Because of you, Ms. Susan

Because of you,
my children learned to read;
they learned their math and abc’s.

You watched them struggle.
You helped them grow.

I don’t know if we ever told you so,
but we love you more than you will ever know.

You were my children’s teacher,
but even more than that.

You’ve been so very much more
to them, to me, and our family.

Because of you
I learned to be a better mother.

Because of you
I’ve become a better friend.
A better person for my community,
for myself, my body, my children, and
every person I can.

You’ve taught us through your patience,
through your laughter, honesty, and love.

You’ve taught us all these past five years
you’ve been teaching us all along.
You walked with us through the heartaches,
through the confusion, and the tears.
You’ve walked with us so gently,
right beside us through the years.

Because of you my children learned to read;
they learned their math and abc’s.

But because of you, we all moved forward.
Because of you, we have learned to THRIVE!
Because you walked us through our darkness
Because of you, we are truly alive.

Because you are so much more than a teacher,
so much more even than a friend.

Please always remember,
our dear Ms. Susan;
when you see my children succeeding,
when you see my family smile,
when you see our life-long learning,
It’s because you are the awesome you that you are,
Ms. Susan, it was all because of you.

From fishing to bean soup

The time grandpa lost his patience with me

My grandpa was a kind and patient man. He was slow to anger and quick to smile with us kids – but there was a time he lost his patience with me, a time with Jeff, and a time his dad lost it with him that I want to share. These stories have continued to be told in our family as the few examples of times when grandpa’s patience wore thin.

I don’t know when my grandpa started to take me fishing by myself. I must have been about my kids’ ages (7-10) when I became a good fishing buddy. We enjoyed fishing the Santa Ana River in Southern California together.

My kids when they were little, at the Santa Ana

I was a city kid. My dad didn’t take me fishing and my mom and stepdad do not fish. It was grandpa that introduced me to the river, that taught me about the currents, and that showed me where to cast my line so it wouldn’t scare the fish, but flow naturally so they would bite.

Grandpa also shared his love for photography with me, specifically black and white photography. One winter day, grandpa thought it would be fun to take me to the aspens to take black and white pictures in the snow and catch a little fishing on the way home.

Like I said, I was a city kid, wearing city clothes. A long sleeve shirt, light jacket, jeans, and tennis shoes. If you are unaware of how to dress for a day in the snow and at the icy river – it is not jeans and certainly not tennis shoes.

The day started out beautifully. The aspens were the perfect subject for our pictures – especially in the snow. Soon however, my feet started to hurt and I wanted to go back to the warm car, but I was a trooper and I didn’t complain. I don’t think I even had gloves on – I was clueless.

We had time to warm up in the car from the aspens to the river. It was a pleasant drive as grandpa told me stories and we watched the snow covered mountains and trees pass the window.

As we walked out to the river, I hesitated. I knew the further we walked out, the further we had to walk back – and I was still cold. But, grandpa loved fishing, he wasn’t going to let a little ice on the creek stop him (he had full waterproof waders on). His enthusiasm was contagious as we got to the river to fish.

It was cold – but it was also very pretty. Until I slipped on one of the icy rocks in the river. I fell – hard – into ice, cold water. That was it, I had enough and wanted to go NOW! Grandpa was concerned but I was okay and we hadn’t fished long. I was crying and making lots of noise – between my splash and noise, he wasn’t catching any fish anyways and we hurried to his green Ford Explorer and cranked up the heater.

It wasn’t major, but I know my grandpa was irritated with me that day. His tone was different, his actions sharper – he has lost his patience with me. I felt like a fussy baby, not the tough oldest grandkid of Jack Jones. I was wet and cold and at that moment couldn’t even enjoy the beauty of the snow – it was the only time I remember grandpa becoming irritated by me.

The time he lost his patience with Uncle Jeff

Grandpa told me a story about a time he lost his patience with my Uncle Jeff when he was just a boy. They were walking the river, fishing. My uncle, being a small boy was lagging behind, I’m sure, and his arm brushed against a purple thistle. If you’ve never touched a thistle, it stings! The sensation is similar to how I imagine a hundred burning pins. There is an easy way to ease the pain – you either hold the affected area in the cold water or put cold river mud on it. At the time, my grandpa was already annoyed with Jeff.

Maybe grandpa didn’t know how bad a thistle sting could be but after seeing why Jeff was crying, my grandpa did something uncharacteristic – he lost his patience and got angry. He told Jeff that those flowers didn’t hurt that much and grabbed the thistle firmly into his hand.

Purple thistle
Illustration by Ben Levitt

Now, I’ve touched thistles plenty of times, but never grabbed it to were the needles would press into my skin. Grandpa told the story about how his anger made him foolish and the pain made his eyes well up with tears. He told me it was one of the worst pains he ever felt and it was even worse because it was a pain he deserved because it came from anger at his hurt son. He told me the story to teach me not to touch thistles but also to warn me not to let the anger win.

The time grandpa made his dad swear

I never knew my great grandparents except through stories, but my great grandfather was a good, kind, and gentle man. He was a farmer that prayed and often shed a tear when he took an animals’ life for food. My grandpa was raised a Quaker and according to him, his father never cussed or swore but did have two ‘Yankee curse words’ and I want to share a time of when my grandpa made his kind and gentle father so mad – he said them both.

Grandpa as an adult was mischievous and a bit of a trickster so I can only imagine what sort of fun he must have been as a young boy. One time, he and his friend got the idea to trick his dad. They got a bucket, filled it full of water, and balanced it on the wedged door his dad would be coming through and then, hid and waited.

