Anyone hoping to understand the real power of narrative, would do well to consider the extraordinary tale of a certain individual who often goes by the name of Brer Rabbit.
Now, nobody knows exactly how old Brer Rabbit really is, but he is clearly many, many hundreds of years old.
He was smuggled across the Atlantic in stories told by African slaves, to America, where he found fame and fortune in popular books and movies, becoming a character beloved by generations of children around the world.
In more recent years, these books and movies have become mired in arguments about political correctness and all but disappeared from the popular imagination. But, remarkably, the ancient oral storytelling tradition that gave birth to this character, keeps his adventures alive to this very day.
The Atlantic slave trade was a human tragedy on a scale like no other. The “Black Holocaust” or “Maafa” (a word derived from the Swahili term for “disaster”, or “great tragedy”) lasted for almost four hundred years, and although we have no way of knowing exactly how many people died as a result, many modern historians estimate a staggering death toll of at least ten million men, women and children.
The most deadly part of the journey was the notorious “Middle Passage” where prisoners were held below decks in slave ships for months as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite the apalling conditions in which they were transported, it is thought that around eleven million Africans survived the journey to become slaves in the Americas.
The majority came from the west coast of Africa, and they came from at least 45 separate racial groupings. These included, the The BaKongo, The Mandé, The Akan, The Wolof, The Igbo, The Mbundu and The Yoruba to name but a few.
Mostly these people would have spoken one of the Niger Congo family of languages (these days, some 85 percent of the population of Africa speak a Niger-Congo language). However, it is estimated that there are at least 1,400 of these Niger-Congo languages.
Huddled together, in chains, in the darkness of the great slave ships, many of these people could not even talk with one another.
Over the years, West African Pidgin English, also called Guinea Coast Creole English, became the lingua franca along the West African coast.
This language began it’s life among Slave traders doing business along the coast, but it quickly spread up the river systems into the West African interior, because of its value as a common trade language among different tribes; even amongst Africans who had never have seen a white man.
It is still spoken to this day in West Africa.
Slaves in the Americas found West African Pidgin English as useful as a common language on the plantations as they had found it back home in West Africa as a trading language. And when they had children, these too adopted their own version of West African Pidgin English as their native language, thus creating a number of American English-based creole languages.
One of these creole languages is called Gullah and is still spoken today by about 250,000 people in the Southern United States, specifically, on the coasts of South Carolina and throughout the State of Georgia.
And it was in the language of Gulah, that a young Irish American called Joel Chandler Harris was to first hear, the animal stories, and songs, that were to bring him worldwide fame with the tales of Brer Rabbit.
Joel Chandler Harris was a journalist who wrote for a newspaper called “The Constitution” in Atlanta, Georgia, in the years immediately following the American Civil War. A war that had destroyed so much of the South, but wreaked devastation on Atlanta in particular.
Harris published his first Brer Rabbit tale, “The Story of Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Fox as Told by Uncle Remus”, in a phonetic version of the Gullah language, in the July 20, 1879 issue of the newspaper, under the heading “Negro Folklore”. He would publish 184 more of these tales during the next 27 years.
Becoming a household name, not just across the States and but also around the world with readers who delighted in these strange tales told in the creole language of Gullah.
Because of this, Joel Chandler Harris’s position amongst American men of letters at the start of the 20th century was second only to that of Mark Twain.
And his influence on other writers was equally far reaching; the children’s literature analyst John Goldthwaite has said that the Uncle Remus tales are “irrefutably the central event in the making of modern children’s story.” In terms of content, their influence on children’s writers such as Rudyard Kipling, A.A.Milne, Beatrix Potter, and Edith Blyton is substantial. Not to mention their stylistic influence on modernism in the works of Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Faulkner.
And yet, today, few children would recognize the name Uncle Remus, let alone that of Joel Chandler Harris.
In the late 1960s most Brer Rabbit books were removed from schools and libraries in the States because they were deemed racist. And despite the enduring popularity of the signature song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, the Disney movie, “Song of the South”, which was based on these stories, has not been seen in it’s entirety for over fifty years. And never been released on home video or DVD.
In 1981 the writer Alice Walker , author of “The Colour Purple”, accused Harris of “stealing a good part of my heritage” in a blistering essay called “Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine”. Strangely enough, and to be fair to Joel Chandler Harris, he would probably have agreed with much of what Alice Walker had to say.
Cruciallly, Harris saw himself as an ethnographic collector of the oral traditions of these former slaves rather than an original author of fictional literature in the style of Mark Twain. His tales were roundly praised by leading folklore scholars of the day. He became intrigued with the new “science of ethnology” and became a charter member of the American Folklore Society (along with Twain). As he began to fill his library with ethnological texts, journals and folklore collections, he become intrigued by the fact that the tales he was collecting bore striking resemblances to tales from cultures in other parts of the world.
Which they clearly do.
In English “Brer Rabbit” means “Brother Rabbit”. As indeed, “Brer Fox”, “Brer Bear”, “Brer Wolf” and “Brer Buzzard” are in fact: ” Brother Fox”, “Brother Bear”, “Brother Wolf” and “Brother Buzzard”.
As such, the names of these characters betray their very ancient origins in Western Africa.
As Karen Armstrong has pointed out in her brilliant “Short History of Myth”, pre-agrarian, hunter gatherer societies exhibit a strong sense of identification with all living creatures, particularly those that are hunted for food. Seeing all animals as siblings is a common expression of this perception.
Brother Rabbit, is a trickster. And as such is also another iteration of Brother Spider, or Anansi. Brer Rabbit tales, like the Anansi stories, depict a physically small and vulnerable creature using his cunning intelligence to prevail over larger animals. Brer Rabbit, originated from the folklore of the Bantu-speaking peoples of south and central Africa.Whereas, the Anansi tales which are some of the best-known in West Africa are believed to have originated in the Ashanti people in Ghana.
