Tales and Their Tellers: 3. The Signifyin’ Rabbit

Illustration from “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story.” Taken from Legends of the Old Plantation (1881)

3: The Signifyin’ Rabbit

By Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner

The Story So Far:

Through clever bargaining, Anansi the Spider had just succeeded in stealing all Tales from the gods and bringing them down to earth, so that we – the fair and noble human race – may spend our campfire nights telling them to one another and so that I may have a column to write.

However, all was not well. At that moment, large boats were seen on the horizon. The white man had come. Bound and shackled along with his brothers and sisters, Anansi sat in the darkness, biding his time. What clever tricks could he come up with now?

Our story now resumes several years later, on a Georgian plantation. Slavery is a reality of life, particularly for the younger generation who have never known differently. On one warm summer evening, a young girl named Miss Sally is searching in vain for her younger brother, Johnny. In-house and out-of-house she runs, calling his name. Then, from within an old cabin far off in the woods, she hears voices. She pauses, curious. Through the window she sees her brother sitting beside one of the old slave hands, “…gazing with an expression of the most intense interest into the rough, weather-beaten face, that beamed so kindly upon him.”

These are the words she hears the old man saying:

Brer Fox illustration from http://www.wrensnestonline.com

“Bimeby, one day, atter Brer Fax bin doin’ all dat he could fer ter ketch Brer Rabbit, en Brer Rabbit bin doin’ all he could fer to keep ‘im fum it, Brer Fox say to hisse’f dat he’d put up a game on Brer Rabbit, en he ain’t mo’n got de wuds out’n his mouf twel Brer Rabbit come a lopin’ up de big road, lookin’ des ez plump, en ez fat, en ez sassy ez a Moggin hoss in a barley-patch.”

Thus begins Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings, first published in 1880, and kept in print to this very day. The book utilizes little Johnny and old Uncle Remus as a framing device, but the real stars are the stories-within-stories, the characters of Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit (“Brer” meaning “Brother”) and all the rest of them. These are the Trickster Tales of the New World.

The author, Joel Chandler Harris, would have been uncomfortable with even the designation “author.” He saw himself as a cultural recorder. The stories that the fictitious Uncle Remus tell young, impressionable Johnny, he maintained, were the same stories which he had been told by the Uncle Remus’ of his early life. He was merely transcribing them and thus – he would say – preserving them.

All told, he wrote nine volumes of Uncle Remus collections during his lifetime, totaling some 200 individual stories. They famously inspired many young American writers including Mark Twain and William Faulkner, and as their fame spread internationally, they also became a great source of inspiration for young Rudyard Kipling an ocean away. The stories are universally recognized for their contribution to folklore and cultural anthropology. Mr. Harris is recognized for being a gifted storyteller, a cultural thief and a profiteering racist.

As a reader, I try to live by Neil Gaiman’s maxim, “Never trust the storyteller, only trust the story.” Thus, I tried to enjoy the tales on their own level, with the fresh eyes of one merely anxious to be told a good story. The edition I found was old and well-worn and contained A.B. Frost’s illustrations from 1896. It was nearly 900 pages long.

Now, I am not one to resist a difficult text. I have read Chaucer. I have read Cervantes. I have read Joyce. I charged through A Clockwork Orange with such childlike faith that the meaning of the language would be made apparent by novel’s end that I hardly stopped to catch my breath. I don’t hold with the Scientologists, who say that when one is confronted with a word they don’t fully understand, one should stop and look the word up, to ensure one has full cognition before continuing.

A scientologist would have a good time with Uncle Remus, all right:

Brer Rabbit illustration from http://www.wrensnestonline.com

“Bimeby, w’en de shadders wuz at der shortes’, Brer Rabbit he sorter brush up en sa’ter down ter Brer Fox’s house, en w’en he got dar, he hear somebody groanin’, en he look in de do’ an dar he see Brer Fox settin’ up in a rockin’-cheer all wrop up wid flannil, en he look mighty weak.”

It took me much longer than I had planned to get through the first thirty-four stories of the book. I had to carefully read everything outloud to myself, then re-read it, to myself to make I understood. Sure enough, however, like listening to a Captain Beefheart record for the thirtieth time, I eventually got into the rhythm of it. And as I did, the world of Hominy Grove unfolded before me.

