Beyond Talking Bunnies: On Victor Menza’s “The Rabbit Between Us”

May 15, 2022   •   By Katja M. Guenther

The Rabbit Between Us

Victor Menza

MANY ANIMALS TAKE on cultural meanings, occupying important roles in human societies as symbols, companions, threats, or food. In the United States, rabbits are often understood as creatures who are gentle, quick-footed, and clever, and who may be harbingers of good luck. We think of them perhaps most frequently in relation to children: toy rabbits are meant for cuddling and conjuring feelings of security, and rabbits who speak like humans populate the world of children’s literature and film, most famously in Beatrix Potter’s series of books centered on Peter Rabbit and in animated cartoons like Bugs Bunny. Rabbits are one of relatively few animals who live simultaneously in wild, domestic, and farming settings, marking them as intercessor or go between. Characters like the Easter Bunny, an egg-laying rabbit who has many human skills and qualities, elide divisions across species.

For philosopher Victor Menza, whose book The Rabbit Between Us has recently been published (nearly a decade after his death), an affinity for rabbits emerged in childhood and remained with him throughout adulthood. Rabbits like Brown Bunny, a childhood stuffed toy who accompanied Menza as he navigated family disruption and later became a companion to his daughter as she, in turn, navigated family disruption, and a rabbit’s foot he carried for good luck throughout his childhood and adolescence, are just a few of the many rabbits who accompanied Menza’s development and whose presences he explores in this book.

Yet The Rabbit Between Us is about much more than one man’s relationship with rabbits, literal and figurative. This is a book about loss, in which rabbits figure prominently as symbols and messengers. In the opening chapter, we learn of the immense grief and rage Menza experienced when he divorced and became a non-custodial parent of two daughters with whom he longed to spend more time. The pain of the divorce he and his children experienced is expressed in part through Brown Bunny, and through the other rabbit tokens Menza and his daughter Rebecca passed between them over decades of mostly separation.

In examining his relationships with rabbits and how those relationships persisted throughout his life, Menza returns to the influential rabbits of his childhood, who in turn help him weather the challenges of adulthood, including a tenure denial at Dartmouth, divorce, and learning at a relatively advanced age that he was adopted. This return brings him to the stories of Brer Rabbit, a central character in Black folklore in the American South whose origins trace back to folktales originating in West Africa and who traveled to the United States with the survivors of the transatlantic slave trade. But it was a white man who introduced white America to Brer Rabbit. Late-19th-century folklorist and writer Joel Chandler Harris invented the character of Uncle Remus, a Black freedman living on a Southern plantation where he spends his free time telling stories about Brer Rabbit and his community. Chandler’s adaptations of the Brer Rabbit stories later became the basis for the controversial 1946 Disney film Song of the South, in which Uncle Remus is the narrator.

Both Harris’s books and the film have been subjected to sustained critique as racist in their depiction of Black lives and language in the American South. Perhaps presaging resistance to contemporary “cancel culture,” Menza dedicates several chapters to rebutting these critiques and arguing instead for celebration of Harris’s Uncle Remus stories and of Song of the South. Menza is not addressing current conversations about book banning and free speech, as neither work has been explicitly censored (Harris’s works are widely available, and while Disney has chosen not to make the film viewable on its popular streaming platform, it’s still relatively easy to find a streaming version elsewhere online or to buy the DVD). Chapter 10 offers a defense of Song of the South based on the merits of its appeal to children and its ability to help “wounded white children.” Menza describes the influence of Uncle Remus on his own life as part of a line of argumentation that Song of the South “can improve white kids” by helping them feel adult love and an ability to “come into possession of judgments deeply at odds with their culture.” Clearly, for Menza, who as a boy seems to have often felt out of place and insufficiently loved by his adoptive parents, Uncle Remus was a source of comfort and hope.

