Trickster Tales

views updated

Trickster Tales

The folklore of many cultures around the world includes trickster characters. These characters sometimes appear as the protagonist of a single story, but more often they are at the center of a cycle of tales, such as the African American folktales adapted by Joel Chandler Harris (1848–1908) in his Uncle Remus (1881) stories. The trickster's incarnation might be human or an anthropomorphized animal; among indigenous peoples in North America, the trickster is often portrayed as a coyote, whereas the African American trickster often took the form of Br'er Rabbit or the slave Old John, as in the Harris stories. For slaves the trickster, who used his or her wit to elude the devices of a more powerful enemy (Br'er Fox, or the white master), was far more than a source of entertainment. For the "trick" to work, it was necessary not only for the trickster to have a superior intellect to their adversary, but for the adversary to act on a presumed mental inferiority in the trickster. The result was, as historian Charles Joyner puts it, "the triumph of the weak over the powerful through the sheer agency of wits" (1989, p. 236).


While Br'er Rabbit tales might be shared with a white audience, stories about the slave trickster Old John (or Père Jean) were for the slave community only. John and his master engaged in an endless tug of war, each trying to gain the upper hand over the other in small ways. John was thus a slave everyman, embodying the aspirations and the very identity of all slaves, using his wiles for whatever personal empowerment he could get. In this struggle it was clear that, although honesty was the best policy when dealing with one's own community, a little guile can go a long way when dealing with the enemy. Whether it was by innocently causing an argument between the master and his dinner guest so no one would notice that John himself had already eaten the main course, or by convincing the master—when caught red-handed stealing a pig—that he was there to deliver said pig to the master's kitchen, Old John was always thinking. Even though the master got the upper hand in some stories, such as when he donned blackface or impersonated God to foil one of John's plans, it was always a contest. "In this way," Bruce Dickson Jr. wrote, "John, whether in success or failure, did indeed get the best of Old Master all the time" (Dickson 1974, p. 429).


Dickson, Bruce D., Jr. "The 'John and Old Master' Stories and the World of Slavery: A Study in Folktales and History." Phylon 35, no. 4 (1974): 418-429.

Joyner, Charles. "The Trickster and the Fool: Folktales and Identity among Southern Plantation Slaves." In The Culture and Community of Slavery, ed. Paul Finkelman. New York: Garland, 1989.

Origins of the North American Trickster

In the introduction to his collection, Harris notes that trickster tales have appeared in such diverse places as Brazil, India, and Siam (Thailand). The Br'er Rabbit stories he recorded were virtually identical to several American Indian stories. J. W. Powell, a Smithsonian Institution scholar, believed that African slaves borrowed the tales from Native Americans, but Harris found this claim extremely doubtful. That was hardly the last word on the subject. In a 2000 essay Jay Hansford C. Vest proposed a Native American genesis for the Br'er Rabbit stories, surmising that Africans could hardly have originated stories about rabbits, bears, and wolves, animals not native to Africa, and that they must have learned them from southeastern Indians either during the period blacks and Indians were enslaved together or in the nineteenth century, when blacks were in bondage to some Native Americans.

Ultimately, the question of who told the stories in North America first is both unanswerable and moot. There is abundant evidence that a trickster tradition had existed in Africa, and even if slaves transplanted across the Atlantic made some adaptations in their stories to match their new environment—or blended some elements with those of the Native Americans or Europeans they met—that does not make the motif any less intrinsic to their folklore, or to their own identities. Indeed, Marcia Gaudet has demonstrated that the Louisiana versions of the Br'er Rabbit tales—featuring Lapin (French for rabbit) and Bouki (or hyena)—have definite ties to Africa, bouki being the Wolof word for hyena. (The word bouki also made appearances in Haiti.)

