Let me introduce you to an old friend of mine, Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit is a little piece of leather, but he’s well put together, winning with his wit against the mighty and the cruel. In these folktales, there are creatures who are larger and stronger who could easily overwhelm and prey on the smaller and weaker ones. Without claw and tooth, hoof and fang a defenseless animal like a rabbit is the favorite meal for wolf, fox, cougar, stoats, weasels, bobcat, coyotes, snakes, crows, red squirrels, hawks, falcons, owls, eagles, raccoons, and badgers. With so many enemies, who can Brer Rabbit rely on to help him in the time of need? Who are his friends? Alliances are essential to survive, but which alliances?
I learned about the wisdom of Brer Rabbit from my Alabama born mother, Ms. Ida Belle, who adored the trickster and placed him between Major Creek, Slaughter Branch, and Pine Log Creek in rural Alabama. “People are not so different from the wild animals of the forest and fields, swamps and rivers, from mountain top to the hollers. People can be just as power hungry and cruel as the animals. Animals could all live together and help each other, but just like folks, we get to a certain point and then get selfish again.” She was sure to add, “That’s what Christ was aiming for – unity and helping each other.”
I live in the backwoods of West Virginia at the headwaters of the Potomac River. On a daily basis, I see the hawks, possums, raccoons, beavers, mice, wood rats, and deer who brush up against the human invaders and dare them to stay. I have lived long enough to learn that the laws of the wilderness apply to humankind. Many of us grew up on tales about Brer Rabbit and the other animals, both friend and foe; sometimes switching sides: changing times call for a change in allies.
The wilderness is a useful metaphor for people facing struggle. It is an apt setting those of us who feel like we live in a place that is still wild and untamed, not quite civilized, where mercy is rare and wickedness and self-interest often prevail. Folktales about Brer Rabbit are often set in the wilderness, a stage upon which important warnings and teachings for young and old can unfold.
The folktales of Brer Wolf, Brer Lion, Brer Rabbit and Sis Possum helped me identify the people in my life who behaved like the animals of the rough country. There were lessons that I could learn to help me move through the unknown, the overwhelming, the frightening, the mean, and cruel things that I saw around me - and finish it off with a laugh. You didn’t have to be big and tough to win! Someone who was underestimated could prevail and thrive. I didn’t grow up with the quaint servile Uncle Remus in Joel Chandler Harris versions of Brer Rabbit. I had the hushed quiet, “don’t let anybody hear me telling you this” kind of stories. ““Brer Rabbit was smart; Brer Rabbit was clever! You know what Brer Rabbit would do?” My imagination understood the message. The world was not safe for a little girl but there was something I could do about it.
These are dangerous times for many of us: women, children, people of color, single, coupled, straight, gay, and otherwise. My traditions use folktales as a way of making sacred spaces and holy ground - to inspire and remember our courage, our strength and what we have to be proud of. They are about any time the power hungry go running wild; when the strong abuse the weak; when we forget the strength of our unity and our collective creativity.
Neighborhoods have been violated before, children targeted before, houses bombed, people tortured, access prevented. This is not new. Some people are itching for a fight while others want to hide. I take lessons from age old folktales and proverbs, from other times past, when hate was not disguised and our ability to fight back was even more limited than it is now. For people of color and immigrants, prejudice, suspicion, discrimination and fear have been woven into the very legal fabric of American social culture. This includes the history of Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, the Dred Scott decision, the Chinese Exclusion Act (I could go on and on). Folktales serve a purpose to help us shake out the issues in societal conflicts. They help us picture the forces at work that damage our humanity and dull our compassion. They help us build new language about our perceptions, predicaments, dangers, and prescriptions. Brer Tales show us how to resist the kind of hate and lies that fuel prejudice, suggesting when to fight and when to run, and give council on how to keep our souls intact.
Brer Rabbit has many ancestors and not all of them are tricksters, not just about racial injustice or slavery times. Brer Rabbits’ forebears appear all over the world. In India, the moon is known as hare. In South American folktales, there is Uncle Rabbit. In East Africa, Sungura. In England, Peter Rabbit. In Asia, Central America among the Aztecs there is the Moon Rabbit. The Cherokee and Algonquin have their Rabbit tales. In Louisiana there is Compere Lapin (Godfather Rabbit) among the Creole. In all these cultures, Rabbit doesn’t always get it right; sometimes he is selfish and just a little too cocky for his own good. We were to mind his errors as well as his wisdom. Brer Rabbit is an old friend to the poor, the weak, the young and old, who have always had to use their wits to thrive in a hostile world.
Brer rabbit has a lot of kinfolks. Here are just a few:
Cherokee: Tsistu (Rabbit)
South American Folktales:
This book was written by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Tomie dePaola. The Tale of the Rabbit and Coyote is from the town of Juchitan, in Oaxaca, Mexico.
The Rabbits and the Elephants
The Foolish Lion and the Rabbit
Japanese/ Chinese - The Rabbit in the Moon