But the argument Menza presents as an adult focuses on general themes of childhood — themes that can be addressed in children’s films in various ways, and which do not require the continued circulation of racist content. And he overlooks entirely how even his own description of what it meant to him to be a fan of Harris’s Brer Rabbit stories and the corresponding film also works to maintain the idea of Blackness as different from whiteness, such as when he writes about how he came to think of the voice of the nighttime as Black and male. Throughout the book, Menza invokes race and racism while skirting substantial engagement with race and racism, let alone his own whiteness and the many, often contradictory meanings white America and white Americans have worked to attach to Blackness.

Racism and misogyny intertwine in Menza’s logics — a pattern so common in our broader society that we have developed a vocabulary to discuss and analyze it. In Menza’s work, misogyny rears its head most clearly in his obvious hatred for his ex-wife, with whom he struggled for greater custody rights of their two daughters. His separation from his children, in fact, is one of the broader framings of this work, and the text can be read as a meandering letter written to Rebecca. His unnamed ex-wife is the key villain of this book, and Menza consistently represents her as self-centered and mean. He shows that he suffered greatly due to his separation from his children, but we are provided with few facts. Particularly jarring is when Menza describes his family as “our private slave society,” in which “hardly a week went by without your mother, living in the Big House, promulging (I use this old Walt Whitman verb for the disappointed echo of milk or kindness) some ‘new rule’ designed to further bottle up our imaginative contact with one another.”

Importantly, drawing a parallel in which the family stands in for a slave society — with Menza’s ex-wife as the slaveholder in the Big House and he and his children as slaves — is a false analogy. This analogy dismisses the impacts and legacies of American slavery and fails to recognize the crucial differences between the social organization and consequences of the plantation slave system and a late-20th-century middle-class white family. This is particularly puzzling because elsewhere in the book, Menza is insistent that slavery must be understood as a central part of both historical and contemporary America, leaving unique and specific legacies.

Menza’s writing about race is baffling in part because of its many contradictions — both celebrating and exoticizing Blackness, and especially Black masculinity. But this is the ambivalence, confusion, and anger so many white Americans hold and express. Well-intentioned whites want to recognize the specific contributions of Black Americans to American history, society, and culture. Menza even advocates for the teaching of the Black Southern vernacular — like that used by Uncle Remus — in US schools to give children an appreciation for the oral culture of slaves, whom Menza sees as having attained “some of the highest levels of humanity.” But he fails to acknowledge why or how Harris’s stories and the Disney film based on them can be hurtful and problematic. He asserts his own interpretation of Harris’s stories as more honest than those of noted Black women writers and intellectuals such as Alice Walker and June Jordan.

There may be arguments in favor of maintaining and circulating Harris’s stories and Song of the South. Jason Sperb, in his book-length treatment of the history and cultural meaning of Song of the South, ultimately comes down in favor of keeping the film in some type of circulation, with caveats — but his analysis, unlike Menza’s, is not a defense of the film itself. That is to say, whereas Sperb finds that the film is racist yet has historical value, Menza argues that that which is racist in the film is not actually racist.

Difficult choices about how to represent history and honor traditions are a common issue, and those centered on American slavery and colonialism have been at the forefront of local and national conversations in recent years. These are challenging and contentious conversations. One of many problems with Menza’s presentation is that his defense of the stories and the film does not give the opposing side their due; his tone toward contemporary critics of Harris and Disney is dismissive. He also does not engage with the critiques of these works made at the times of their respective publication and release, instead painting the works as victims of contemporary mores. This renders calls to stop circulating, or at least to ignore, Harris’s stories and Song of the South ahistorical, precisely what Menza argues we must not do regarding the stories of Brer Rabbit.

There are certainly sections to appreciate in The Rabbit Between Us. Menza’s writing is often playful, insightful, and touching. Yet, ultimately, his posthumous publication leaves us in a troubling and unresolved place, one that feels much like where American society finds itself today as we struggle to metabolize and reconcile our historical and contemporary racism. In that, The Rabbit Between Us is clearly about much more than a personal history of one man’s affinity for children’s toys and talking rabbits.

¤


Katja M. Guenther is professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of The Lives and Deaths of Shelter Animals(Stanford, 2020) and Making Their Place: Feminism after Socialism in Eastern Germany (Stanford, 2010).