An Analysis of Joel Chandler Harris’ “Legends of the Old Plantation” with Regard to Representations of Antebellum Southern Power Structures
Or: How Black is Brer Rabbit?
The common sense idea about the stories presented in Joel Chandler Harris “Legends of the Old Plantation” is that they represent African American culture in such a way that one could find the power structures of the Old South, meaning the situation of the African Americans as an oppressed people, inscribed in them. Furthermore, the most prominent character in these stories, Brer Rabbit, is often thought to be the literary incarnation of a rebellion in spirit amongst the African American population, and his deeds in the stories to be allegories to plantation life with a “morale” which is supposed to tell the listeners how to behave in certain situations.
I intend to show that if there is a representation of race relations in the Old South in the stories, this happens only situatively, and that the character of Brer Rabbit is present in many cultures and so not a “literally adopted African American”
To exemplify this, I will give an overlook over characters corresponding to those in Joel Chandler Harris’ stories, referring to ancient Greek, African, and modern American stories/myths and characters.
My argument will not tackle “obvious” features of culture-specificity like the language and the setting of the stories, which are of course typically African American, but will focus on the “literary core” of these stories, examining them from the viewpoint of relations amongst the characters in regard to similarities to plantation life, as well as the originality of the character of Brer Rabbit.
2. Analysis of a Brer Rabbit story
Brer Rabbit, he is a good fisherman
In this tale, Brer Rabbit decides to nap in the bucket of an old well and is surprised when gravity takes over and sends him to the bottom of the well without any hope of getting out of the situation. Eager to see where Brer Rabbit has gone, Brer Fox follows him to the well. When he sees Brer Rabbit disappear into the depths of the well, he assumes that Brer Rabbit is hiding a secret cache of gold at the bottom of the well. Determined not to be outdone or duped by Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox jumps in the other bucket--plunging himself into the depths of the well and inadvertently saving Brer Rabbit. (Murray American Studies @ The University of Virginia)
2.2 Analysis with regard to plantation life.
This text elicits a complicated interpretation of the different characters. For example, Brer Rabbit literally falls into trouble because he has decided to take a nap--a lesson for those who would rather be lazy than industrious. Similarly, Brer Fox's downfall comes when he becomes more interested in what Brer Rabbit is doing rather than minding his own affairs. If one were to interpret the characters in order to contextualize race relations in the post-war era it would be extremely complicated. Brer Rabbit plays into the negative stereotype of the shiftless African-American—certainly a racist sidekick by Joel Chandler Harris and not part of the original oral story. Nevertheless, Brer Fox is also portrayed in a negative fashion--as a meddling busybody who is too busy being nosy to do anything industrious. Is this an interpretation of the white masters who were frequently involved in the daily affairs of the plantation slaves? Can the tale be used to interpret the interaction between the races?
Generally, it is hardly possible to directly link one or the other character or event to one or the other event outside the stories in such a way that one could say “This is the master, this is the slave”. There are certainly also persons within the slave community that bear characteristics like meddling with other peoples’ affairs, as well as there could be masters who are exploiting their slaves` curiosity to get themselves out of trouble. If there is any culture-specificity in the sense that the power structures on a plantation are represented, this can only happen out of the communicative situation the stories are told in. To explain this mechanism, it is necessary to consider the “co-operative principle”.
3. The co-operative principle
3.1. What is the co-operative principle?
The co-operative principle, originating from the field of linguistics, basically states that people act reasonably when communicating, e.g. don’t change subjects without announcing to do so. It is very important to take this into account when analysing the communicative situation the stories were told in. The storyteller, naturally on the side of the slaves because he is one of them, would tell them when encountering a situation in real life that reminded him of the stories. As the human mind is always inclined to give meaning to what is said, it is no wonder that the listeners will think of the fox as the plantation owner, aggressively pursuing and controlling his slaves, and may find it a relief that he turns out to be the fool in the end. This mechanism explains, why the people who are told this story, apply it to their environment.