When great grandpa walked through the door, the bucket did not turn over and instead of having a bucket of water spill out on his head, he had a bucket full of water fall directly, with full force onto his head – and then spill on the floor.

My grandpa said he could still remember the sickening sound of the bucket hitting his father’s head and the extreme sudden remorse he felt. He had only meant to play a joke, not seriously injure him.

Little boy grandpa and his friend stayed hidden out of fear as his father’s face grew red from the neck up and tears rolled out of his eyes down to the floor and he very quietly, but with great anger said “Rats … BEAN SOUP!”

And that is the only time my grandpa said he remembered his father cursing.

I found this image when I typed in rats and bean soup. Kind of funny (it was with a story of a soup company that made rat meatballs which isn’t as funny) but I liked it enough to add as a combo of the swear words – rats and bean soup.

Bird singing the blues: Revival of a native tradition

When looking at the collective stories of any group of people it is not only important to look at what the stories say but also how those stories are attained. In his book “Reading the Voice” Zolbrod hypothesizes that oral poetry is meant to be transmitted from spoken voice to listening ear and that when it is encountered in a written form, it needs to be acknowledged that something is lost because the words are meant to be encountered not read. While the words themselves have importance; the rhythm, the tonal inflections, the language, and the experience of one person speaking or singing the poetry and the other hearing it are just as important. There are benefits and constraints to both the written word and the spoken word. Scholars have been working to put onto paper the songs and stories of non-written cultures in order to share and preserve them but what is lost is the context which must be in the least, acknowledged and ideally, experienced.

As I mentioned, there are benefits and constraints to both oral and written transmission of stories.  While documenting a story by putting it on paper or on a recording does give the story a level of authenticity and permanence that can’t be assured with oral transmission; it does not have the same power.  Written words do not change, they are fixed so generations from now, a person can read and know the stories.  The stories may even be recorded electronically so the voice is still heard, the body movements, and experience seen but that is still not oral transmission.  With oral transmission, there is a human contact that over time, becomes a relationship.  It means the student is accountable to an elder or elders.  These relationships also carry traditions, responsibilities, and guidance to the young people that seek them.  The drawback to oral transmission is twofold as I see it.  First, there must be a teacher for the student.  Oral transmission can’t occur unless there is someone willing and able to pass on the traditions.  The other drawback that may be seen as a positive by some is that the oral transmission can be fluid.  Stories, even when sung and passed down through the generations can change.  As seen with bird singing, the songs may lose their words because the singers don’t know the language they are singing or they may lose their sound due to younger singers trying to set themselves apart in pow wow competitions. Neither written or oral transmission is superior, they are just different and have different purposes.  For bird singing the transmission must be oral and experiential.   

For this paper, I will be looking at the transmission of a specific form of poetry, the bird songs of the local Cahuilla people. The Cahuilla people can be generally divided into three groups based on the geographical region in which they lived: Desert Cahuilla, Mountain Cahuilla and Western (San Gorgonio Pass) Cahuilla. All three spoke the Cahuilla language, had similar lifestyles and practiced the same traditions. There are a total of nine Cahuilla Indian nations (Green). This form of oral poetry was almost erased from the culture by the years of forced separation, assimilation, and education of Native children by the American government.  Its phoenix-like resurgence in the local Native communities is a testament to the power of the songs and their need to be heard.  Now that more people have been exposed to the bird songs, issues of transmission and legitimacy are being raised.  The question of what it means to be a bird singer has been raised and the importance of how the songs are learned is a major part of that discussion.  In this paper, I will attempt to offer a glimpse of the Cahuilla people through their songs.  Not the words of their songs, the experience of the songs and their importance to the people.

For eight years, I worked at Noli Indian School on the Soboba Reservation in Southern California.  It was there I witnessed the revival of bird singing.  Today, if you attend a pow wow or similar function in Southern California you will likely see several bird singing groups, each with their own set of songs, sometimes the same words just sung in a subtly different way.  The practice is so prevalent that it is hard to believe that the tradition was almost lost when the last ceremonial singer, Joe Patencio, passed away in 1977. A group of men decided to make an effort to bring the songs back to the people.  With the help of a grant from the California Arts Council, young men within the tribe were partnered up with mentor bird singers to help the practice continue to the next generation (Sing birds, 2009).  It was their passion and dedication for sharing the songs with the young men of the tribe that brought this tradition back to life.  

Working at Noli Indian School, I learned a lot about bird singing and had the fortune to listen to many of the elders like Ernie Morreo, Alvino Siva, Anthony Andreas, and Sat Torres in person before they passed away.  Also, I had the honor to work alongside Kim Marcus, the man responsible for so many young native youth learning their songs and culture.  Mr. Marcus is the school counselor, culture teacher, distinguished elder, and bird singer at the school.  It is due to his efforts that bird singing is such a large part of the culture of the school.  In culture class, boys make gourd rattles and girls sew ribbon shirts and ribbon dresses worn by the singers and dancers. Songs are a part of the everyday life of the school, not something learned as much as experienced naturally.  Those that want to learn can practice and perform at school functions and weekly during lunch breaks.  Elders within the community are often present on campus helping transmit the songs to the next generation.  Many bird singers perform with the students and the school has its own group that performs at local cultural events to educate people about bird singing, this is Mr. Marcus’s group, the Noli Bird singers.  This group includes Mr. Marcus, elders like Willis Torres, students that are establishing themselves as bird singers, and students that are just learning bird singing.      