Hominy Grove is a place populated – mostly – by anthropomorphic animals, though there are some humans (as characterized by the murderous “Mr. Man”). The animals live in close proximity to each other and are constantly embarking on entertaining adventures. As an avid reader of children’s literature, I always find myself trying to draw parallels and make connections with other stories that I’ve read. As I first read about Hominy Grove, I found myself immediately thinking of the other worlds I know which are populated by talking animals. The two that came to mind were A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood where Pooh and Piglet and their friends live, and Kenneth Graham’s Wild Wood, in which Toad and Badger and the rest of the cast from The Wind in the Willows live out their lives.

In those worlds, life is relatively easy and even enviable. Sure, Pooh may scrounge about for a bit of honey and get his rotund derriere stuck in a groundhog hole, but he never has to worry about – say – starving to death, or caring for his young. The good gentlemen bachelors of the Wild Wood spend most of their days fishing, boating and playing chess. There is danger of course, in the presence of the Weasels, but they are an agreed upon enemy – an intrusion which – once defeated, allows life to then go on as swimmingly as before.

In Hominy Grove, by stark contrast, life is nasty, brutish and short. The characters are in constant conflict with one another and with the world in which they live. There are droughts. There is disease. The children are malnourished. There are no genuine friendships that I could discern. It is every man for himself.

The “enemies” of the stories – Brer Fox and Brer Wolf – are really not enemies in a classic sense. They are not a force to be defeated, like the Weasels from The Wind in the Willows. They play by the same rules as anyone else in Hominy Grove. They fish and hunt and farm the land and try to provide for their children. They opine about the cost of feed, while chewing their tobacco and hooking their thumbs in their overalls. They may happen to enjoy a taste for fresh, young rabbit flesh, but it is hard to blame them. Its their nature, after all, and nature is not a force to be contradicted.

Into this world springs forth Brer Rabbit. The Trickster. The Hero? Not exactly, but it is with him for which are sympathies are clearly meant to lie, as he must constantly outsmart and outwit all those who would stand between him and food on the table. As the stories progress, and as little Johnny and Uncle Remus grow closer, the boy constantly asks after Brer Rabbits well-being, as though worried about a real person. The magic of storytelling takes its hold.

Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings (1881)

However, it did not take me long to realize that Brer Rabbit is no Anansi the Spider. Anansi, after all, never intentionally hurt anyone that I can tell, and certainly never brought ruin upon someone who didn’t deserve it. I fear something must have happened to Anansi in the confines of that slave ship, something dark, which led to his emergence as Brer Rabbit. A certain joy is missing, and in their place: violence.

In “Miss Cow Falls a Victim to Mr. Rabbit,” Brer Rabbit happens upon a cow in a field. She seems friendly enough, and engage in some small talk which may lead one to believe that the two are friendly with one another.

‘How yo’ folks, Brer Rabbit?’

‘Dey er des middlin;, Sis Cow; how Brer Bull gittin’ on?’

Brer Rabbit then tricks her into ramming her horns into the side of a tree, in order that she might shake down some ‘mighty nice ‘simmons.’ Miss Cow does so and gets herself stuck. She cannot move. She wails and pleads with Brer Rabbit to help her loose. He tells her he’ll just go and get Brer Bull and be right back. He returns with his wife and his children and they just milk Miss Cow dry, taking away bucket after bucket of milk back to their home. When they can’t milk no more, they just leave Miss Cow stuck in that tree, all night by herself.

In “The Awful Fate of Mr. Wolf,” Brer Wolf runs to Brer Rabbit’s house, terrified of the dogs which he imagines are after him.

“Oh, do pray save me, Brer Rabbit! De dogs is atter me, en dey’ll t’ar me up. Hide me somers whar de dogs won’t git me!’

Brer Rabbit tells Brer Wolf to jump into a chest, which Brer Wolf does. Brer Rabbit then latches the chest and begins to fill it with boiling water, much to the delight of his children, who have all gathered around to watch. In fact, it’s their laughter which makes this story so disturbing to me. After Brer Wolf is scalded to death, they hang his hide on the back porch and have themselves a ‘reg’lar juberlee!’

