Tales of Br’er Rabbit Influenced African American History

How the Tales of Br’er Rabbit Influenced African American History
By guest blogger: Ahmad Muhammed

“It’s trouble that makes the monkey chew hot peppers” – African proverb

My first introduction with the character Br’er Rabbit was in the 5th grade, and from that point, I fell in love with these tales; as I’m sure many other African Americans did in their childhood. What I loved about those tales was the unique way Br’er Rabbit over came his foes, and that was through tricking them in humorous ways. As entertaining as these tales were, they also have a historical significance within the development of African American literature.

Br’er Rabbit and American Slavery

What is interesting is that during the time the Br’er Rabbit tales were being told by slave storytellers, they were much more than just tales to entertain children. It turns out these stories were actually serious criticisms of the society in which slaves lived in. Forced to endure illiteracy, harsh working conditions and treatment slaves had very few resources to preserve any form of culture outside of slavery. If they protested it brought on harsh penalties, so in telling these tales slaves were able to preserve a part of their culture; as well as seriously critique the human injustice they faced. We find in the character of Br’er Rabbit a quintessential trickster who by using wits over brawn, fooling of authority figures, and his bending of social norms in a way reflected the over all behavior of slaves towards those that ‘owned’ them. According to Lawrence W. Levine, the late American historian, ” The records left by nineteenth century observers of slavery and by slave owners themselves indicate that a significant number of slaves lied, cheated, stole, feigned illness, pretended to misunderstand orders given to them, placed rocks in their cotton basket to meet quota. They also broke their tools, destroyed property, mutilated themselves; and mistreated livestock so that the slave owners had to use the less efficient mule, rather than horses because the latter could withstand harsh treatment of the slaves.”

In this, we see a very sharp similarity between the trickery of Br’er Rabbit, and the comeuppance of slaves during the American slave era.

The emergence of African American literature

During the 1880’s and the founding of the American Folklore society collectors found a series of tales that did not disguise the actions between black slaves and those that held them in bondage. They discovered what is called John and Old master tales. In these tales ‘John’, representative of enslaved blacks manages to get the best of ‘Old Master’ in almost every situation in which they are pitted against each other. It is a world where the weak, and the witty always triumph over the powerful, and presumed intellectually superior. Robert Roosevelt, the uncle of Theodore Roosevelt, collected the tales of Br’er Rabbit. The stories at that time did not become popular amongst people outside of the black community. It wasn’t until authors, such as Joel Chandler Harris, Alcee Fortier, and Enid Blyton in the late 19th century compiled these stories independently popularizing them for the mainstream audience. In 1899, Charles Waddell Chesnut wrote and published ” The Conjure Woman” based upon Harris’s Uncle Remus tales. Contemporary with Chestnut was Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the poet who wrote “An Ante Bellum Sermon”, and ” Accountability”. Both Dunbar and Chestnut wrote at a time when creativity amongst blacks was strictly prohibited, they found an outlet using trickster paradigms. From there, we see African American authors such as John Oliver Killen “The Cotillion or One Good Bull is Half the Herd”, and Langston Hughes’s, ” Who’s Passing for Who?”

In Conclusion, the Uncle Remus tales of Br’er Rabbit sparked a unique way for African Americans to develop our own literary culture that not only entertained us, but also allowed our self-expression to overcome censure, and continues to inspire modern day African American writers and authors to carry on that tradition.

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African Storytelling: Four Distinctions

“Are You Ready?”

“We Are Ready”

African storytelling often has this type of call and response interaction to begin. Focused on the audience, there are four distinctions of storytelling from Africa and those who practice it all over the world.

1. Entertainment is part of African storytelling.

The storytellers or “Griots” knew one thing for sure: people will not really listen unless the stories are fun and entertaining. An audience that is laughing or otherwise experiencing deep emotions will be fully engaged in the story and therefore open to more learning.

2. Morals and instructions in proper conduct can be found in African storytelling.

The first Griots certainly did entertain but they also served as vessels of moral guidance. It is rare to find an African story that does not convey deeper meanings. Each time a person hears a story, even when it is repeated, they may find a new perspective on the teaching.

3. Beasts, plants and nature are part of the African storytelling process.

Familiar players, such as Anancy the Spider, show up in many African stories. No matter how they are portrayed, such characters as the weaver-bird, the mosquito and the hyena all become players in this special storytelling. Trees and other plants provide a geographical reference as well.

4. African storytelling can teach historical lessons.

Storytelling is a way for any culture to pass on its history. From stories from Africa, generic terms used now such as “prince” or “family” once had real names, meaning and a place in the geography of the Africa. These stories, still told with names in some parts of the world, help the audience to know where they fit into the world and history.

In the modern world, storytelling techniques such as music, chant and audience participation make up the best presentations of African storytelling. Communication methods such as video allow anyone to experience the joy of an African story well told.

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