Tracking tricksters in Washington, DC
In this blog post Dr Emily Marshall, who specialises in Postcolonial and migrant literatures and cultures, reflects on her recent trip to the American Folklife archives in the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
However, I was on the hunt for the earliest recordings of the African American Brer Rabbit trickster folktales for my next book, American Trickster: Trauma, Tradition and Brer Rabbit, to be published by Rowman and Littlefield. The cunning and duplicitous Brer Rabbit trickster, whose origins can be traced back to the Hare stories of South and Central Africa, was a slave folk hero on plantations across the Americas.
The African Hare underwent many transformations on American soil (he became known as Brother, or ‘Brer’ Rabbit), but none as dramatic as his adoption by white American journalist Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote several collections of ‘Uncle Remus’ Brer Rabbit stories between 1870 and 1906 and turned the trickster into a household name. Harris’ tales were told to him by African American plantation workers and he has been both applauded for keeping the folktales alive and criticised heavily for contributing towards patronising black stereotypes; for plagiarism, and for defending slavery. Harris made several changes to his published versions of the oral folktales, such as creating a frame narrator, Uncle Remus, a old kindly, sycophantic and contented slave who tells the trickster stories to a little white boy from the Great House. Harris’ versions of the tales are sanitised to entertain white readers; the exposé of the violence and injustice at the heart of plantation life is tempered and the stories offer a benign and picturesque view of slavery. In an angry essay, ‘Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine’ (1981), Alice Walker accused Harris of stealing part of her heritage and making her ‘feel ashamed of it’.1
The collection, analysis and representation of African American folktales in the US has been fraught with political and racial tensions. Versions of the Uncle Remus tales have been utilised to bolster the kind of racist stereotypes of black Americans found in the minstrel tradition and blackface performances. They have also been employed to fabricate myths about the slave past – in particular to strengthen the image of the southern plantation as a place where slaves were compliant, had benevolent masters and were well looked after. Harris’ adaptations of the Brer Rabbit tales inspired a whole host of further 20th century versions, including the 1946 Disney film Song of the South, which has also been widely accused of idealising the antebellum period; the Warner Brothers cartoon Bugs Bunny, and a mass of Brer Rabbit storybooks and commercial products.
Harris’ tales also quickly gained a following in Britain, influencing Beatrix Potter in her creation of her trickster figure Peter Rabbit.2
Much of the early 20th century analysis of the Brer Rabbit stories tell the researcher more about the agendas of the researchers themselves than they do about the cultural history of the Brer Rabbit folktales. Indeed, black folklore has been used to reinforce segregationist polices in America; as Shirley Moody-Turner states in her excellent study of Black Folklore and the Politics of Racial Representation (2013).
‘The rhetoric of folklore achieved currency in the political and legal discourse of segregation because it was easily translated into support for the separation of the races and the inferior position of blacks’ (p.41)
During my research trip to the American Folklife Center I was able to examine transcriptions and oral recordings from the Hampton Institute, a group of African American folklorists founded in 1893. In their archives I discovered some fascinating links between Brer Rabbit, his Caribbean counterpart Anansi and the African Hare trickster. During the course of my research I also realized that at the heart of the problem of representing black folklore was the issue of African American vernacular. Scholars still struggle to extricate African American vernacular English from the type of racist stereotypes of black Americans found in Disney’s Song of the South, which makes transcribing the tales verbatim an issue for contemporary folklorists. Recent transcriptions of the oral recordings at the Center have been written in ‘standard’ English, which impedes the researcher’s ability to understand the original oral folktale as it changes the nature of the story itself.
The archivist and folklife specialist at the American Folklife Center, Todd Harvey, was extremely helpful; as well as trawling through huge sound archives with me I was also introduced to a fascinating collection of twenty-three interviews with ex-slaves, born between 1823 and the early 1860s, in which they discuss the experience of slavery (listen to the interviews here).
In addition, I listened to some early recordings of folktales on wax cylinders from the 1920s. Phonograph wax cylinders, which look a little like ridged cylindrical candles, are the earliest ‘records’, and are extremely delicate and can easily be damaged by heat. Folklorists would lug the huge wax cylinder phonographs with them into the field – a far cry from our nifty modern electronic recorders. While some of the stories recorded in this medium were hard to understand (there is a great deal of crackling and clunking noises as the cylinder spins), I made as many notes as possible and found further interesting correlations between the trickster tales and their African counterparts.
One of America’s most influential folklorists, Alan Lomax, travelled to the Southern states in the 1930s with Zora Neale Hurston, a remarkable African American woman who collected hundreds of songs and folktales and authored the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. The ‘Alan Lomax, Zora Neale Hurston, and Mary Elizabeth Barnicle expedition’ collection included 227 discs of African American, Bahamian and Haitian songs, folktales and church services from the summer 1935.
I am still in the process of analyzing the material collected at the archives, but I feel that lurking beneath the many problematic representations of Brer Rabbit is a figure with all the revolutionary energy of the plantation trickster – a figure I aim to unearth through a research process which I approach with renewed vigor. As Huston herself once said, ‘research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that [s]he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein’ (Dust Tracks on the Road, 1942, p. 143).
Emily’s visit has also been featured on the US Library of Congress’ website.
- Alice Walker, ‘Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine’, Southern Exposure (Summer 1981), 29-31.
- The Peter Rabbit tales were inspired by Harris’ stories, which were read to Potter as a child. Potter went on to illustrate a number of the Joel Chandler Harris Brer Rabbit tales (see Linda Lear, Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature (New York: St. Martins Press, 2008), p. 131.
Emily’s research is informed by postcolonial theory and includes examinations of constructions of identity, race and racial politics and Caribbean carnival cultures. She is particularly interested in forms of cultural resistance and cross-cultural fertilisation in the face of colonialism. Emily is an expert in the role of trickster figures in the literatures and cultures of Africa and its Diaspora and has published widely in this area.