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.
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.
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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.