And if I needed any further reminding that this was not the Hundred Acre Woods, there is a story in which Brer Rabbit tricks Brer Bear into going up a tree and sticking his head into a hole. Then Brer Rabbit stirs up the bees he knows live in the tree, and they swarm around Brer Bear’ and sting him until his head swells up so large he cannot remove it from the hole. So there he remains trapped, in horrible and excruciating pain one might imagine, while Brer Rabbit laughs and collects the bee’s honey. Silly old bear, as Christopher Robin might say.

The final story of the collection is “The Sad Fate of Mr. Fox.” I won’t summarize the whole thing, but suffice it to say, it ends with Brer Rabbit delivering the head of Brer Fox to Miss Fox, telling her it is a side of beef, and that she should cook it for her children. Miss Fox thanks Brer Rabbit very kindly. Then, as the stew boils on the fire, one of the Fox children looks into the pot…

“Tobe he wuz mighty hongry, en he look in de pot he did w’iles de cookin’ wuz gwine on, en dar he see his daddy head, en wid dat he sot up a howl en tole his mammy. Miss Fox, she git mighty mad w’en she fin’ she cookin’ her ole man head!”

The most famous of the Brer Rabbit stories is, of course, “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story.” It has been told and retold many times by storytellers from all over the world. One version which I found was Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl, illustrated by James E. Ransome and written by the late Virginia Hamilton, (who also wrote the wonderful book The People Could Fly – which I would love to devote an entire column to one of these days).

Illustration by James E. Ransome from Bruh Rabbit and the Tar Baby Girl by Virginia Hamilton

The story is this: Brer Fox takes a gob of tar and in a feat of artistic prowess, fashions himself a ‘baby.’ He dresses it and sets it beside the road, then lays in wait (Though in Ms. Hamilton’s version, the Tar Baby is used as a scarecrow in the midst of a peanut patch). Along comes Brer Rabbit. When he sees the Tar Baby sitting there, he of course mistakes it for a real baby. Being the courteous fellow, he greets it pleasantly enough:

‘Nice wedder dis mawnin! How duz yo’ sym’tums seem ter segashuate?’

But as the Tar baby sits silent and unresponsive, Brer Rabbit becomes agitated:

‘Is you deaf? Kaze if you is, I kin holler louder!’

Then agitation turns to violence:

‘You er stuck up, dat’s w’at you is! En I’m gwine ter kyore you, dat’s w’at I’m a gwine ter do! I’m gwine ter bus’ you wide open!’

The Tar Baby illustration from http://www.wrensnestonline.com

The rabbit attacks the unresponsive baby. With lefts and rights, hitting and kicking, biting and scraping. He becomes more and more entangled with the tar until there is no escape. Then Brer Fox comes around, laughing and chortling, rubbing his paws together and licking his chomps. Brer Rabbit’s time is finally up.

Or is it? If you don’t know how the story ends, I won’t ruin it.

Last column, I mentioned a book entitled Anansi Does the Impossible by Verna Aardema. One of Anansi’s tasks in the tale is to capture a fairy for the Sky God. He does this by fashioning a tiny statue of a fairy and and covering it with a sticky glue. When another fairy see the statue, she confuses it for a real fairy, and begins talking to it. When the fairy refuses to respond – being a statue and all – the real fairy grows agitated, then angry and begins “slapping her spanking place!” She then becomes captured and Anansi able to deliver her to the Sky God. This story predates Uncle Remus by several hundred years.

However, there are other variations of this tale. There is a Tar Wolf story that the Cherokee tell. There are Alaskan myths and Mexican fables all with the same basic premise. These are stories which do not exist with just one author, or even with one group of people. They do not exist with Uncle Remus or with Joel Chandler Harris or anyone else. Do not trust the storyteller, only trust the story.

The best of the latter day versions of these stories are the Jump! trilogy, adapted by Van Dyke Parks (who has had one interesting career – from The Honeymooners and Twin Peaks, to The Beach Boys and Howard Zinn, and somehow found time to write children’s books in between) and illustrated by the incomparable Barry Moser.

