I’ve been having a little trouble getting my reading to synch up with when I wanted to release certain posts. For example, with it being February I thought I’d already be well into stories and folklore from the African Diaspora by now but it hasn’t worked out that way. However, I’ve been leaning a little bit too hard on movie reviews in the meantime. So, with hopes to give my impressions on Mules and Men sometime down the road, let’s instead cast the light on an African-American folk tale I know pretty well. Mainly because I borrowed it for a Story Circle meeting.
The story starts with Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Bear and others working in a field on a hot day. They were clearing ground for planting. It was hot as blazes and Brer Rabbit wasn’t happy about working in the hot sun.
So as he’s working, Brer Rabbit pretends to get stuck by a thorn from a briar bush he was clearing away. The other animals tell him he’d better pull out the thorn and go wash his hand (paw?) so it doesn’t get infected. Brer Rabbit does leave but instead of washing his hands and going back to work, he decides to find a shady spot and take a quick nap. What Brer Rabbit finds is an old well with a rope and a couple of buckets attached, one on each end of the rope. Brer Rabbit hops in one of the buckets to catch some Zs. What happens? His weight makes the bucket he’s in go down and the other bucket go up.
So now Brer Rabbit is in a pickle. He can’t get out of the well.
Now Brer Fox knew that Brer Rabbit was up to something. So, he goes after him and sees him climb into the bucket and go down into the well. And Brer Fox starts to wonder why he’s going down into the well. So Brer Fox goes up to the well and shouts down to Brer Rabbit.
“What are you doing down there, Brer Rabbit?”
Brer Rabbit gets the idea that he can use Brer Fox to get out of the well, so he shouts back up, “I’m fishing! You wouldn’t believe how many big fish I’ve caught down here!
Now Brer Fox didn’t believe that Brer Rabbit was fishing for one minute. What conclusion did Brer Fox come to, though? He figured that Brer Rabbit must be hiding some money down there.
So Brer Rabbit shouts up “I’ve got scores and scores of fish down here! Why don’t you come down and help me carry them up.”
Now, this is the invitation Brer Fox had been wanting to hear. He’d go down and find whatever cash Brer Rabbit had stashed down there. So, Brer Fox climbs into the other bucket and since he’s so much heavier than Brer Rabbit . . . well, you can guess what happened next. There’s a little more after that, but I’ll link to the story so you can read the rest of it HERE.
This story has a lot of good things going for it. There’s an interesting amount of complexity shown in what could have been otherwise simple characters. It shows Brer Rabbit being the quintessential trickster and using his wits to get out of work. However, it also shows his cleverness backfiring on him. It also shows Brer Fox, usually the target of Brer Rabbit’s tricks being savvy enough to know Brer Rabbit is up to something but still clueless enough to be on the wrong track in terms of what it is.
Here in the United States, a lot of the best parts of our culture come from the groups that get marginalized and pushed to the fringes. The biggest example being all the contributions the black community has made to American culture. In addition to pretty much every form of American popular music (blues, jazz, soul, R&B, Rock and Roll, Rap) and various other things, Brer Rabbit goes on the list. Brer Rabbit, being a rabbit, is smaller and weaker than those who would harm him, like Brer Fox and Brer Bear. So, he uses trickery and cunning to survive and even thrive. It’s a creation that you would expect of an oppressed and enslaved people. However, unlike a lot of other contributions of black Americans, Brer Rabbit and his stories have never lost their African American identity. That identity has been exploited by the likes of Joel Chandler Harris and Walt Disney, but it hasn’t been completely appropriated, co-opted and absorbed into the culture of the white majority. And that’s a good thing.
As storytellers, we have to be careful of how we use stories and spread them. While there are some stories that we feel are ours, there are others we must remember that we’re just borrowing.
Until next time.