In my eight years at the school, I saw a handful of students that actually bore the label of bird singer.  Bird singing can be practiced by any of the students but only certain students labeled and respected as actual bird singers.  Since there are no longer any practicing Shamans, the official title of ceremonial bird singer has been lost but there is a difference in stature of a boy that is learning the songs and a boy that is a bird singer.  These boys were also usually in a lineage of bird singers, they came in knowing their culture and the school just nurtured their growth. Some of the boys I watched become bird singers were Bo Bullchild, Joe and Dominic Duro, Julio and Daniel Briones, William Morrell, Dusty and Rocky Rhodes, and Adam Trujillo.  To “be a bird singer” is more than just memorizing the songs and performing.  A young man couldn’t just sing the songs, he had to know what they meant.  This means the young man has to learn his culture, learn his language and adhere, or attempt to adhere to the code of conduct of bird singers.  They had to carry themselves in a manner that befitted the respect they received from the community.  For instance, bird singers are not permitted to use drugs or abuse alcohol.  If a singer is using drugs or drinking excessively, the other students would become upset with them and help them to get back on the path.  Out of respect, singers should stop singing when they know they aren’t living an honorable life. This has led to some tensions within the community as many of the younger singers bend the rules, especially the use of marijuana and alcohol. 

The songs have importance because they hold the history of the tribe and to sing them in the wrong way is to take power from the songs.  It is important how they are taught and practiced.  Both student and mentor need to recognize the sacred nature of the songs and the relationships that grow from their transmission.  The relationship between elder and apprentice bird singer is a special one, not unlike the relationship between Guru and disciple. This is because of the sacred nature of the material.  It isn’t just teaching, it is mentoring.  It is a care relationship not unlike father and son.  “The transmission of Dharma requires language, encounter, and human relationships” (Tsyogal) just like bird singing.  Some people try to learn the songs by listening to the recordings and imitating them but this is the wrong way.  It must be transmitted just like Dharma, by acquiring the language, encountering the songs and their ceremonies and by building relationships with elder singers.

The songs tell the creation story, track tribal migration and history and reinforce native language transmission but they also foster a code of conduct in the community. They are a major part of tribal gatherings and bird singers are respected members of the community, members that are following their cultural calling and keeping the songs alive.  Being a bird singer is no small task.  Bird singers are often asked to perform at gatherings and ceremonies.  In the community, if there is a death, the bird singers will be asked to sing.  On the night of the wake alone, the singers will sing from sundown to sunup, often in a small room with tobacco smoke hanging in the air.  The bird singers are often exhausted both mentally and physically after these events.  Many times, Mr. Marcus would hardly be able to speak after perfoming the songs for a passing tribal member. The importance of teaching the young people culture, especially the bird songs is highly stressed at Noli Indian School as well as on the reservations. “A 1990 census revealed that there were only about 35 people left who could speak the Cahuilla language. The language is nearly extinct, since most speakers are middle-aged or older” (Green).  Soboba tribal hall hosts weekly storytelling nights, language classes, and basket weaving gatherings. Many of the other local reservations have similar events and most have annual gatherings and pow wows where bird songs are sung and danced.  Each day Noli School begins with tobacco offering and prayer, at least once a week bird songs are performed at lunch, often with community members in attendance, and special events occur throughout the year like presentations from community members and the annual gathering. 

The important lesson is not the songs themselves necessarily but the way they are taught and what they have to teach.  Since these songs are taught through practicing together, there is a strong bond that develops between the elder singer and his students.  Most men teach the songs to boys in their direct family; sons, younger siblings, or nephews.  Even with the resurgence of the tradition, the tradidion struggles to survive intact.  Life on the reservation is a struggle for the young men and many from the reservation die young or find their way into the prison system. Sadly, two of the bird singers I saw emerge from the school Dusty Rhodes and Joe Duro died shortly after they graduated high school from gun violence while others ended up in prison, or fell prey to addiction or crime.  This is part of the reason many boys at Noli School do not have that strong male role model to teach them the ways of their people.  Many of the families were led by women because it was the women that were the ones that raised the families and become elders.  This is where men like Kim Marcus and many others stepped in to give these boys instruction on what it means to be a strong, Native man.  They were taught what it meant to have cultural pride and a heritage.

The way these songs are taught are by experience and social interaction.  The men and boys get together and sing.  They sing at social gatherings like funerals, fiestas, and even just backyard get togethers, anywhere can be a place to sing.  At first, a boy will just shake the gourd rattle with the others, next he will hum along but eventually, he will sing. By the time the boy sings, he will have spent enough time with the elder singers to have learned much more than the words to the songs, they will have taught him about his culture and how to be a man.  They will have created bonds that hold the young man to have respect and act in a manner that is culturally acceptable.  This is why the method of transmission is so crucial for keeping the bird songs alive.  In our world today of electronic media, the songs have been recorded, the words and stories will no longer be lost but the tradition, the language, and the social interactions are also in jeopardy of being lost.  Now that the words of the songs, the performance aspect is safe, the sacred needs to be protected.    

The revival of bird songs has brought some mixed feelings about the future of bird singing. “The loss of the Cahuilla language, infusion of money from Casinos (in some of the bands), contemporary western culture and issues of mixed blood have all affected the intention of the singers and the purity of the bird songs” (Sing birds : following the path of Cahuilla power – National Film Network).  The culture of the Cahuilla people was almost destroyed through the over 100 years of forced assimilation of reservation youth.  Now that the culture is being brought back to the reservations, the people need to decide how much they will allow the old rules to bend in order to attract the younger people to participate.  This is not limited to Native cultures but can be seen universally. The issues have to do with who can participate, how they need to be taught, and how they must behave once they are taught.  This is not a matter of who is allowed to participate in social gatherings or simply want to know about the songs, which is open to everyone.  This concerns becoming a ceremonial bird singer; one that has the respect from the community, sings at special functions, and learns the sacred songs.  I will attempt to introduce and look at each of these issues.  I am only trying to look at the arguments, I am not trying to take any position on the subject.  They are part of an ongoing conversation within the bird singing community and in many Native communities.  There is no wrong or right answer, just a conversation. 