Ah, Barry Moser. I first became aware of him as the illustrator for Joyce Carol Oates’ novel, First Love. It was filled with stark, ominous woodcuts which complimented the prose perfectly. Then, years later – after going through a religious sabbatical of sorts and vowing to never again pick up a Bible lest I be struck down by a plague of frogs, it was the Barry Moser illustrated version of the King James Bible which again drew me back to the ancient text. The faces of these old Jews were rendered in such exquisite agony, the fear and trembling so palpable on their weathered flesh, that I could hardly put it down (despite its tremendous weight).

Jump Again! More Adventures of Brer Rabbit (1997)


In the Jump! series, Barry Moser’s medium of choice is watercolor. There is still some starkness present, particularly in the cracked mud stretching before Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit as they survey the effects of a recent drought, but by and large, his illustrations are the definition of jaunty. He pays great attention to their clothing – their top hats and suits which look like they were purchased a decade ago and sit in a dusty closet awaiting Sunday morning. I could easily imagine Woody Guthrie hitching his way through this Hominy Grove, on his way to an open box car.

The three books are Jump!, Jump Again! and Jump on Over! Each one contains five stories and around twenty of Barry Moser’s delicious watercolors. The adaptations of the text are much more palatable to a younger audience, but still retain the flavor of the original telling. For example, from the story, “How Brer Rabbit Frightened His Neighbors:”

“There came a time of famine, and victuals were monstrous scarce and money mighty slack. As long as there were any victuals going around, Brer Rabbit was bound to get his family their share, but by and by, it came to pass that Brer Rabbit’s stomach began to pinch him.”

I absolutely adore that style of storytelling, the language and the style of it. Actually, I just wish I could talk like that.

Other rough edges are smoothed over. Mr. Fox manages to escape his fate by bounding out of the chest before the boiling water does its trick, swearing to return another day. No one is killed in these stories, and the humor is given more weight. Arlo loved “Brer Rabbit and the Mosquitoes,” which is a great story to tell aloud while pantomiming swatting away the tiny bloodsuckers. Also in the stories, Brer Rabbit’s paternity is emphasized, and we even follow his courtship as he searches out a mate in the unforgiving Hominy Grove. This lends a grounding tenderness which I found sorely lacking from Harris’ Uncle Remus tales.

Over all, Parks and Moser are able to render Brer Rabbit as both a charismatic figure and one with whom I would not wish to cross paths. The language is fun and filled with great turns of phrase. I highly recommend these books.

So, in conclusion, there is much that is good and redeeming about these Uncle Remus tales. They teach important lessons of self-reliance for children. It is not your size that counts, but your resourcefulness. Also, when life gives you lemons, turn the decapitated head of your enemy into a stew and serve it to his children.

—–

Next: Believe it or not, I have actually glossed over the more controversial (i.e. racial) elements of the Brer Rabbit stories. Rest assured, however, next column will be no stranger to controversy! The topic will be a children’s picture book which has the distinction of being the most challenged book of 2006, 2007 and 2008, and was also the most banned book of 2009! I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Warning: contains penguins!

—–

Recommended Watching:

* In our modern age, the term “Tar Baby” refers to any situation in which one cannot successfully extricate oneself, but just gets more and more hopelessly entangled. But use caution before using it in your everyday discourse, as John McCain discovered during the 2008 campaign:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FNGXB_qx0xk&feature=related

* Did you know there’s an entire society dedicated to these stories? It’s called The Wren’s Nest, and their missions statement is: “By preserving the legacy of Joel Chandler Harris and the heritage of African American folklore through storytelling, tours and special events, the Wren’s Nest serves as an educational resource and entertainment venue for the community, the greater Atlanta area and visitors from around the globe.” Their building is beautiful, and looks like they have many wonderful in-house storytellers. Among their staff is a young, handsome man who also happens to be the great-great-great grandson of Joel Chandler Harris. Visit them here: http://www.wrensnestonline.com

* Here’s a great example of one of their storytellers doing his thing: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YkjnkKEZ5ZE

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