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Br'er Rabbit's dream, from Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation, 1881
Br'er Rabbit (also spelled Bre'r Rabbit or Brer Rabbit or Bruh Rabbit) is a central figure in the Uncle Remus stories of the Southern United States. He is a trickster character who succeeds through his wits rather than through strength, tweaking authority figures and bending social mores as he sees fit.

Cherokee origins

Although Joel Chandler Harris collected materials for his famous series of books featuring the character Br'er Rabbit in the 1870s, the Br'er Rabbit cycle had been recorded earlier among the Cherokees.The "tar baby" story was printed in an 1845 edition of the Cherokee Advocate the same year Joel Chandler Harris was born.

Rabbit/Hare myths abound among Algonkin Indians in Eastern North America, particularly under the name Nanabozho, 'Great Hare', who is generally regarded as supreme deity among tribes in eastern Canada. "It appears that Joel Chandler Harris, when he wrote them, did not realize that his Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Fox were originally Cherokee inventions." (The Cambridge History of American Literature, "Later National Literature", Part III, p. 615)

In the Cherokee tale of the Briar Patch, "the fox and the wolf throw the trickster rabbit into a thicket from which the rabbit quickly escapes".

There was a "melding of the Cherokee rabbit-trickster ... into the culture of African slaves." (That the People Might Live : Native American Literatures and Native American Community, p. 4)"In fact, most of the Br'er Rabbit stories originated in Cherokee myths."

African origins

Br'er Rabbit from The Tar-Baby, by Joel Chandler Harris, 1904.

The stories can also be traced back to trickster figures in Africa, particularly the hare that figures prominently in the storytelling traditions in Western, Central and Southern Africa. These tales continue to be part of the traditional folklore of numerous peoples throughout those regions. In the Akan traditions of West Africa, the trickster is usually the spider (see Anansi), though the plots of spider tales are often identical to those of rabbit stories.

Many have suggested that the American incarnation, Br'er Rabbit, represents the enslaved African who uses his wits to overcome circumstances and to exact revenge on his adversaries, representing the white slave-owners. Though not always successful, his efforts made him a folk hero. However, the trickster is a multi-dimensional character. While he can be a hero, his amoral nature and lack of any positive restraint can make him a villain as well. For both Africans and African Americans, the animal trickster represents an extreme form of behavior which people may be forced to emulate in extreme circumstances in order to survive. The trickster is not to be admired in every situation; he is an example of what to do, but also an example of what not to do. The trickster's behavior can be summed up in the common African proverb: "It's trouble that makes the monkey chew on hot peppers." In other words, sometimes people must use extreme measures in extreme circumstances.
Br'er Rabbit in Disney's Song of the South (1946).
Disney's version of the character is drawn in a more humorous and cartoony style than the illustrations of Br'er Rabbit in Harris's books.

The American version of the story is said to have originated among slaves at Laura Plantation in Vacherie, Louisianamarker. Br'er Rabbit stories were written down by Robert Roosevelt, uncle of President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography, about his aunt from Georgiamarker, that "She knew all the 'Br'er Rabbit' stories, and I was brought up on them. One of my uncles, Robert Roosevelt, was much struck with them, and took them down from her dictation, publishing them in Harper's, where they fell flat. This was a good many years before a genius arose who, in 'Uncle Remus', made the stories immortal."

These stories were popularized for the mainstream audience in the late 19th century by Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote up and published many of the stories which were passed down by oral tradition. Harris also attributed the birth name, Riley, to Br'er Rabbit. Joel Chandler Harris heard the tales in Georgia. Very similar versions of the same stories were recorded independently at the same time by folklorist Alcée Fortier in southern Louisiana, where the Rabbit character was known as Compair Lapin in Creole French. The stories were retold for children by Enid Blyton, the English children's writer.