First, there is the matter of exclusivity.  The battle to keep the culture alive has not been an easy one through the years.  It makes sense that after struggling so hard to revive the culture, the people are now very protective of that culture and do not want it put under the scrutiny of those that do not understand the context.  Bird singing is a sacred tradition and the songs hold power.  Some members of the community argue that anyone that wants to learn the songs, if they want to do it from their hearts, should be permitted to learn.  They are more concerned that the songs do not die out.  Then there is the other side which wants to limit the songs to members of the tribes that traditionally practiced those songs.  They may talk about blood qualifications and tribal enrollment.  The matter of blood quantum and enrollment is a huge, heated issue in the local tribal communities especially since the economic boon of casinos hit those communities.  Members that have identified themselves with a tribe for generations have been and continue to be disenrolled to increase the payouts for the members that are still enrolled. I admit to feeling slighted as an outsider when I hear that tribal members want to exclude outsiders from learning their traditions.  This is natural but I have to look at it from the perspective of the people that are trying to protect their dying culture. It is not about keeping people out, it is about preserving the specialness of the songs.

By limiting the amount of people that learn the songs to specific individuals, the members are trying to protect the way the songs are transmitted and also keep the power and sacred nature of the songs alive.  While tribal members may also approach the songs in the “wrong way” just like an outsider, it is less likely that they would do so if properly exposed to the culture. When too many people learn a tradition, the tradition begins to weaken.  People begin to learn the songs without the traditions, they do not understand the power of the songs so the songs begin to lose their power.  We as humans value that which is limited, like time or gold.  If everyone could sing the songs, eventually they could lose their meaning, especially when the people singing the songs do not know the language.  It becomes more performance than ceremony and loses its power.

 One way to protect the bird songs from becoming performance pieces is to limit the way these songs are learned. In my mind, this seems to be a bigger issue than the first.  The manner of transmission has everything to do with what is sacred and powerful about the songs. The songs are not something that can be learned from recording or books.  They have to be learned experientially and through human interactions. Many would also argue that to sing the songs, the singers should know the language and understand what they are singing.  While many of the young singers know the songs and their meanings, not as many know the individual words they are using.  When the singers do not know the individual words and their meanings, it is more likely for them to sing the songs incorrectly, the songs just being sounds not actual words.  This is a criticism from some of the elders that do not just want to see the practice of bird singing survive, they want to see the transmission of language and culture to follow that practice. 

The last issue raised is the code of conduct for bird singers.  This is a difficult line to balance when trying to keep a tradition alive.  Similar to the issue of who can learn the songs because it is about protecting the power of the songs.  Reservations are known for their alcohol and drug problems.  Many of the young men that want to learn the ways of bird singing also want to experiment with drugs and alcohol with their peers.  The problem with this is what to do when a singer becomes involved with “small” infractions, like smoking marijuana.  For some members of the community, this is not seen as a “big deal” but others lose respect for the singers when they do these things.  Respect from the community is crucial for the songs and singers to have power in the community.  At all bird singing events on campus, the respect for the songs was maintained and emphasized.  Staff members and often other students would remind each other to remove hats and cease speaking as the songs begin.  The respect for the songs gives them the power and by holding themselves in a place of honor with a code of conduct helps to give those singers their respect within the community.

The future of bird singing is much brighter than it was thirty years ago but it is still a shaky future.  With high rates of death, incarceration, alcoholism, and drug use on the reservations it is easy for young men and women to stray from the cultural traditions.  I saw the young bird singers struggle with trying to stay on the path.  Even some of the older bird singers stray occasionally.  It is a difficult responsibility to hold the position of ceremonial bird singer.  Not only to keep a code of conduct but also to perform at so many functions all over southern California.  It is a daunting task that not many young men today are willing to attempt.  The songs may live on but the traditions and culture that are transmitted with those songs are still on shaky ground.    

It is important for the Cahuilla people to keep their songs alive but it is also important to humanity.  We are at an interesting time in history.  With technology and globalization, cultures are mixing and melding at a rapid pace.  This is at the same time wonderful and alarming.  It is amazing and wonderful the amount of information one can find simply by turning on the computer but what is the cost of this convenience?  Globalization can also be called assimilation into a larger world community and when assimilation occurs, often so does a loss of the original culture.  This is not always a bad thing, some cultures need change but they shouldn’t be forgotten.  By looking at the issues facing the Cahuilla and their attempts to revive their cultural tradition of bird singing, we see our own desire to connect to a larger cultural context and what that means in a society of instant information.  The transmission of stories, language, culture, and the mentoring to the younger generation are issues that face all of humanity not just the Cahuilla.

Works Cited

Green, Mary. “The Cahuilla People.” The Cahuilla People. Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <;.

Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power. No Special Ability Productions, 2009. DVD.

“Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power – National Film Network.” Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power – National Film Network. National Film Network. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <;.

Tsyogal, Yeshe. Lady of the Lotus-born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe-Tsogyal. Boston: Shambhala, 1999. Print.

Zolbrod, Paul G. Reading the Voice: Native American Oral Poetry on the Written Page. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995.

