Brer Rabbit

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Is the archetypal hero-trickster character from African American oral literature. While Brer Rabbit got much exposure in Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1881), folklorists and literature scholars are well aware of the rich cycle of tales that circulate around this tricky and cunning figure. These tales thrived especially during the pre- and post-slave era up until the mid-1900s. Resembling the two major tricksters of Africa (Anansi, the Ashanti spider, and Ijapa, the Yoruba turtle), “Buh” Rabbit has always seemed to be the most helpless and most afraid of all the animals in the kingdom.

Brer Rabbit is constantly at odds with the likes of Brer Bear, Brer Wolf, and Sly Brer Fox. This trio, singularly or collectively, attempts to humiliate, outsmart, and sometimes even kill Brer Rabbit. In contrast, Brer Rabbit tries to nullify the plans of his stronger archenemies by using his superior intelligence and his quick thinking. He usually gets the better of the bigger and stronger animals.

Since the Brer Rabbit cycle of tales flourished during the time of slavery and almost always involved the weak in a neverending contest with the strong, scholars view these tales as slave expressions of subversive sentiments against the institution of slavery. It was much too dangerous for slaves to reveal to slave owners the harsh realities and cruelties of slavery. But slaves could vent some of their frustrations and hostilities against their masters by participating in the performance of the Brer Rabbit tales.

As time progressed, criticism of slavery became less indirect in Brer Rabbit literature. African American oral literature gave birth to the “John and Ole Boss Tales”. In this group of tales, John (sometimes known as George, Sam, Jack, Efan, or Rastus) now becomes the human analogue to Brer Rabbit. John is always in conflict with Ole Master (“Massa” or “Marse”) and, like Brer Rabbit, attempts to outwit Ole Boss. Most stories show John winning over the master, but there are a sizable number of tales where “Whitey” outsmarts John.

Although the Brer Rabbit tradition and the John and Ole Boss cycle of tales are not as strong as they once were, it does seem that the “Bad Nigger” oral tales became the substitute for these earlier stories. As long as there is an environment of disparity in America, the underclass will need Brer Rabbit tales to help cope with or mask its displeasure with the inequities of the system.

Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, 1881.Roger D. Abrahams, ed., Afro-American Folktales: Stories from Black Traditions in the New World, 1985.

Elon A. Kulii and Beverly Threatt Kulii

Subjects: Religion — Literature.

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