Brer Rabbit

Trickster Tales for Retelling

Illustration of Brer Rabbit and a wolf.
Image courtesy of Houghton Mifflin.

The Brer Rabbit stories are part of an oral tradition of trickster folktales with roots in African, African-American, and possibly also Native American cultures.

Brer Rabbit (short for Brother Rabbit, and therefore sometimes written as Br’er Rabbit) is a clever character -- if often also selfish, lazy, and arrogant -- who constantly outwits his foes.

The Brer Rabbit tales were brought into mainstream American culture by the writer Joel Chandler Harris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Other writers adapted some of the stories, too, but Harris’s were by far the most popular, and over the course of his career, he collected nearly 200 of the tales for publication.

Harris first heard the stories from slaves while he was living and working on a Georgia plantation as a young man. His versions rely heavily on the Gullah dialect of the storytellers he met there. Though his phonetic spellings can be hard to read, linguists who have examined Harris’s representation of the Gullah dialect generally find it remarkably accurate (see, for example, “Assessing the Authenticity of Joel Chandler Harris’s Use of Gullah” by Rudolph C. Troike). 

In 1946, Walt Disney’s live action/animated feature Song of the South, based on some of Harris’s collected stories, further entrenched the stories in the American consciousness.

Where Can I Find Brer Rabbit Stories?

Many of Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories are in the public domain and available online.

The Internet Archive offers several, including the collections Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation and Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories of the Old Plantation.

You can also find some of Harris’s collected tales at Project Gutenberg.

If Harris’s dialect is too off-putting, author Julius Lester offers a complete re-telling of the Uncle Remus tales in his collection Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales.

I love Lester’s lively, colorful descriptions. He describes Brer Rabbit as “strutting along like he owned the world and was collecting rent from everybody in it.” And he’s not afraid to include references to things like shopping malls and Hank Aaron, giving the stories a more contemporary feel. I think the tone, the contemporary references, and the freedom Lester shows in making the stories his own are very much in keeping with the oral traditions from which these tales come.

Finally, if you’d like more straightforward versions, S.E. Schlosser has provided six Brer Rabbit stories at American Folklore. Her syntax and word choice evoke Southern dialect without becoming cumbersome, as when she tells us, “those goober vines grew tall and long and the peas ripened up good and smart.”  Occasionally I wish she’d play up the narrative tension a bit more -- Brer Rabbit seems to get himself safely to the briar patch in the blink of an eye -- but overall, her versions work well. 

Controversy: Uncle Remus

While few people seem to find fault with the characters and narrative lines of the Brer Rabbit tales, some critics have been concerned that their path to mainstream culture has been steeped in racism.

Harris created a fictional character called Uncle Remus to provide a framework for telling the stories, and over time, some readers came to see this character’s dialect and docile personality as demeaning racial stereotypes.

Disney’s Song of the South also included the character of Uncle Remus, and many critics have felt that the movie sugar-coats race relations and glorifies slavery. Because of the controversy, Disney has never released the movie for home audiences.

In her 1981 essay called “Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine,” writer and activist Alice Walker (who happened to be from Harris’s hometown of Eatonton, Georgia) asserts that Harris “stole a good part of my heritage.” Walker explains:

“In creating Uncle Remus, he placed an effective barrier between me and the stories that meant so much to me, the stories that could have meant so much to all of our children, the stories that they would have heard from their own people and not from Walt Disney.”

Controversy: Tar Baby

To make matters even more complicated, one of the most famous Brer Rabbit tales involves Brer Rabbit’s encounter with a creature called a tar baby. (You can read S. E. Schlosser’s version of “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby” at American Folklore.)

You probably know this story. It’s the one in which Brer Rabbit, trapped by Brer Fox and fearing for his life, repeatedly begs Fox not to throw him into the briar patch. Brer Fox decides that if Brer Rabbit fears the briar patch so much, then that’s the exact place to throw him -- just as Brer Rabbit has hoped all along. Brer Rabbit escapes, of course, gloating that he was born and raised in the briar patch.

It's a wonderful story and seems to provide a relevant metaphor for so many situations, so I hope we will never stop reading or telling some version of it. In the story, the term “tar baby” is very literal. It’s a creature made of tar, and Brer Rabbit gets stuck to it. So the term “tar baby” did -- and still does -- refer to a sticky situation that gets worse the more you try to get out of it.

But there is no question that over time, the phrase “tar baby” has also come to be used as a racial epithet, and I think it’s the most insidious kind.  Its dual definitions provide an excuse for anyone who wants to hurl a racial insult and then pretend, disingenuously, to have simply meant “a sticky situation.”

No wonder modern readers sometimes feel wary of this story! Most of us don't want to feel insulted or to insult other people.

But I think the problem lies not with the story, but with the use of the phrase "tar baby" in contemporary speech, as many politicians have found out.

Reading Brer Rabbit in the 21st Century

So, what are we supposed to do?

Some thoughtful approaches come from the Wren’s Nest in Atlanta, a non-profit museum in the former home of Joel Chandler Harris. The museum’s mission is to preserve “the legacy of Joel Chandler Harris and the heritage of African American folklore through storytelling.”

Unlike a lot of museums that might attempt to preserve and defend a particular historical moment, the Wren’s Nest seems to recognize and address some of the complications around Harris’s work at the same time they celebrate his contributions. More importantly, the museum seems to be making itself an active center of culture, writing, and storytelling in the present.

Here is a wonderful clip of a favorite Wren’s Nest storyteller, Akbar Imhotep, telling “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby.”  The story comes alive in Imhotep’s telling, and he makes it his own. His version even includes a discussion of the difficulty of figuring out how to tell a story that so many people are already familiar with!

Imhotep’s performance offers us a terrific reminder of what an oral tradition really means. As with other fairy tales and folktales, there is no “real” version of the Brer Rabbit tales. We are lucky to have so many resources to give us the basic outlines of the stories. But these are stories that are meant to keep changing, and to keep being told.

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Sustana, Catherine. "Brer Rabbit." ThoughtCo, Aug. 22, 2016, thoughtco.com/brer-rabbit-short-story-2990481. Sustana, Catherine. (2016, August 22). Brer Rabbit. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/brer-rabbit-short-story-2990481 Sustana, Catherine. "Brer Rabbit." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/brer-rabbit-short-story-2990481 (accessed November 18, 2017).