The Trickster as a Model of Defiance

Themes of pride and the value of a quick wit are universal, but trickster tales among African Americans ultimately served as far more than simple morality plays. The trickster served, as Rhonda Jeffries and Susan Schramm noted in their 2000 article, as a "defiant representative for the oppressed group" whose primary goal was "social noncomformity by redefinition of norms for life and existence … serving the evolving needs of African American communities" (pp. 19-20). Characters such as Br'er Rabbit demonstrated the need for slaves to resist, not physically, but mentally. The rabbit stood little chance one-on-one against the various foxes, wolves, bears, and buzzards that he encountered; he survived by tricking them, thus protecting not only himself but his community, who would suffer along with him if he pursued direct acts of violence. The stories thus also capture the fears of the powerful figures. The natural order of things—at least to a Br'er Bear's way of thinking—would be for the strong to win out. Yet in these stories a weaker character upsets the social order, as in "Mr. Rabbit Grossly Deceives Mr. Fox" (in the sixth chapter of Uncle Remus). Rabbit fools the fox into allowing himself to be saddled and ridden like a horse, then proceeds to ride him past the ladies they both wish to impress, much to the humiliation of Mr. Fox. "Ladies, ain't I done tell you Br'er Fox was de ridin' hoss fer our fambly?" Rabbit asks. "He sorter losin' his gait now, but I 'speck I can fetch 'im all right in a mont' er so." The narrator goes on: "En den Br'er Rabbit sorter grin, he did, en' de gals giggle, en' Miss Meadows, she praise up de pony, en' dar wuz Br'er Fox hitch fas' to der rack, en' couldn't he'p hisse'f" (Harris 1974 [1881], pp. 7-9).

Br'er Rabbit seems, within the context of the story, to be acting solely for his own aggrandizement. But sometimes the trickster falls prey to his own conceit. In the famous Tar Baby tale, as told in Harris's book, Br'er Fox temporarily gets the upper hand over Br'er Rabbit. The fox fashions a "baby" out of tar; when the "baby" is rudely unresponsive to Br'er Rabbit, the trickster lashes out violently against it—and is stuck fast, himself a victim of a clever trick. Despite this setback, Br'er Rabbit survives to confound his enemies repeatedly. Br'er Rabbit's occasional episodes of comeuppance may not seem to fit the role of a character who exists to uplift the oppressed. But, as Jeffries points out, the African American trickster is "a free spirit whose behavior is complex and contradictory" (Jeffries and Schramm 2000, p. 20). Ultimately, he is pursuing power for himself—at the expense of those who would dominate him, and solely by the force of his own intellect. The popularity of Bugs Bunny during the Depression and World War II shows that the trickster could strike a chord in later audiences as well. The trickster was more than just wish fulfillment; it was a model of defiance.

The trickster motif was indeed not mere escapism but a matter of practical daily application. In the Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Brown recounts that he had been told he was to be sold soon and was charged to look out for a suitable new master. Instead he had tried to run away:

After being in jail about one week, master sent a man to take me out of jail, and send me home. I was taken out and carried home, and the old man was well enough to sit up. He had me brought into the room where he was, and as I entered, he asked me where I had been? I told I had acted according to his orders. He told me to look for a master, and I had been to look for one. He answered that he did not tell me to go to Canada to look for a master. (Brown 1991 [1847], p. 54)

Brown was sent out to work in the fields under close scrutiny and was sold soon after. Eventually, however, he made his escape for good. Brown's interaction with his master is just one example of the diversionary and subversive mental and verbal tactics he and other slaves used to defend themselves—not unlike Br'er Rabbit.


Bascom, William. African Folktales in the New World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Brown, William Wells. The Travels of William Wells Brown [1847], ed. Paul Jefferson. New York: Markus Wiener, 1991.

Gaudet, Marcia. "Bouki, the Hyena, in Louisiana and African Tales." Journal of American Folklore 105, no. 415 (1992): 66-72.

Harris, Joel Chandler. Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings [1881]. Savannah, GA: Beehive Press, 1974.

Jeffries, Rhonda B. "The Trickster Figure in African American Teaching: Pre- and Postdesegregation." Urban Review 26, no. 4 (1994): 289-304.

Jeffries, Rhonda B. Performance Traditions among African American Teachers. Bethesda, MD: Austin and Winfield, 1997.

Jeffries, Rhonda B., and Susan L. Schramm. "African American Trickster Representations in the Work of Romare Bearden." Art Education 53, no. 5 (2000): 19-24.

Johnson, Alonzo, and Paul T. Jersild, eds. Ain't Gonna Lay My 'Ligion Down: African American Religion in the South. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

Joyner, Charles. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Joyner, Charles. "The Trickster and the Fool: Folktales and Identity among Southern Plantation Slaves." In The Culture and Community of Slavery, ed. Paul Finkelman. New York: Garland, 1989.

Joyner, Charles. Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Vest, Jay Hansford C. "From Bobtail to Br'er Rabbit: Native American Influences on Uncle Remus." American Indian Quarterly 24, no. 1 (2000): 19-43.

                                         Troy D. Smith