My mother is visiting me and so of course, we went out to tour the plantations. While we roamed about my favorite, the Laura Plantation, our very colorful guide regaled us with several Br’er Rabbit stories.
As a very little girl, my grandmother used to let me go to my grandfather’s book cabinet and bring out her antique book of children’s stories. We read these stories again and again. Somewhere, that book still lurks in my grandfather’s book cabinet at my parent’s house, even though both of my grandparents are long gone. One of my favorite memories remains that of my grandmother reading “Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby” to me from that book.
My grandmother was one of those teeny tiny old ladies with perfectly coiffed hair who always wore a fifties style house dress. She went to church twice a week, wore her high heels to do the housework and when she died, she was the oldest living Avon Lady in Ohio. I was the only grandbaby that lived nearby and was spoiled rotten accordingly.
Looking back on it, picturing my grandmother acting out Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox is more than a little bit hilarious, but at the time I was simply delighted and would help her act the story out.
If you don’t know the story, Br’er Rabbit is a Trickster and he manages to annoy Br’er Fox to no end.
Br’er Fox comes up with a way to get back at him though. Fox mixes some tar and turpentine and makes a tar baby that he leaves in the road where Br’er Rabbit will find it. He then hides in the bushes to see what will happen.
Sure enough, Br’er Rabbit comes along and greets the Tar Baby. When the Tar Baby doesn’t answer him, Br’er Rabbit threatens bodily harm if the Tar Baby isn’t going to be polite. When the Tar Baby still doesn’t answer, Br’er Rabbit hits the Tar Baby and gets his hand stuck deep in the Tar.
Br’er Rabbit demands that the Tar Baby let go of his hand and when he doesn’t, hits him again with his other hand. This goes on until Br’er Rabbit is entirely stuck in the Tar Baby.
At this point, Br’er Fox pops out of the bushes:
“I’ve got you this time, Brer Rabbit,” said Brer Fox, jumping up and shaking off the dust. “You’ve sassed me for the very last time. Now I wonder what I should do with you?”
Brer Rabbit’s eyes got very large. “Oh please Brer Fox, whatever you do, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.”
“Maybe I should roast you over a fire and eat you,” mused Brer Fox. “No, that’s too much trouble. Maybe I’ll hang you instead.”
“Roast me! Hang me! Do whatever you please,” said Brer Rabbit. “Only please, Brer Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.”
“If I’m going to hang you, I’ll need some string,” said Brer Fox. “And I don’t have any string handy. But the stream’s not far away, so maybe I’ll drown you instead.”
“Drown me! Roast me! Hang me! Do whatever you please,” said Brer Rabbit. “Only please, Brer Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.”
“The briar patch, eh?” said Brer Fox. “What a wonderful idea! You’ll be torn into little pieces!”
Grabbing up the tar-covered rabbit, Brer Fox swung him around and around and then flung him head over heels into the briar patch. Brer Rabbit let out such a scream as he fell that all of Brer Fox’s fur stood straight up. Brer Rabbit fell into the briar bushes with a crash and a mighty thump. Then there was silence.
Of course old Br’er Rabbit was thinking on his feet and escapes, “Then Brer Fox heard someone calling his name. He turned around and looked up the hill. Brer Rabbit was sitting on a log combing the tar out of his fur with a wood chip and looking smug. ‘I was bred and born in the briar patch, Brer Fox,’ he called. ‘Born and bred in the briar patch.’” (To read the full story, go here).
Br’er Rabbit is a character from Joel Chandler Harris’ collection of stories that were gathered from slaves at the Turnwold Plantation near Atlanta right before the Civil War. While Harris himself supported slavery (and in fact interpreted Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be a “wonderful defense of slavery”), the stories themselves are an interesting collection of a mix of Yoruba and Native American folklore and myth. I love the Br’er Rabbit stories because they show how much the many different cultures mixed down here in the South (which of course also resulted in things like Spiritualism, Hoodoo and Voodoo).
Most people are familiar with the Trickster Coyote, but Coyote belongs to the Western side of the United States. In the East, the Trickster is usually regarded as the Hare. The lessons that Br’er Rabbit teaches are about thinking on your feet and using cunning over strength. He doesn’t fight fair and he usually gets away with it.
While Harris himself strongly believed in slavery, Br’er Rabbit is usually seen as a character of defiance against slavery. Br’er Rabbit challenged the social order and stood up to authority. It’s more than slightly ironic that Br’er Rabbit is probably the most remembered character from Harris’s Uncle Remus stories.
Harris’ early folklore is well known; what is less well known is that he was not the first person to translate these stories in the U.S.
That person was Alcée Fortier right here in Southern Louisiana. His Br’er Rabbit character was called Compair Lapin and was written down in the patois of Creole French on the Laura Plantation.
As I’ve said, the Laura plantation is one of my favorites to visit. Not only is it beautiful, but it is an excellent example of the differences between American plantations and Creole plantations. It was also run by several generations of wealthy, successful women.
Fortier himself was the grandson of Valcour Aime, who was the richest man in the South at that time and grew up near the Laura Plantation. While I’m sure that Br’er Rabbit stories were told all over the South, it’s fascinating to be able to the visit the place where they were first written down and translated. Sometimes I get so focused on European mythology and folklore, that I forget that I’m sitting the middle of some of the most fascinating bits of our very own American mythology and folklore. Compair Lapin is certainly a character you won’t find anywhere else.
Slavery itself was a terrible institution and the working conditions in the sugar cane fields were inhuman, but Br’er Rabbit is an example of a people that refused to be broken. There is a great deal to be learned from Br’er Rabbit and it is important to remember these stories as a part of our American heritage. Not just for their morals, but for the culture they came from. I’m glad that my grandmother took the time to read those stories to me. When times are hard, it’s good to remember that even the thorniest spots can be places of hope and that there is always a way out. And that it is possible for you to take a bad situation and turn it into one that is advantageous for you.
Br’er Rabbit certainly gets in the last laugh at Br’er Fox, and even though we still suffer from issues of racism and hatred, the plantations are a standing testament to the courage of those that abolished slavery and assured freedom for those of all races.
* I realized after writing this yesterday that today (9/17) was my grandmother’s birthday as well as the day that she died. She would have been 102 today.