Sticking it to the Rabbit: B’rer Rabbit and the Tar Baby Revisited

Brer Rabbit is a popular, trickster character from African-American literature. His stories were passed down orally through generations from African trickster tales to folk tales among the slaves and later into print by a variety of authors. Due to the sheer volume of Brer Rabbit stories and authors, this paper will focus on one story told through the lens of three authors. All three of the writers in this paper: Joel Chandler Harris, Abigail M. H. Christensen, and William J. Faulkner included the well-known story of the Rabbit getting trapped by a larger animal using a tar baby in their books. While this plot has repeated itself across many cultures, the stories from the South during slavery have the added context slavery and this changes the stories into something new. I will attempt to explain how the context of slavery shapes the meaning of this story to make it something different than the tar baby stories of other cultures. The layers of meaning involved within the stories, the subtle complexities of the characters, and audience interpretation all add so much more to the tales to make them something new and unlike anything outside of slavery.

The books written by these three authors are all important literary works in the cannon of American folklore. Joel Chandler Harris is the most well-known author of Brer Rabbit. His book “Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings,” published in 1908, and the character he created to be his storyteller, Uncle Remus, are the context through which most Americans today came into contact with these stories. Abigail Christensen published her major work “Afro-American Folk Lore – Told Round Cabin Fires on the Sea Islands of South Carolina” before 1923, not long after Harris’ book became a huge success. She and Harris were publishing their Brer Rabbit stories in newspapers and journals at the same time but with very different styles and purposes for writing. Her version of Brer Rabbit and the tar baby is the first to have been recorded in writing. About eighty years later, William J. Faulkner published his book “The Days When the Animals Talked”  in 1977. A superficial look at the three books would lead one to say they are very similar. While in fact these books are all a collection of many of the same stories with the same themes and messages and told within the frame of storyteller and audience; they have many important differences.

The tar baby story is a recurring story across many cultures. It is a trickster tale where both sides are using trickery in order to prevail. The crucial element to the tar baby story is the use of tar baby by the larger animal to capture him. In many of the Brer Rabbit stories, the story starts with the rabbit stealing from or in some way tricking the larger animal. The larger animal becomes wise to Rabbit’s tricks and decides to make a tar baby to capture him. The rabbit does encounter the tar baby and becomes enraged when the tar baby refuses to answer his greeting. The rabbit strikes the tar baby and becomes trapped, the more he struggles, the more he becomes trapped. Then the larger animal comes out of hiding and snatches up the rabbit in tar. Here the story deviates but with the most popular version, the rabbit tells the larger animal not to throw him in the briar patch because he is so afraid of the sharp thorns. The larger animal responds by throwing the rabbit in the briar patch and the rabbit laughs and tells the larger animal that he lives in the briar patch. The rabbit survives another day.

In order to understand the deeper meaning in the Brer Rabbit and the tar baby story, first we must take a closer look at the writers, the storytellers, and their audiences. Joel Chandler Harris and Abigail Christensen were the earliest known writers of the Brer Rabbit stories. Both authors heard and wrote these stories in the phonetic dialectical style of Deep South Gullah. They both published many of their stories individually in newspapers and journals before publishing their books. Also, both of these writers were white and lived in the South. Neither ever was directly involved with slavery but was in direct contact with slaves during the time of slavery. They were educated observers that lived slightly outside the mainstream Southern white culture and definitely outside African-American culture. On the other hand, William J. Faulkner was an insider, he heard the stories in their original context, from an elder, mentor figure at home but he was never in direct contact with slavery and only experienced it through the stories.

These authors also wrote their books for entirely different purposes and for different audiences. For Harris and Christensen, the audience was the same but the purposes were different. Slavery, which was newly abolished, was a collective experience for the nation so the audience lived through the context of the stories. Christensen presents her book very matter-of-fact as far as context. She is the narrator of the book but is merely there as recorder of the stories, she introduces her storyteller and then goes directly into the stories. Harris on the other hand tells his story for entertainment; he has a little boy as the recipient of the stories told from a kindly, older slave in the style of a frame story. This is very similar to the style Faulkner used to write his book but his purpose was to educate and instill pride for African-American literature. He and his audience did not live in the time of slavery so context needed to be given by the storyteller Simon Brown. He also tells his stories in a matter of fact way, presenting himself as the listener and having his narrator tell the stories but there is a major difference from Christensen in this aspect. It is about the relationship of the storyteller and author. While Christensen’s relationship to her storyteller was academic, Harris knew his storytellers personally but Faulkner had a real relationship with his storyteller and looked up to him as a mentor. We only see Christensen’s storyteller through her eyes in the opening scene in the book but Faulkner has engagement with the storyteller throughout his book and we really get a sense of who he is through these interactions and the stories. Harris’ storyteller is developed through the story to a point but not to the depth of Faulkner’s Simon Brown and it also must be remembered that Uncle Remus is not a real person, only a creation of Harris’ mind.

The first lens for looking at the tar baby story and slavery is the author, Abigail Christensen and the storyteller, Prince Baskin. Abigail was an outsider in two worlds, as much an anthropologist as writer, her main purpose for documenting the stories was preservation and to promote equality. She was an outsider in the South as the daughter of abolitionists that moved from the North after the Civil War to help transition newly freed African Americans from slavery. She was interested in documenting both the Gullah dialect and the Rabbit stories. Although she promoted equality, she was very much an outsider to the society of slaves and she is an example of the complicated nature of racial issues in the South. She actively participated in promoting education and advancement for former slaves and all the proceeds from her book went toward furthering this cause. On the other hand, she described her storyteller using demeaning and racially insensitive terms including calling him more a monkey than a man in appearance.

