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Tracking Tricksters in Washington, DC

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The following is a guest post by Dr Emily Marshall, who specializes in Postcolonial and migrant literatures and cultures at Leeds Beckett University in the UK.

In April I visited the incredible folklore archives at the American Folklife Center in Washington, D.C., supported by Leeds Beckett University Early Career Researcher funding.  The Center is housed in the Library of Congress and was established to ‘preserve and present American folklife’. It is now one of the largest archives of American ethnographic materials globally – an invaluable resource for the research of oral cultures. Its collections of audio materials are rich and diverse, and one could spend days immersed in listening to mesmerizing early gospel, folk and blues songs.

Emily standing where Martin Luther King delivered his famous 1963 ‘I have a Dream Speech’ at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

However, I was on the hunt for the earliest recordings of the African American Brer Rabbit trickster folktales for my next book, American Trickster: Trauma, Tradition and Brer Rabbit, to be published by Rowman and Littlefield. The cunning and duplicitous Brer Rabbit trickster, whose origins can be traced back to the Hare stories of South and Central Africa, was a slave folk hero on plantations across the Americas.

He rip en he ra'r, en he cuss, en he swar', from the story "Mr. Fox is again Victimized" in Uncle Remus his Songs and Sayings by Joel Chandler Harris (1881). Illustration by Harry Rowntree (1906).
He rip en he ra’r, en he cuss, en he swar’, from the story “Mr. Fox is again Victimized” in Uncle Remus his Songs and Sayings by Joel Chandler Harris (1881). Illustration by Harry Rowntree (1906).

The African Hare underwent many transformations on American soil (he became known as Brother, or ‘Brer’ Rabbit), but none as dramatic as his adoption by white American journalist Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote several collections of ‘Uncle Remus’ Brer Rabbit stories between 1870 and 1906 and turned the trickster into a household name. Harris’ tales were told to him by African American plantation workers and he has been both applauded for keeping the folktales alive and criticized heavily for contributing towards patronizing black stereotypes; for plagiarism, and for defending slavery. Harris made several changes to his published versions of the oral folktales, such as creating a frame narrator, Uncle Remus, a old kindly, sycophantic and contented slave who tells the trickster stories to a little white boy from the Great House. Harris’ versions of the tales are sanitized to entertain white readers; the exposé of the violence and injustice at the heart of plantation life is tempered and the stories offer a benign and picturesque view of slavery. In an angry essay, ‘Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine’ (1981), Alice Walker accused Harris of stealing part of her heritage and making her ‘feel ashamed of it’. [1]

Joel Chandler Harris, Photographed by an unknown photographer, ca. 1900.
Joel Chandler Harris, Photographed by an unknown photographer, ca. 1900. The Photo links to a bibliographic record with more information.

The collection, analysis and representation of African American folktales in the U.S. has been fraught with political and racial tensions. Versions of the Uncle Remus tales have been utilized to bolster the kind of racist stereotypes of black Americans found in the minstrel tradition and blackface performances. They have also been employed to fabricate myths about the slave past–in particular to strengthen the image of the southern plantation as a place where slaves were compliant, had benevolent masters and were well looked after. Harris’ adaptations of the Brer Rabbit tales inspired a whole host of further 20th century versions, including the 1946 Disney film Song of the South, which has also been widely accused of idealizing the antebellum period; the Warner Brothers cartoon Bugs Bunny, and a mass of Brer Rabbit storybooks and commercial products.

Harris’ tales also quickly gained a following in Britain, influencing Beatrix Potter in her creation of her trickster figure Peter Rabbit. [2]

Much of the early 20th century analysis of the Brer Rabbit stories tell the researcher more about the agendas of the researchers themselves than they do about the cultural history of the Brer Rabbit folktales. Indeed, black folklore has been used to reinforce segregationist polices in America; as Shirley Moody-Turner states in her excellent study of Black Folklore and the Politics of Racial Representation (2013).

‘The rhetoric of folklore achieved currency in the political and legal discourse of segregation because it was easily translated into support for the separation of the races and the inferior position of blacks’ (p.41)

Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building (taken by Emily Zobel Marshall)
Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building (taken by Emily Zobel Marshall)

During my research trip to the American Folklife Center I was able to examine transcriptions and oral recordings from the Hampton Institute, a group of African American folklorists founded in 1893. In their archives I discovered some fascinating links between Brer Rabbit, his Caribbean counterpart Anansi and the African Hare trickster. During the course of my research I also realized that at the heart of the problem of representing black folklore was the issue of African American vernacular. Scholars still struggle to extricate African American vernacular English from the type of racist stereotypes of black Americans found in Disney’s Song of the South, which makes transcribing the tales verbatim an issue for contemporary folklorists. Recent transcriptions of the oral recordings at the Center have been written in ‘standard’ English, which impedes the researcher’s ability to understand the original oral folktale as it changes the nature of the story itself.

