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Like many well-intentioned Southerners, I’m not quite sure what to do with Brer Rabbit. He is a wily character you can’t help but love, yet the way the Brer Rabbit stories have been told over the generations has been incredibly problematic. As a result, the Brer Rabbit tales are a barometer of sorts for race relations in the US.
Brer Rabbit (aka Bruh Rabbit = Brother Rabbit) was born out of the slave trade, as Africans forcibly brought to the Americas brought with them stories of a trickster rabbit (Wakaima), who soon took on traits of similar tricksters from Native American tales (Encyclopedia Britannica’s Guide to Black History).
Brer Rabbit tales were popularized among whites by the late nineteenth century writer Joel Chandler Harris as tales of Uncle Remus, “The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation.” You can see the images from the original editions on the website of the Uncle Remus museum.
Cropped image from the title page of Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation, by Joel Chandler Harris. Illustrations by Frederick S. Church and James H. Moser. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1881.
Harris’s work was published roughly a decade and a half after the end of the US Civil War and seem to reflect a white nostalgia for the Old South, although his stories are actually set just after the end of the war. The Brer Rabbit stories are told by Uncle Remus, a fictitious character who represented all of the former slaves from whom Harris collected the tales.
Yet there is also an irony in Harris’s work. What he saw as purely entertainment for whites in fact undermined of the racial hierarchy he espoused, as discussed in this wonderful historical study of the Uncle Remus tales. Trickster tales are by definition subversive, since they show the power of the underdog, who outwits his more powerful adversaries.
This nuance was largely lost on white audiences, however, who embraced the stories and turned Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit into household names.
Yet for black readers, the reception must have been quite different, as their tales were told back to them in the distorted, racist dialect that whites imagined that blacks spoke. (Harris actually used his understanding of the Gullah dialect then common in South Carolina and Georgia).
Augusta Baker captures this disconnect between authentic and borrowed tellings beautifully in her introduction to Julius Lester’s The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. Baker recounts first hearing the Brer Rabbit stories from her grandmother, who had been born a slave. Years later, Baker tried to read the tales in the only collections then available, those of Joel Chandler Harris, but the dialect was like a foreign language, and she soon became frustrated. It wasn’t until she came across Lester’s re-tellings of the Brer Rabbit tales in the early 1970s that she felt she was once again hearing the stories of her childhood.
Statue of Brer Rabbit in Eatonton, GA
More recent generations (myself included) were introduced to the Brer Rabbit tales through the controversial Disney film “Song of the South.” If you don’t know this movie, you probably know its music, especially the popular “Zipadeedoodah.” (You can see photos and hear audio clips from the movie on a website campaigning for the movie’s release on DVD).
According to Snopes, the NAACP voiced its objections to the movie when it was originally released in 1946, decrying the impression it gives of an “idyllic” relationship between whites and blacks on the plantations, although it acknowledged the movie’s artistic merit. James Baskett, the actor who portrayed Uncle Remus, received a special Academy Award for his performance in 1948.
Though the film has been re-released on the big screen a number of times over the years (most recently in 1986), it has never been released on home video in the US.
The lesson from all of this? The storyteller is the most important part of the tale, so you should always know who is telling the tales you read. In this case, for us it is definitely Uncle Remus no but Brer Rabbit yes.
Brer Rabbit: Getting Started
Here are some great resources to get you and your little one started with Brer Rabbit:
Bruh Rabbit And The Tar Baby Girl is the only actual picture book I came across, so if your child is young, this is the place to start. Here Newbery Medalist Virginia Hamilton focuses on the most famous Brer Rabbit tale, the Tar Baby Girl. The story of how Brer Rabbit outsmarts Brer Wolf is quite funny, and Monkey really enjoyed reading this. For pre-readers and early readers.
Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit by Julius Lester is considered one of the most authoritative contemporary re-tellings of the Uncle Remus tales. Lester reworks Harris’s stories to make them more accessible to modern readers, even including some contemporary references to Nike sneakers and 747 jets, while staying true to the spirit of these classic tales. Great for elementary school children.
Young Brer Rabbit: And Other Trickster Tales of the Americasby Jacqueline Shachter Weiss
I love this collection because it includes not only the Brer Rabbit we are familiar with here in the US but also versions from other parts of the Americas, where he was taken by the African slaves. It is fascinating to see how the character of this wily rabbit remains the same from the US to Martinique, Venezuela, and Brazil. For elementary school children.
The Barefoot of Trickster Tales
I couldn’t resist this volume, since it is from one of my favorite publishers, Barefoot Books. Here the Brer Rabbit tales can be read in the context of other trickster tales from around the world. The Brer Rabbit story included in this volume, Brer Rabbit and the Share Crops, was one I had never read before and I thoroughly enjoyed it. For elementary school children.
I ran across this 2006 kids’ movie while researching this post. I haven’t tried The Adventures of Brer Rabbit yet, but since it features the voice talents of actors like Danny Glover, Wanda Sykes, and Nick Cannon, I plan to.