While her collection of stories were of great importance, her no frills storytelling method and accuracy with which she wrote in the Gullah dialect have made them become obscure texts. Christensen did her job of preserving the language and stories but it was Joel Chandler Harris that presented them in a way that was both entertaining and easier to read.

The second lens for the story is with Joel Chandler Harris and his created narrator, Uncle Remus. Harris was born to a single mother in the South; his father left his mother shortly before he was born. He was very poor but he showed great promise and through the benevolence of community members, Harris was able to receive a private education. At the age of 13, he began working at “The Countryman” the only weekly ever published on a Southern plantation. There, he honed his writing skills under the mentorship of Joseph Addison Turner, a lawyer, scholar, and planter that saw potential in the young boy. It was on this plantation that he was also introduced to the stories of Brer Rabbit from storytellers like “Uncle” George Terrell and “Uncle” Bob Capers. These men were the inspiration for the Uncle Remus character in Harris’ writing years later.

Unlike the storytellers from the other two books discussed in this book, Uncle Remus is a fictional character. Uncle Remus is a kindly, older slave that enjoys telling stories to youngsters both white and black. Often servants that worked with the children would tell these stories to the young masters. Some have criticized that Uncle Remus’ jolly nature romanticized slavery, especially in the movie version. In Harris’ tar baby story, Uncle Remus does become tired of the boy and tells him that he needs to run along home. There are subtle details even in this story that lead me to believe Uncle Remus is using a mask of happy submissiveness that can be seen just a little bit if a person is really looking. The storytellers of the slavery days exploited the fact that the whites thought the slaves were too ignorant to be able to create anything subversive or with any sort of deeper meaning. They thought the stories were just “harmless products of a “childlike” people to amuse illiterate listeners or to entertain the masters’ children” (Shaw xiv). If the slaves identified with the rabbit and saw the larger animals representing whites, then they must have enjoyed the irony of telling the stories to the slave masters and their children with story after story of the rabbit making a fool out of the larger animals.

Harris successfully created an entertaining and interesting frame story with likable characters that pull us even deeper into the tale. Another reason that the Joel Chandler Harris’ versions of the stories are so well known is because of a Disney movie called “Song of the South.” This movie, while never sold on VHS or DVD in the United States due to racial controversies; it was broadcast on television and became a part of the cultural landscape for many Americans. This movie was the inspiration for the Splash Mountain rides at three of the Disney theme parks. Some members of the audience of the movie may have understood the undertones and deeper meanings. Yet for those that did not know the context of the tar baby story, it is just a whimsical trickster tale of a rabbit, a fox, and a bear, not a social commentary on slavery or racial relations in the South.

In making the “Song of the South,” Disney attempted to stay true to the depiction of Uncle Remus and the other characters of Chandler’s stories. Some criticized the movie as being racially insensitive or of glorifying slavery among many other criticisms but the movie also received its acclaims and was watched and enjoyed by many. Criticism exists on both sides of the debate about literature from this period of American history. Any portrayal of slavery reminds us of a past we have collectively tried to forget and the accuracy will always be called into question because the issues involved in the debate are so complicated and messy. Much of the literature of this genre has been largely ignored because dealing with the deeper psychological implications of the stories is not always easy or comfortable, not to mention the strong dialect can make it difficult to understand.

The third and final lens for looking at this story is with William J. Faulkner and his family friend, Simon Brown. Simon Brown worked on William J. Faulkner’s widowed mother’s farm and from the age of ten until he went away to school, Faulkner enjoyed listening to Simon tell him stories of the days of slavery and Brer Rabbit. Willie, as Simon addresses him in the book was a young African-American boy without a father that looked up to Simon Brown as a friend and a mentor. Faulkner described Brown as a “philosopher, humorist, actor, and superb storyteller” (188) and through the reading of the text we get to know Simon Brown as much as Brer Rabbit. Unlike Christensen that barely knows her storyteller or Harris who at best could be considered a work acquaintance to his storytellers, Faulkner has a close personal relationship with his narrator. His acquirement of the stories was the most authentic as it was essentially passed down through generations.

Faulkner was well educated and earned his doctorate in theology from Chicago Theological Seminary. He said he became a folklorist “to dignify the black storyteller and contribute to truer racial understanding” (190). He originally documented his stories on tape with talks about achievements made by African Americans in order to promote pride in the black culture and to gain respect from other cultures. It was later that he decided to put the stories together and wrote the book. His book is presented in two parts, “The Setting: Black Slave Tales” and “The Salvation: Black Folktales.” He hoped that by writing the book, he would keep the memory of Simon Brown alive and preserve the literature of his people.

The lens of the author and storyteller within the context of slavery from the changed the meaning subtly for those aware enough to see it. So too did the lens of the audience within the context of slavery. In Africa and later in America, these stories were told through generations from elders and storytellers, often at night time or to entertain and educate children. After a while, these stories began to be told to outsiders of the community and from there, they were transmitted into writing.

On the surface, these stories resemble the trickster tales that appear across so many cultures; a weaker animal triumphing over a more powerful animal by outsmarting them. But for many, these stories are actually a complicated social commentary of slavery. The context of the storyteller and audience alter the meaning and understanding but the deeper currents exist to those able to recognize them.

