The Uncle Remus series
Brer Rabbit is the main character in the Uncle Remus tales written by Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908). As a trickster—a mischievous character known for the ability to deceive—Brer Rabbit outsmarts larger and stronger animals, such as Brer Fox and Brer Bear. Many stories about Brer Rabbit originated in African folklore and were brought to America by African slaves.
Perhaps the most famous Brer Rabbit story is the one about Brer Rabbit and the tar baby. In this tale, Brer Fox makes a life-size figure out of sticky tar and places it on the road in the hopes of catching Brer Rabbit with it. Indeed, when Brer Rabbit comes along and greets the tar baby several times without getting a reply, he gets annoyed enough to hit the tar baby. His hand gets stuck in the tar and he is unable to escape.
Brer Fox pulls Brer Rabbit out of the tar, with the intent of doing him harm. He proposes several different ways of disposing of Brer Rabbit, and Brer Rabbit makes a show of accepting each option, but adding a plea each time that Brer Fox not throw him into a nearby briar patch. Thinking that the briar patch must surely be the worst fate of all if Brer Rabbit was willing to be killed in any other way, Brer Fox flung the rabbit into the briar patch. Brer Rabbit had tricked him, however, because, as he taunts Brer Fox after escaping, “I was born and raised in the briar patch.”
Brer Rabbit in Context
After originating in African-American oral tales, Brer Rabbit became one of the main characters in the Uncle Remus books, written in the 1880s and 1890s by Southern journalist Joel Chandler Harris. The books brought the stories to a whole new audience, but also generated controversy. Since the tales were taken from African-American folklore, Harris, a white man, was accused of stealing the myths and passing them off as his own creations. Furthermore, by the mid-twentieth-century the stories' use of the dialect of the Deep South and the demeaning stereotype of the complacent Negro as seen in the character of the narrator Uncle Remus offended many people.
Key Themes and Symbols
The stories of Brer Rabbit are generally trickster tales and involve Brer Rabbit getting himself into trouble through his own selfishness or mischievous nature. He must then use his cleverness to get himself out of trouble.
Brer Rabbit in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Several stories of Brer Rabbit and his friends were combined and adapted into the Disney animated feature Song of the South, released in 1946. The characters can also be seen in the Splash Mountain attractions at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World amusement parks.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Some people feel that Joel Chandler Harris took the Brer Rabbit stories from African-American folklore and wrongly sold them as his own. Do you think it is acceptable for a person to write his or her own version of a folktale or myth, and then sell it? What about modern authors who create their own versions of fairy tales or Greek myths? In your opinion, do myths belong only to the culture that creates them?