3.2 A different interpretation of the same story
To further emphasise the point that the story does not represent antebellum Southern power structures per se, I will give an example of a different interpretation of the story in a fictional world. The story could be interpreted with a wholly different morale by a group of well-diggers, enjoying their free time around a fire-place in the evening. There they would talk about the mischief that has happened to them during the day, and one of them might mention that he was once unable to get out of a well. Then someone could tell this very story, with the morale to always take a ladder down the well to let those things never happen. Of course this interpretation would give away a lot of the metaphorical content, but it would nevertheless be a valid and fitting interpretation at one very specific moment in time, and shows very well how culture-specificity is constructed; just like the story was when it was told to a slave on a plantation, who was pursued by his master for his alleged laziness.
Considering this, it also becomes evident why the “Legends of the Old Plantation” had such an enormous commercial success with the White population in America. If the stories had forced the reader to see character relations only in terms of Master/Slaves, and thus showing the atrocities of Slavery, the commercial success of these stories would certainly have been smaller.
4. Brer Rabbit’s cousins
Brer rabbit is by no means a unique character. He has a large number of literary cousins all around the world. I use the word cousins, because they all have a common origin, which I will explain in detail later. But first I will describe where they come from and what they do in their parent cultures.
4.1. Ancient Greece: Hermes
Hermes was the mediator between the world of mortals and the Olympus, where the Greek gods had their residence. Despite this unquestionably apparent contrast to what Brer rabbit did in his everyday life, there are striking similarities concerning their character.
- Both of them are described as being irresponsible and not reliable.
- Both of them are playing tricks on people
- These tricks never do any real harm
- Both Hermes and Brer rabbit are sources of comedy in literature, which arises out of their role as a trickster figure.
- Both are witty and sly, and rely on these qualities to come out of situations they have manoeuvred themselves in due to their carelessness.
To exemplify this, I quote a myth of Hermes:
Hermes was the shrewdest and most cunning of all the gods, the master thief who began his career before he was one day old, by stealing Apollo’s herds. A few hours after his birth the mischievous infant escaped from his cradle and travelled to Pieria, where he saw the splendid herds of Apollo and decided to take them. Carrying off some of the finest of his half-brother's renowned cattle, the infant Hermes returned to his native Arcadia. The cunning child made the cattle walk backwards to obscure their tracks. (Pontikis Thanasis.com)
Of course this story does not strike one immediately as having something in common with the Legends of the Old Plantation. This has two reasons. The first is that the myths have passed to us not in the form of entertainment literature but in a form more like newspaper reports without literary ornaments. Secondly, the same basic characters are given different attributes in the different cultures, reflecting their importance in the culture as a whole. Hermes clearly had a more important role for the Old Greeks, then Brer Rabbit had for the African Americans in the antebellum South. Hermes was a divine being, Brer Rabbit an oral literature character, which may explain why Hermes had superhuman qualities while Brer Rabbit had not. One could now argue that if the character is given special features in ancient Greece, he must be given them also in 19th century African-American America, which would render him culture-specific. Of course there are traces of culture-specificity in the character of Brer Rabbit, but not in such a way that one would be able to say that he was the “incarnation of a rebellious spirit amongst the African Americans”
4.2 Africa: Mutlayana
When debating the culture-specificity of Brer Rabbit, one also has to take his origin into consideration. Almost every story featuring Brer Rabbit in the African-American folklore exists in a somewhat simpler version in African folklore. When looking at these stories, one cannot trace any real difference in the character of Brer Rabbit or his ancestor, except that it is not a rabbit, but a hare whose adventures are described there; but this may be attributed to the fact that in oral tradition, the narrators use the animals that fit best to the frame of experience of their listeners. Again, the rabbit (Hare) is described as sly and cunning, and able to outwit every other animal by exploiting their “lower instincts” and their vanity. To exemplify this, I give a synopsis of a story featuring Mutlayana, which is the Sesuto name for “little hare”:
4.2.1 Mutlayana and the water-hole
The story takes place when there is a great drought, and all the animals are longing for water. The Lion assembles all the animals in a riverbed, to try getting water by stamping onto the empty river bed.