Originally, when these stories were told in Africa there were some differences. For one, the rabbit did not exist in Africa; the trickster animal tales were usually of a hare, a deer, or a spider. Also, the stories switched to other native animals; hyenas from the Africa stories became the wolf or bear in America. Some American stories do have animals that are native to Africa and not America, like the lion or elephant but many are replaced with American versions of similar animals. For example, there is a similar story from West Africa with the spider trickster Anansi. In the story, Anansi makes a wooden doll and covers it with gum to capture the she-fairy Mmoatia, the basic plot of the story is the same just with different characters. While the plot of the story is the same the context of slavery adds other layers to the text. Slavery left its imprint on the meaning but so did Christianity and the simple spider became Brer, or brother, Rabbit. Just like with other elements of African culture, the stories took on an American flavor.

Slaves could identify with the rabbit as he was the innocent victim, lower than the other animals in status and power but he almost always comes out on top because he uses his wits. It is through Rabbit’s triumphs over the larger animals that the slave could vicariously triumph over the white society that so brutally kept them down. Many researches echoed the opinion that the slaves identified with Rabbit. I like the way Shaw stated it in the foreword to Faulkner’s book, “through Brer Rabbit and tales of his daring, enslaved blacks were able to see themselves not only as morally superior to their white masters, but as ultimately triumphant over them.” Christensen wrote that the reader must remember “that the Rabbit represents the colored man” (xi) that he gains success through cunning and they both can only hope to succeed through their wits due to their lack of social or legal status, education, or wealth, in a word, power. The storytellers all reference Brer Rabbit as possessing qualities that they found admirable and identified with the Rabbit as the hero of the stories. Who is Brer Rabbit, is he just a trickster like in any other trickster tale told in so many forms in so many societies or is he more because of the unique social context he was created? To most readers, he represents the slave and the larger, more physically dominating animals represent the whites that get their deserved comeuppance from the cunning rabbit. Others disagree with this argument because they say it ignores the complexity of the Rabbit hero created in these tales. To analyze this story the debate on whether the Brer Rabbit represents the slave must be recognized. For this paper, I am working under the context that the Rabbit is most certainly the character that represents slaves and the larger, more powerful animals represent whites in the society. The most important reason to approach the literature in this way is because all three of the authors assert in their texts that this is the case and work under this assumption. Also, it is clear that narrators relate to Brer Rabbit.

With much literature on both sides of this debate, the main objection I have found to making the Rabbit the hero of the stories, the character that represents the slave is a shallow reading because it doesn’t address the issue of amorality within the context of the deeply spiritual and Christian Southern African-American community. While it is true that Rabbit possesses some unattractive qualities at times and often uses dishonest means to triumph, this doesn’t discount him as our hero. To look at this issue, first the idea of hero has to be defined. As Roberts points out in his text, “we often use the term ‘hero’ as if it denoted a universally recognized character type and the concept of ‘heroism’ as if it referred to a generally accepted behavioral category. In reality, figures (both real and mythic) and actions dubbed heroic in one context or by one group of people may be viewed as ordinary or even criminal in another context or by other groups, or even by the same ones at different times” (1). While Rabbit’s actions are dishonest, he lies to escape death in this story; his reason or need justifies the break from the moral code of Christianity. He is complex and not simply good or bad just like the gods in the Yoruba religion were complex unlike the purely good god and purely evil devil of the Christian religion.

In the context of slavery, actions that may not be acceptable hero behavior in ordinary conditions are acceptable to maintain dignity or simply to survive. If this is not enough to debunk the idea that some scholars assert that Rabbit’s amoral acts disqualify him as a hero or for slaves to identify him, I would like to address another issue concerning Rabbit’s actions and the unique social construct this character was created. Life for a slave was difficult and painful, they were often treated as animals, used for their bodies with their minds discounted and made to not only feel but often believe they were less than their white counterparts. The slave owners were primarily devout Christians but their actions toward their slaves was rarely Christian in practice. The words they spoke about right and wrong had nothing to do with the actions they carried out in participating in slavery. For this reason, it is understandable that the slaves would see the rules as thus suspended when it came to surviving slavery. Also, many slaves had at one time done something against the Christian value system in order to make things easier or to survive. Having a hero that bends the rules and does what he sees as necessary in order to triumph would make a person feel better about their own transgressions in similar situations. For these reasons, the following analysis will work with the slave as Rabbit interpretation.

Now that we have looked through the lens of author, storyteller, and audience, it is now time to look through the lens of the story itself. In all three of these versions of this story, there exists a basic plot and characters but just like with the other stories in these books their similarities are as numerous and important as their differences. All three stories start with Rabbit stealing resources from the larger animal, a wolf or fox in a clever way so the larger animal has to figure out what has happened. Once the larger animal discovers the theft, he decides to trap the rabbit by using a tar baby. In this next part of the story, we see Rabbit’s pride and anger. He comes across the tar baby and becomes angry when he addresses the figure and the figure does not respond. He then strikes the tar baby and becomes stuck and the larger animal comes out of hiding to collect the trapped Rabbit. What happens next is different for each story. This story tells the audience that the regular rules of society are suspended in slavery. Stealing is not acceptable normally but because the larger animal holds more power and resources and doesn’t share, it is not only accepted that the rabbit should steal from him, it is told in a way that we respect the rabbit for getting one over on the larger animal.

An obvious similarity of these stories is the tar baby. Like so many details the question has to be asked, is it just a part of the story or is there some deeper meaning, one even unknown to the writer. This interpretation of the tar baby may be a stretch but it could represent slavery and in a rage the rabbit gets further ensnared but once he stops trying to escape physically, he prevails and survives for another day by using his smarts. For slaves, attempting to fight back or escape had brutal consequences and made their situations worse until they would eventually be killed. To survive, slaves had to learn to live within the system of slavery just as Brer Rabbit had to learn to survive in society of animals.