The word "Br'er" in his name (and in those of other characters in the stories) reflects the habit of addressing another man as "brother" in many African cultures. While modern Americans generally pronounce the second 'r' in Br'er, the original pronunciation was "Bruh" or "Buh." When Joel Chandler Harris spelled "Br'er" with an 'er' at the end of the word, he was indicating the Southern pronunciation of the final 'er' as in "brothuh" (brother), sistuh (sister), or faa'muh (farmer).

Modern interpretations

The 1946 Disney film Song of the South is a frame story based on three Br'er Rabbit stories, "The Laughing Place", "The Tar Baby", and "The Briar Patch". In contrast to character's depiction in the earlier illustrations of Frederick S. Church, A. B. Frost, and E. W. Kemble, the Br'er Rabbit of the Disney film is designed in a more slapstick, cartoony style. Disney comics starring that version of Br'er Rabbit have been done since 1945.

The Magic Kingdommarker and Disneylandmarker thrill rides, both known as Splash Mountainmarker, have a Br'er Rabbit theme. Brer Rabbit also appears at the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts for meet-and-greets, parades and shows. He also has a cameo appearance in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and appears as one of the guests in House of Mouse.

In 1975, the stories were retold for an adult audience in the cult film Coonskin, directed by Ralph Bakshi. A direct-to-video film based on the stories, The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, was released in 2006.

For many years, a popular brand of molasses called "Brer Rabbit" was distributed by Penick & Ford Ltd. The brand is currently distributed by B&G Foods of New Jersey.

The 1972 novel Watership Down features the character El-ahrairah, whom the author suggests is based on Br'er.

In 1981, American composer, pop lyricist and musical auteur Van Dyke Parks wrote a Broadway Musical based on the Brer Rabbit Tales. It was offered as a pop album, but never produced.

The 1998 film Star Trek: Insurrection made a reference to Br'er Rabbit. The region of space where the film takes place is called the Briar Patch. Whilst fighting off enemy ships, Commander William Riker said he was going to "use the Briar Patch the way Br'er Rabbit did..."

The Philadelphia experimental chamber pop band Br'er is named after Br'er Rabbit.

In Oakwood theme parkmarker a ride is called Br'er Rabbit's burrow.

In the popular Hip-Hop band The Flobots, one of Emcees names is Br'er Rabbit.

The Tar Baby

The tar baby was a trap – a figure made of tar – used to capture Br'er Rabbit in a story which is part of American plantation folklore. Br'er Fox played on Br'er Rabbit's vanity and gullibility to goad him into attacking the fake baby and becoming stuck. A similar tale from African folklore in Ghanamarker has the trickster Anansi in the role of Br'er Rabbit. In Southern black speech in the 19th century, the word "baby" referred to both a baby and a child's doll. Thus, the expression "tar baby" meant a tar doll or tar mannequin. The story was originally published in Harper's Weekly by Robert Roosevelt; years later Joel Chandler Harris wrote of the tar baby in his Uncle Remus stories. The phrase is considered by most Americans to be an ethnic slur.

Although sometimes misunderstood to be made-up, words such as "copperosity" and "segashuate" used in The Tar Baby are representative of the African-American vernacular pronunciations of the words "corporosity" and "sagaciating."Language Log: How's your corporosity sagaciating?"> "Language Log: How's your corporosity sagaciating?" Language Log, retrieved November 29, 2006.

See also


  1. Cherokee Myths And Legends
  2. Cherokee Tales and Disney Films Explored
  3. Enrique Margery : "The Tar-Baby Motif", p. 10. In :- LATIN AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURES JOURNAL, Vol. 6 (1990), pp. 1-13 (citing :- Hartley Burr Alexander : North America = Vol. X of The Mythology of All Races. p. 67)
  4. Cherokee Place Names in the Southeastern U.S., Part 6 « Chenocetah’s Weblog
  5. Brasch, Walter M. (2000). Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the 'Cornfield Journalist': The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris. Mercer University Press. P. 275.
  6. Br'er Rabbit at INDUCKS
  7. Gallery of classic graphic design featuring Brer Rabbit.

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