Disneyland removes controversial ‘zip-a-dee-doo-dah’ lyric from its parade | CNN Business:

Disneyland has removed the “zip-a-dee-doo-dah” lyric played during its park parades because it comes from a movie that has been criticized for racist portrayals of Black Americans.

This is an easy decision to hate. No society is improved by ignoring their cultural products, warts and all. I’m not sure anyone is defending Song of the South‘s racial stereotypes, but it’s a mistake to conclude, as Disney seems to have, that these deficiencies outweigh or somehow cancel its artistic merits. 

Black actor James Baskett starred as Uncle Remus, was widely praised for his work, and won an honorary Oscar for it in 1948. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah won the Oscar for best original song (and rightfully so—it’s catchy). In 2003, the Online Film Critics Society ranked the film as the 67th greatest animated picture of all time.

Much of the criticism comes from a mistaken foundation. The picture is set during the Reconstruction not during the Antebellum period. Black Americans in the picture are free persons, not slaves. This distinction is perhaps too subtly made in the film, and it influences a critic’s perspective: If one thinks Song of the South is about happy-go-lucky slaves, it’s easier to find it an offensive, ahistorical whitewashing (pun not intended) of Southern culture and slavery as an institution. 

The setting is more clear in the source material and it’s worth a review:

Uncle Remus is the fictional title character and narrator of a collection of African American folktales compiled and adapted by Joel Chandler Harris and published in book form in 1881. Harris was a journalist in post-Reconstruction era Atlanta, and he produced seven Uncle Remus books. He did so by introducing tales that he had heard and framing them in the plantation context. He wrote his stories in a dialect which was his interpretation of the Deep South African-American language of the time….Many of these stories are believed to have Creek Indian influence too.

Uncle Remus is a collection of animal stories, songs, and oral folklore collected from southern black Americans. Many of the stories are didactic, much like those of Aesop’s Fables and Jean de La Fontaine’s stories. Uncle Remus is a kindly old freedman who serves as a story-telling device, passing on the folktales to children gathered around him, like the traditional African griot.

The stories are written in an eye dialect devised by Harris to represent a Deep South Black dialect. Uncle Remus is a compilation of Br’er Rabbit storytellers whom Harris had encountered during his time at the Turnwold Plantation. Harris said that the use of the Black dialect was an effort to add to the effect of the stories and to allow the stories to retain their authenticity. The genre of stories is the trickster tale. At the time of Harris’s publication, his work was praised for its ability to capture plantation Black dialect.

Br’er Rabbit (“Brother Rabbit”) is the main character of the stories, a character prone to tricks and troublemaking, who is often opposed by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear. In one tale, Br’er Fox constructs a doll out of a lump of tar and puts clothing on it. When Br’er Rabbit comes along, he addresses the “tar baby” amiably but receives no response. Br’er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as the tar baby’s lack of manners, punches it and kicks it, and becomes stuck.

I have not seen Song of the South in decades. I am unprepared to give it a full-throated defense and would not without being able to review it first. Unfortunately, Disney has kept it locked away in its vaults since 1983, so it’s difficult to evaluate. 

I do believe that this type of censorship, much like that of the very racist Warner Bros. cartoons of the early 1940s, is a mistake. I am on the side of free speech and artistic statement—even potentially offensive ones—generally, and I see no good reason why Disney should pretend to be offended on behalf of its audience. Let people decide for themselves. The generation that grew up with Song of the South also passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and ended segregation. Somehow I think later generations can also handle seeing a cartoon movie.

Disney would do well to remember that zip-a-dee-doo-dah is not a statement in support of racial oppression; it’s an exclamation of joy at the wonder of the world. They’re wrong to silence it.