Disneyland and Disneyworld are dismantling Splash Mountain starting in 2023. Even though renovations continuously take place in the kingdoms with new themes and new technology, the demise of Splash Mountain carries an additional verdict – Splash Mountain is racist. Such verdict is good reminder of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous quote, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
Maslow used the hammer and nail example to explain the theory of reductionism as it applies to psychology. Complex situations can be overwhelming, so we reduce all the variables into one attribute, then we use an instrument we happen to have at hand to deal with that one attribute. If all we have is a hammer, the complex variables become a nail. If all we have is the word “racism” to describe the African American experience, a lot of things will become “racist.”
Thus, Splash Mountain’s complex history becomes racist
The story behind Splash Mountain is Walt Disney’s Song of the South, a 1946 musical film that combined live action and animation to present an idyllic Reconstruction Period American South and showcase the stories of Uncle Remus.
True, the post-Civil War Reconstruction Period was certainly not idyllic. Freed slaves had little or no education easily conducive to independent living, many plantation owners suddenly found themselves without labor, former slaves that stayed in plantations as sharecroppers were trapped in a new form of servitude.
So, do we succumb to reductionism, label Song of the South racist, and hammer it into oblivion? Or do we endeavor to understand the complexities of life during Reconstruction? Do we accept the film as a work of art that broke some racial ground in its day?
There is a litany of reasons why Song of the South should be remembered
Classic Walt Disney movies like Snow White, Pinocchio, and Sleeping Beauty are well remembered. So should Song of the South. Here are some interesting things about the film.
* Back in 1946, by releasing Song of the South, Walt Disney helped preserve 23 of the 185 Uncle Remus folktales recorded by historian and journalist Joel Chandler Harris.
As a young white newspaper apprentice, Harris lived in a Georgia plantation during the Civil War years of 1862 through 1866. There he heard many folk tales from slaves. Later he created the fictional character Uncle Remus as a vehicle for telling the stories, and in 1880 Harris published his first book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings, The Folklore of the Old Plantation. The book was a creative and financial success. Songs and Sayings was followed by many other Uncle Remus and Southern story books.
* Today, a 2019 Mcallister Editions The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus, a compilation from eight Harris Chandler books, is available of Amazon (1,768 ratings and 4-1/2 stars) for $12.96. An Appleton and Company 1881 edition of Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings can be purchased at Abe Books for $7,500 – $15,000, depending on condition of the book.
Given the availability and popularity of the books upon which Song of the South is based, the discomfort with the movie is difficult to understand. Perhaps it is best assumed that people who purchased and rated these books accepted them as good written art, at the same time understanding the stories’ time and place.
* In 1948 James Baskett was the first African American male actor to win an Oscar of any kind and the first to win for a leading role (Hattie McDaniel won in 1939 for her supporting role of Mammy in Gone with the Wind).
Although Baskett’s Oscar for his role as Uncle Remus in Song of the South was a “Special Award,” an Oscar presented for outstanding work that in the eyes of the Academy does not fit under any of the standard Oscar categories, it was still a significant “first.”
James Baskett’s pioneer work in Song of the South is at the level of other African American film pioneers, like Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier (first Best Actor Oscar, Lilies of the Field, 1963), and Halle Berry (first Best Actress Oscar, Monster’s Ball, 2002).
* Unlike James Baskett, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, Song of the South’s theme song, did win a “real” Oscar in 1948 for Best Original Song. It’s a happy, beautiful tune worthy of remembrance.
* Replacing or updating theme rides – or any other product – is different from censoring.
The Disney Company has made numerous animated and live-action films since the 1940s, so of course the old needs to make room for the new. Song of the South has not been re-released since 1986 because supposedly it is “racist.” But, let’s look at the last time some other Disney classics were released in U.S. theaters: Snow White 1993, Bambi 1988, Dumbo 1976, and Cinderella 1987.
The American past, good and bad, is part of who we are today. Some of us focus on the good legacies of our human and therefore flawed past. Others focus on the flaws alone, thereby losing all sense of perspective or balance – in essence, seeing what is not there. Here are a coupe of examples.
* The Tar Baby in one of Uncle Remus stories is not a disrespectful representation of a Black baby, but a doll of sticky tar made by Br’er Fox to entrap Br’er Rabbit. Most people figured that out, as evidenced by the usage of “tar baby” as a sticky situation difficult to extricate oneself from.
* The “slaves” in the Joel Chandler Harris stories were no longer slaves, since the stories take place during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. Although Walt Disney chose not to specify when exactly the stories in Song of the South take place, we can look at when Chandler Harris says they took place. We can also notice that when Miss Sally asks Uncle Remus not to tell any more stories to Johnny (because Johnny is too young and might get confused), Uncle Remus is so sad that he prepares to leave the plantation. Slaves didn’t usually walk away from plantations.
Seeing what is not there is one of the results of reductionisn.
Hopefully, the current practice of reducing complex situations into a matter of race will soon end. Other fads, like hula hoops and pet rocks, did eventually fade away. There’s hope.