Christensen’s book is not written to entertain or create deeper meaning. She is interested in documenting the stories but not in telling a story. Prince Baskin, her storyteller is however interested in telling stories and they are in fact entertaining and full of meaning. Looking at the story “De Rabbit, De Wolf, An’ De Tar Baby’ is a great example of the deep meanings of what these stories. With the understanding that Rabbit is the slave and Wolf addressed as “Maussa Wolf” by the Rabbit the roles of slave and master are clear but there is another character that is a bit more ambiguous, Neighbor Dog. I argue that Dog is another white man, dogs and wolves are related biologically and he is on the side of Wolf, helping to lure Rabbit to Wolf’s house. Rabbit does have more trust to the dog which is a less aggressive animal but still is wary of the situation because he is too smart to ever let his guard down with a white person. This is possibly an added lesson from Prince Baskin and even further could be a commentary concerning the author, a softer, kinder animal than the slave owner yet a dog just the same, unable to be fully trusted. If this is the case, Prince Baskin successfully emulates Brer Rabbit and outwits the highly more educated Christensen by subversively commenting on her role in this situation in an unflattering depiction of a character that aligns themselves with the wrong side of the situation and still loses in the end.

The story starts with Rabbit stealing food from Wolf’s garden for over a year before the wolf realizes what is happening. Already, Brer Rabbit is using his wits to dishonestly triumph over Brer Wolf. Once Wolf discovers the theft, he creates a tar baby to trap Rabbit. He succeeds in trapping Rabbit only to be tricked once again and he releases the rabbit into his home where the wolf is unable to follow. This follows the basic plot of the tar baby stories but this version doesn’t end there. Wolf realizes he has been outwitted and seeks revenge by enlisting the aid of Neighbor Dog but Rabbit again outwits Wolf and escapes. The wolf responds to this third and final triumph from Rabbit by accepting his defeat and ceasing attempts to capture the rabbit. This addition introduces the neighbor dog to the plot and shows Wolf as accepting defeat and leaving Rabbit alone. Since these tales are told after the Civil War, the third and final triumph can allude to the end of slavery.

The strange thing about Joel Chandler Harris’ version is that it doesn’t have a definite ending. The rabbit gets trapped by the tar baby and the fox comes out of hiding but that is where the story ends. The boy in the frame story asks Uncle Remus if the fox eats the rabbit to which Uncle Remus says that was the end of the story “He mout, an den agin he moutent. Some say Judge B’ar come ‘long en loosed ‘im—some say he didn’t. I hear Miss Sally callin’. You better run ‘long” (Harris). This is a very puzzling way to end this story, it is only the second story in the collection and we already have speculation that this is how rabbit dies. One reason to end it this way is to show Uncle Remus as a tired old man that just wants the story to end and have the boy return to his home, as character development to the frame story. Another interpretation could go with my earlier claim that the tar baby is slavery and at the moment of the telling of the story, the narrator doesn’t know how it will end. The slave is trapped in slavery just as rabbit is trapped in the tar. Uncle Remus is tired and doesn’t see a way to get the rabbit or the slave free and so gives a quick answer and sends the youth away.

Faulkner’s ending for this story is the closer to the version known by most in popular culture. The Rabbit begs to not be thrown into the briar patch, he professes a fear worse than death for the briar patch so the wolf throws him into the briar patch and the rabbit yells to the wolf that he has been fooled again and the briar patch is the rabbit’s home. In fact, I was surprised to find this was not the original version of Joel Chandler Harris’ story. With the idea of the tar baby representing slavery, this version has the slave tricking the master to free him by taking advantage of his ignorance and cruelty. In Faulkner’s version, the rabbit also takes advantage of the master’s desire for self-preservation and greed by stating that drowning the rabbit, as the wolf originally plans will ruin the drinking water. In this story, it is the wolf that seems to come up with the idea of throwing the rabbit in the briar patch and the rabbit, seeing an opportunity for escape, takes advantage of the situation.

How much of this meaning was intended by or known to the writers, the storytellers, and their audiences? This is a question of endless debate because the answer can’t be uncovered or known. With much of the other diaspora traditions, the levels of subversion and masking are so intricately woven that the seams are invisible and any attempt to unravel the mysteries just leads to more mysteries. In this paper at least, I have attempted to hold one small piece of the tapestry to the light and look at it with new eyes.





Works Cited

Christensen, A. M. H. Afro-American Folk Lore; Told round Cabin Fires on the Sea Islands of South Carolina,. New York: Negro Universities, 1969. Print.

Faulkner, William J. The Days When the Animals Talked: Black American Folktales and How They Came to Be. Chicago: Follett Pub., 1977. Print.

Harris, Joel Chandler. “The Project Gutenberg EBook of Uncle Remus.” Uncle Remus. The Project Gutenberg, 16 June 2003. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.

Harris, Trudier. “The Trickster in African American Literature.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. November 14, 2014.

Johnson, William Courtland. “Trickster on Trial: The Morality of the Brer Rabbit Tales.” Ain’t Gonna Lay My ‘ligion Down: African American Religion in the South. Ed. Alonzo Johnson and Paul Jersild. Columbia, S.C.: U of South Carolina, 1996. Print.

Roberts, John. “From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom.” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.

Shaw, Spencer. “A Head Full and a Heart Full of Stories.” The Days When the Animals Talked: Black American Folktales and How They Came to Be. Chicago: Follett Pub., 1977. Ix-xvi. Print.