and the history of the tales and not covering up the unsavory parts. Ultimately, Imhotep believes, his time as a storyteller is sacred time—that stories connect us to one another and help us think about our lives.
We would like to thank Akbar Imhotep and Kalin Thomas for sharing their stories with us this week. We would also like to thank Melissa Swindle, Executive Director at The Wren’s Nest for allowing us to use the office for the interview. You can help support the educational programs and the cultural mission of The Wren’s Nest by purchasing tickets to the second annual Brer Rabbit, Blues and BBQ Festival on Sunday, November 5th 2017. If you are a writer, we also encourage you to become a mentor by contacting Kalin Thomas. The center is always looking for volunteers from Atlanta’s community of writers.