Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and Race in the South
This post is written as part of a project organized by Kid World Citizen on Trickster Tales Around the World.
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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.
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.
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.
I don’t read any of these types of books to my kids – nor do we watch movies with such content. I understand that it is part of the history – and we need to know our history in order not to repeat it – but it is quite offensive.
I know that the early years of Tom and Jerry were quite offensive – and even now, there is a disclaimer at the beginning. I mean, Mrs. Two shoes. Really? When I think back as a child watching this – I don’t think I developed a negative image, but we were African American – so we knew what we were like – you know? I don’t know if I’m clear about this.
If the kids want to read these books or see these movies when they are older – in college and have the ability to think very deeply and understand time and place and completely and fully understand why these are so utterly offensive – than they can do that. Until that time, you will never see any types of books like this in my house. I don’t the point of bringing people down. We should lift people up.
In the world we live in – people (in general) need a positive representation of who African Americans are. So many of the TV shows and movies , etc show African Americans -especially males – in such a negative light. They are in jail, doing drugs, thugs, swearing and carrying on – or acting like complete clowns. I would advocate that the stories we read to our children should be positive about all people – and not promoting or putting false ideas and images into their minds.
And, if one would advocate that these types of books are classic literature, I would argue that we must change our definition of what classic means.
I agree that it is inappropriate to share offensive stories with our children in the name of classic literature, except perhaps when they are older as a way to teach history. As for the original Brer Rabbit tales, though, I do not think they are offensive, as they were folktales brought from Africa and adapted in the Americas. Tales of a clever rabbit outsmarting his bigger opponents like Brer Fox are fine to share with children. The problem is that you have to be very careful of the storyteller, which is what I was trying to make clear in this post. Contemporary African-American writers have done a great job in trying to reclaim these folktales and remove them from the racist context in which they were often used. But even so, frankly, I have a problem with the dialect that is often used, because it feels very strange and offensive as a white person to read a story using this dialect, just because of our historical baggage. So when I read the story out loud I just retell it in mainstream English. But that’s just what works for me.
Hi Leanna, thanks for sharing this! I re-posted this on my Facebook timeline, but I’ll post the comments I added here: My parents bought this huge book of Disney tales based on their movies for my children when they were small, and it included the Uncle Remus’s “Songs of the South”, which I once saw for about five minutes on Sunday’s “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” (ironic title in this case). Even as a very young girl back in the early 60s, I hated those stereotyped images of “Uncle Remus”, “Aunt Jemima” and “Uncle Ben”. I wasn’t able to articulate why I hated them so much back then, but I surmised that they didn’t represent any Black person I knew, or anyone who was elderly that I had met in the Deep South. No one spoke or acted like that. When I got older and became swept up in the rhetoric (but not the actions; my parents would have killed me) of the Black Power Movement, I could tell anyone EXACTLY what I thought was wrong with the Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit stories. None of what I used to say should appear in print. Well, karma has a way of going around in circles. I groaned when I saw the Uncle Remus stories in that Disney story compilation, but my parents had already started reading them to my kids, in exaggerated Southern accents.To my absolute horror, those stories became Clarissa Doutherd, Marc Doutherd and Bel Gris’s favorite stories. They insisted that I read them, over and over again. Pure agony. And they wanted me to read them in the same Southern accents my parents used! I couldn’t believe it. It made my stomach and head hurt. When the kids became older, I explained why those stories were so offensive to me, and why I finally had to stop reading them. In fact, I think the book became “lost” over the years! 🙂
Hi Angela, thank you for sharing your story! It is terrible how these stories have been used, and since they were sold to kids by Disney, of course many children loved them without realizing the stereotypes they were absorbing with them.
Great post! I had never heard of Bre Rabbit and I’m glad I’ve read this in context of historical aspects.
Thank you! I was fascinated by the history that I unearthed while researching this post.
I was born in Virginia fifty years ago. My parents worked to desegregate the schools (in fact my father eventually lost his position as the head of Modern Languages at Sweetbriar College for his activism), and they also read us the Brer Rabbit tales. I have to admit that I don’t know how they did it, but it was always clear to me that the stories were about surviving by your wits when all the odds were against you. I loved the stories!
I didn’t read the stories to my kids, in part because I didn’t have them and there were so many other books to read. I would have to think about how I would use the stories with children, but I do think that kids can, and must, be included in thoughtful discussions about literature and media. Becoming critical readers and socially aware people is a process, and it takes practice.
Thank you, Leanna for a really great article on these stories!
Thank you for this thoughtful response! I agree that including children in this discussion is part of the process of helping them to be critical readers and socially aware members of society (so well put!) The challenge, I think, is finding age appropriate ways to do this. So interesting to hear about your family background, too! You can certainly see how your parents passed on this socially aware perspective to you 🙂
I love this subversive history of Brer Rabbit. Wonderful post. Will be sharing it!
Thanks as always for sharing!
I read Brer Rabbit as a kid and when I teach folklore I recall brer and his wonderful trickster tales. Part of the joy of Brer is how he ‘sticks it to the man.’ Slavery was an awful institution which was done in by the Industrial Revolution. But these tales are part of the culture of the men and women brought over as slaves and have their roots in Africa. To pretend these tales don’t exist is like allowing Montag to continue burning books because of their ideas. We can pretend that slavery doesn’t exist or that racism doesn’t occur – and it would be wrong. Pretending such literature doesn’t exist is wrong, too. Nice post!
Thank you! Yes, the irony is that the original tales are actually very empowering. The contemporary re-tellings of Brer Rabbit go back to the roots and are quite wonderful.
Oh, I loved this books as a child! I read it so many times. It was a translation of course but it was so good that it really passed all the spirit of the original. Seeing the pictures just brought back amazing memories.
So glad! And interesting to know that these books were so popular internationally!
I love this post on the history of Uncle Remus. It gives a lot of insight into the South. Thanks so much for linking up to Multicultural Book Day (Jan 27th)!
Thank you for sponsoring this great event!
I loved these books as a kid, but I had absolutely no knowledge at all that they were originally African folk stories. Thanks for doing the research and enlightening me.
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