The archivist and folklife specialist at the American Folklife Center, Todd Harvey, was extremely helpful; as well as trawling through huge sound archives, I was also introduced to a fascinating collection of twenty-three interviews with ex-slaves, born between 1823 and the early 1860s, in which they discuss the experience of slavery (listen to the interviews here).

In addition, I listened to some early recordings of folktales on wax cylinders from the 1920s. Phonograph wax cylinders, which look a little like ridged cylindrical candles, are the earliest ‘records’, and are extremely delicate and can easily be damaged by heat. Folklorists would lug the huge wax cylinder phonographs with them into the field – a far cry from our nifty modern electronic recorders. While some of the stories recorded in this medium were hard to understand (there is a great deal of crackling and clunking noises as the cylinder spins), I made as many notes as possible and found further interesting correlations between the trickster tales and their African counterparts.

One of America’s most influential folklorists, Alan Lomax, traveled to the Southern states in the 1930s with Zora Neale Hurston,  a remarkable African American woman who collected hundreds of songs and folktales and authored the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. The Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle expedition collection included 227 discs of African American, Bahamian and Haitian songs, folktales and church services from the summer of 1935.

Zora Neale Hurston (left) records folklore from Rochelle French and Gabriel Brown in Eatonville, Florida, June 1935. Photo by Alan Lomax, taken during the Lomax-Hurston-Barnicle recording expedition to Georgia, Florida, and the Bahamas. The Photo links to a bibliographic record with more information.

I am still in the process of analyzing the material collected at the archives, but I feel that lurking beneath the many problematic representations of Brer Rabbit is a figure with all the revolutionary energy of the plantation trickster – a figure I aim to unearth through a research process which I approach with renewed vigor.  As Hurston herself once said, research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that [s]he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein’ (Dust Tracks on the Road, 1942, p. 143).

[1] Alice Walker, ‘Uncle Remus, No Friend of  Mine’, Southern Exposure (Summer 1981), 29-31.

[2] The Peter Rabbit tales were inspired by Harris’s stories, which were read to Potter as a child. Potter went on to illustrate a number of the Joel Chandler Harris Brer Rabbit tales (see Linda Lear, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (New York: St. Martins Press, 2008), p. 131.

Note: This post originally appeared, with slightly different illustrations, on the Leeds Beckett University website at this link.

Comments (7)

  1. Thank you for a most interesting, fascinating in fact, detailed and insightful introduction to your research.
    I look forward to reading the book.
    Best wishes,
    Jenny Z

  2. Fascinating!

  3. Fascinating study; I look forward to the publication.

    Trickster tales are always interesting and, to me, strong examples of social protest – the ordinary “person” outwitting the established authority. My impression is that they are very wide spread – Coyote for native Americans, Jack himself, Anansi, maybe Aladdin, etc. I imagine they succeed as “permitted” protest by being coded as just animal fantasies.

    I’m curious about ethnic accents/dialects, usually offered as comic examples of “ignorant” groups. “Ethiopian Dialect” read in so many song sheets and minstrel show skits (black and white performers). Is there any basis for this at all?

    The few recordings I’ve heard (eg, as referenced above in the LoC oral histories) are basically in standard English, even the Gullah. Yet I am well aware that country people can be aware of and sensitive to being taken as “ignorant.” I’ve heard New York African-Americans and whites in North Carolina, including Raleigh and north-east of Scotland who retain the old accent also being fully fluent in standard English.

    I’m just curious about this.

  4. What a terrific article! Not only is the subject itself fascinating and obviously well-researched, but Dr. Marshall’s appreciation of the AFC both for its holdings and its excellent staff is something every AFC Board member should read! Kudos to Todd Harvey!

  5. Another great folklore tradition about tricksters is “Hip Et Taiau” (Hip and Taiau), who prowl around stealing things. There are versions where Hip Et Taiau are dogs, girls from Bosco, or ghosts/spirits etc. They steal anything from sleds, coats, hats etc. There are some really fun Cajun songs about Hip Et Taiau.

  6. I would love to read a book comparing the original Brer Rabbit stories to the earlier trickster rabbit stories from Africa and the Caribbean.

  7. I have an original “Stories from Uncle Remus” book, given to someone for christmas in 1917. I have cherished it for over 40 years.The illustrations by Harry Rowntree are beautiful and the stories are written with a very strong accent which makes it an interesting read. The Book itself is an A4 cardboard backing with 64 thick pages.

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