Brer Rabbit and Friends

A few months ago I wrote about using texts of popular culture as a means of exploring issues of racial prejudice within a critical literacy framework. I then said I would reveal more about a project I was planning based around the issue. With a hectic workload and conferences to attend, I completely forgot… so now that the project is actually over I am able to give more detailed account.

I really enjoy reading Jackie’s blog and remembered when she wrote about Disney’s track record of racial insensitivity and in particular a website she referenced which listed the most racist Disney characters. According to the site the second most racist character is Uncle Remus from the Song of the South. The film includes animated segments of stories of Brer Rabbit and friends as well as featuring aspects of life on a Southern USA plantation. Disney have never released the film on home video or DVD in the US in its entirety because they fear its portrayal of slavery, and some of its content, may be misconstrued. The character of Uncle Remus is a fictional storyteller created by Joel Chandler Harris who collected and published the stories after hearing them from slaves he met on his travels. The movie does clearly portray, maybe unintentionally, the racial segregation after the American Civil War. Does this make it racist? Is the portrayal of Uncle Remus racist? Does this prevent us from watching it or even talking about it (something Disney is currently doing)? Should space be created to talk about such issues, especially in the classroom?

Independent of the fact as to whether you do find the above clip racially insensitive or not -is the issue of racism too taboo for a Disney film? Are we to forget that it actually happened (and still does)? Are those who want the film banned essentially trying to delete or hide something that is actually a huge part of America’s history? All these questions got me thinking.

During my first year of teaching I ran an animation project. Although it incorporated aspects of storytelling and development of social skills, the focus was very much on text production using a discrete set of animation skills. The children enjoyed it but I felt it could be so much more. The focus on text analysis was fragmented and mainly looked at texts from an ‘end product’ point of view with little analysis of the underlying meanings and values within a text. I’ve also been reading the work of Barbara Comber who suggests that using texts with a critical perspective can open up discussion of issues such as racial prejudice in an open and contextually driven manner. I therefore decided to use the Uncle Remus stories and Song of the South film as the basis for a project that incorporates animation as a critical practice.

I wanted the project to not only include aspects of multiliteracies but also aspects of critical literacy towards text analysis and production. Unlike multiliteracies there are several versions of critical literacy pedagogy , all of which involve an active, challenging approach to reading and textual practices. Barbara Comber describes a number of core principals of critical literacy including subverting taken-for-granted texts, focusing on cultural texts and examining how power is exercised and by whom (Comber, 2001). I wanted the children to experience the Brer Rabbit stories in a range of ways through oral, written and multimodal texts so that they could further understand that literacy embodies a vast array of modes and textual practices. I then wanted them to ‘dig deeper’ into the texts so that they could understand the underlying meanings and themes. I wanted them to understand what it was like for a slave working on the plantations and why oral stories were such a huge part of their life. The project allowed us to open up discussion of the area of slavery and prejudice in an open and contextually driven manner so that they could consider texts meaning in the world (Comber, 2001). I could tell that the children were thinking critically about the issues after asking them why slaves would tell stories orally and being told that it was because slaves didn’t have any money, so couldn’t go to school and therefore couldn’t learn to read (paraphrased). I’d never said that in a lesson before.

After exploring existing Brer Rabbit stories I wanted the children to reinvent the texts for a modern day audience using animation techniques and the iCanAnimate software. The children subsequently designed their own narrative and created backgrounds and characters while working with a local artist.

Brer Rabbit

The children’s animation skills were exceptionally impressive and they were able to animate scenes without any adult support (remember these are 6/7 year olds). This was entirely down to the fact that the children were able to play with and explore the software and hardware a week before we started animating. The project was managed by having a roundabout of activities available to the children so every child had the opportunity to animate, create characters, paint backgrounds and complete critical literacy activities.

Technology was not the basis of the project but rather the development of critical literacy skills achieved through the embedded and meaningful use of technology. I really think this is a better strategy than doing basic ‘ICT projects’ as the children (and adults) develop an applied knowledge and understanding of how digital technologies and texts work within the world.

Special thanks must go to Elaine Keeley my amazing teaching assistant for  helping to implement this project and Jackie Marsh for feedback on the project design.

Huge thanks also to my brother, Michael Waller, for helping to recreate and remimagine the Brer Rabbit characters.

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