Although, many Brer Rabbit and Anansi stories are easily interchangeable, they often took on a whole new level of meaning on the plantations.
In the introduction of the first volume, Harris wrote: “…it needs no scientific investigation to show why (the Negro) selects as his hero the weakest and most harmless of all animals, and brings him out victorious in contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox.” And Brer Rabbit, born into this world with “needer huff ner hawn” – neither hooves nor horns – has to use trickery to survive. The enjoyment of his amoral, and immoral, adventures, being made all the more fun as a thinly veiled code for the black slave out-foxing his white masters.
It has been said that these stories were usually told by one adult to another. And children, if they were lucky would get to listen in.
And the adult tone of many of the stories reflects this. Stealing, lying, cheating,torture savage beatings, and even cold-blooded murder are normal fare for what has been described as “this malevolent rabbit”.
Take “The Sad Fate of Mr. Fox,” in which Brer Rabbit not only tricks Brer Fox into getting himself beaten to death by Mr. Man, but then takes Brer Fox’s severed head back to his wife pretending that it’s beef for her soup pot. Or another story which has Brer Rabbit slowly scalding Brer Wolf to death, while another has him killing Brer Bear by engulfing him in a swarm of bees.
Several stories even touch on sex as a theme, usually with Brer Rabbit beating Brer Fox and the other animals for the attentions of “Miss Meadows and de gals,” who then make merry in a thinly disguised brothel.
But perhaps no better tale demonstrates Brer Rabbit’s supreme wickedness than “Mr. Rabbit Nibbles Up the Butter.” In which “lumberin'” Brer Possum gets burned to death in his own fire. The little white boy, who is listening to Old UncleRemus tell this dark tale, protests indignantly that since Brer Rabbit stole the butter, he should be the one to be punished for it, not poor Brer Possum. To which Remus shrugs and says: “In dis worl’, lots er folks is gotter suffer fer udder folks sins.”
In the late 1990’s, I travelled along the Coast of West Africa with a good friend of mine, Winston, a West Indian with African slave ancestors who had been born on the small Carribean island of St Vincent.
On the westerly shores of Ghana, there is a beautiful stretch of beach, lined with palm trees, where the Atlantic surf crashes up on the golden sand, and creates the very image of a tropical paradise. And here, on a promontory a 16th century Portuguese castle stands like a dark, brooding Equatorial Elsinore.
This is Cape Coast Castle, and for almost four centuries, this was the centre of the North Atlantic slave trade in West Africa.
The castle itself is a dark, oppressive place. The immeasurable human pain and suffering it has witnessed, over hundreds and hundreds of years, seems to be ingrained into the very fabric of the walls.
Within the bowels of this castle is a doorway that is known as “The Gate of No Return.” Through this doorway you can see the surf crashing on the golden beaches below.
It feels like a portal to another world.
And for millions of Africans it was just that, as they passed through this gate on their way to a life of slavery, over the horizon, in the Americas. If they did not perish on the way.
As Emily Raboteau puts it so powerfully in a piece called “The Throne of Zion. A Pilgrimage to São Jorge Da Mina, Ghana’s Oldest and Most Notorious Slave Castle”:
“This, then, was the door. It struck me as vaginal. You passed through it and onto a ship for Suriname or Curaçao, or through similar doorways for Cuba or Jamaica, Savannah or New Orleans. You passed through it, lost everything, and became something else. You lost your language. You lost your parents. You were no longer Asante or Krobo, Ewe or Ga. You became black. You were a slave. Your children inherited your condition. You lost your children. You lost your gods, as you had known them. You slaved. You suffered, like Christ, the new god you learned of. You learned of the Hebrew slaves of old. In the field, you sang about Moses and Pharaoh. You built a church, different from your masters’. You prayed for freedom. You wondered about the Promised Land, where that place might be.”
The only things they carried with them were their memories and their stories.
After a few hours in this dark claustrophobic castle, we were all quite relieved to get out into the late afternoon sunshine.
George a local teacher who had offered to show us around the castle suggested a place a little way back down the coast where we could get a cold beer.
An hour or so later, we were sitting outside a small wooden bar, on a beach, a couple of miles East of Elmina, watching the sun set over the promontory and the castle, and swopping stories.
As the light began to fall George started to tell Anansi stories. It emerged that Winston had been told similar stories, by his grandmother, as a child on the Caribbean island of St Vincent. Our spirits revived with the cold beer, Winston told one of his Anansi stories. Then George told one of his. Then Winston responded with another.
This went on for a while, when, with the sun slowly setting behind the silhouette of Elmina Castle, something really extraordinary happened:
Winston told a particularly funny Anansi story…
One that George had never heard before…
And at that moment it struck us all like a thunderbolt… At some remote point in the last four hundred years, this story had travelled over the vast expanse of the Atlantic ocean to the Carribean island of St Vincent. (After, perhaps passing through the “Gate of No Return” which stood ominously behind us in the gathering darkness.) Where it was passed down, from generation to generation, until Winston brought it back across the Atlantic, to share with us that evening.
The fact is, that these Brer Rabbit, Anansi stories have the most amazing ability to travel across vast swathes of space and time. And media.
Which is why these trickster tales are alive and well, and still being shared on a daily basis.
Despite the fact that many of the original books are out of print and the movie called “Song of the South” is deemed by the executives at Disney to be too politically sensitive to be re-released. And despite the fact that here have been many attempts to make the stories more socially acceptable to by removing the Uncle Remus character and the use of the Gullah language. These stories are flourishing, not in traditional media, but in that original social media… the shared oral tradition.
The rabbit who survived the Black Holocaust, may well have a few more surprises for us yet.