|First appearance||19th century|
|Created by||Traditional, Robert Roosevelt, Joel Chandler Harris, Alcée Fortier|
Johnny Lee (Song of the South and Mickey Mouse's Birthday Party)|
James Baskett (The Laughing Place sequence in Song of the South)
Art Carney (Walt Disney's Song Parade from Disneyland)
Jess Harnell (Splash Mountain and modern Disney appearances)
Nick Cannon (2006 adaptation)
|Aliases||Riley, Compair Lapin|
Br'er Rabbit (Brother Rabbit), also spelled Bre'r Rabbit or Brer Rabbit or Bruh Rabbit, is a central figure as Uncle Remus tells stories of the Southern United States. Br'er Rabbit is a trickster who succeeds by his wits rather than by brawn, provoking authority figures and bending social mores as he sees fit. The Walt Disney Company later adapted this character for its 1946 animated motion picture Song of the South.
In one tale, Br'er Fox constructs a doll out of a lump of tar and dresses it with some clothes. When Br'er Rabbit comes along he addresses the Tar-Baby amiably, but receives no response. Br'er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as the Tar-Baby's lack of manners, punches it, and in doing so becomes stuck. The more Br'er Rabbit punches and kicks the tar "baby" out of rage, the more he gets stuck. When Br'er Fox reveals himself, the helpless but cunning Br'er Rabbit pleads, "please, Br'er Fox, don't fling me in dat brier-patch," prompting Fox to do exactly that. As rabbits are at home in thickets, the resourceful Br'er Rabbit uses the thorns and briers to escape. The story was originally published in Harper's Weekly by Robert Roosevelt; years later Joel Chandler Harris included his version of the tale in his Uncle Remus stories.
The Br'er Rabbit stories can be traced back to trickster figures in Africa, particularly the hare that figures prominently in the storytelling traditions in West, Central, and Southern Africa. These tales continue to be part of the traditional folklore of numerous peoples throughout those regions. In the Akan traditions of West Africa, the trickster is usually the spider Anansi, though the plots in his tales are often identical with those of stories of Br'er Rabbit. However, Anansi does encounter a tricky rabbit called "Adanko" (Asante-Twi to mean "Hare") in some stories. The Jamaican character with the same name "Brer Rabbit", is an adaptation of the Ananse stories of the Akan people.
Some scholars have suggested that in his American incarnation, Br'er Rabbit represented the enslaved Africans who used their wits to overcome adversity and to exact revenge on their adversaries, the white slave owners. Though not always successful, the efforts of Br'er Rabbit made him a folk hero. However, the trickster is a multidimensional character. While he can be a hero, his amoral nature and his lack of any positive restraint can make him into a villain as well.
For both Africans and African Americans, the animal trickster represents an extreme form of behavior that people may be forced to adopt in extreme circumstances in order to survive. The trickster is not to be admired in every situation. He is an example of what to do, but also an example of what not to do. The trickster's behavior can be summed up in the common African proverb: "It's trouble that makes the monkey chew on hot peppers." In other words, sometimes people must use extreme measures in extreme circumstances. Several elements in the Brer Rabbit Tar Baby story (e.g., rabbit needing to be taught a lesson, punches and head butting the rabbit does, the stuck rabbit being swung around and around) are reminiscent of those found in a Zimbabwe-Botswana folktale.
Folklorists in the late 19th century first documented evidence that the American versions of the stories originated among enslaved West Africans based on connections between Br'er Rabbit and Leuk, a rabbit trickster in Senegalese folklore. The stories of Br'er Rabbit were written down by Robert Roosevelt, an uncle of US President Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography about his aunt from the State of Georgia, that "She knew all the 'Br'er Rabbit' stories, and I was brought up on them. One of my uncles, Robert Roosevelt, was much struck with them, and took them down from her dictation, publishing them in Harper's, where they fell flat. This was a good many years before a genius arose who, in 'Uncle Remus', made the stories immortal."
These stories were popularized for the mainstream audience in the late 19th century by Joel Chandler Harris (1845-1908), who wrote down and published many such stories that had been passed down by oral tradition. Harris also attributed the birth name Riley to Br'er Rabbit. Harris heard these tales in Georgia. Very similar versions of the same stories were recorded independently at the same time by the folklorist Alcée Fortier in southern Louisiana, where the Rabbit character was known as Compair Lapin in Creole. Enid Blyton, the English writer of children's fiction, retold the stories for children.
Although Joel Chandler Harris collected materials for his famous series of books featuring the character Br'er Rabbit in the 1870s, the Br'er Rabbit cycle had been recorded earlier among the Cherokees: The "tar baby" story was printed in an 1845 edition of the Cherokee Advocate, the same year Joel Chandler Harris was born.
Rabbit and Hare myths abound among Algonquin Indians in Eastern North America, particularly under the name Nanabozho. The Great Hare is generally worshipped among tribes in eastern Canada.
In "That the People Might Live: Native American Literatures and Native American Community" by Jace Weaver, the origins of Br'er Rabbit and other literature are discussed. To say that a story only originates from one culture and not another can only be true when a group of people exist in complete isolation from others. Although the Cherokee had lived in isolation from Europeans in the remote past, a substantial amount of interaction was to occur among North American tribes, Europeans, and those from the enslaved population during the 18th and 19th centuries. It is impossible to ascertain whether the Cherokee story independently predated the African American story.
In a Cherokee tale about the briar patch, "the fox and the wolf throw the trickster rabbit into a thicket from which the rabbit quickly escapes." There was a "melding of the Cherokee rabbit-trickster ... into the culture of African slaves."