The Hare, when he is asked to also join, refuses to participate. After some time, the animals finally succeed in obtaining water from the empty river. They decide that the Hare, because he did not participate, should not get any water, and take turns in guarding the well. The hare now goes there with two calabashes, one empty and the other one filled with honey.
When the Hyena, who is then guarding the well, tells the Hare that he cannot go there and fetch water, the Hare responds that he had his own water, which was much more tasty. He offers the Hyena to let her taste his water, but under the condition that he tied her to the tree, because the water was so good, it would knock her down if she wasn’t properly tied. Being greedy, the Hyena agrees, and is tied to the tree by the Hare. Of course the rabbit does not untie her after having given her some of the honey, and serves himself of water from the pond.
When the other animals ask the Hyena who tied her to the tree, she responds that there were a number of able-bodied men who took her by surprise, as she is too proud to admit she had been fooled by the hare. The Hare repeats his trick with many other animals, who all are too proud to confess the true reason why they were overwhelmed. When it’s the Tortoises turn to take the trespasser, she smears her back with bird lime, and glues the rabbit to her when he is in the well fetching water. So, the hare is put to the trial, and is convicted of stealing water.
The verdict is that he is to be tied and left to dry in the hot sun. Having heard this, the hare suggests to be tied up with banana fibres, so that he should dry more quickly. The suggestion is accepted, and as banana fibres wear out very quickly when exposed to the sun, the hare is again able to flee. (Synopsis of : Werner Sacret-texts.com)
Replace bird lime on the turtle’s back with tar (Brer Rabbit got stuck on it), and banana fibres with the famous briar-patch (“Do to me whatever you want, but not THAT”), you get an early version of the tar-baby story in the last part of the fable. Again, it would be quite hard to attribute the differences between the two stories to a difference in the social situation of the narrators, reflecting the life on a plantation in the Old South.
4.3 Modern America: Bugs Bunny
Mutlayana is not the only incident where a rabbit (hare) occurs as a trickster figure. One very famous character which is affiliated with Brer Rabbit is Bugs Bunny, the Warner Brothers’ cartoon rabbit.
Of the characters that bear similarities with Brer Rabbit, Bugs Bunny is certainly a special case. It is not only that these two characters appeared in relative spatial as well as temporal proximity (compared to e.g. Hermes), but they also share so many common features, that it is very probable that they are connected by more than just archetypal origin.
4.3.1 The influence of Brer Rabbit on Bugs Bunny
Unfortunately, there is no material on whether there is any direct connection, showing that the Warner Brothers’ cartoon designers had consciously considered Brer Rabbit when inventing the character of Bugs Bunny, but the similarities are so striking that an influence from Brer Rabbit on Bugs Bunny is very probable. Both Brer Rabbit and Bugs Bunny are rabbits. This may be a trivial statement, but it shows that there is a resemblance even in the outward appearance. Secondly, both have a “counterpart”, an eternal foe, who chases them but never succeeds. With Brer Rabbit it is Brer Fox, with Bugs Bunny it is Elmer Fudd, the speech-handicapped hunter. Both enemies are not enemies out of bad will, but because it lies within their nature to be after their prey. These enemies are typically depicted as being stupid, Brer Fox because he sees not through the tricks of Brer Rabbit, and Elmer Fudd because of his speech handicap ( “Today I will get da wabbit”) and his equally obvious foolishness e.g. when he is not able to realise that the beautiful woman he is after is in fact just Bugs Bunny in disguise.
A common feature of both Brer Rabbit and Bugs Bunny is their behaviour when it comes to causing mischief. They are both not evil in their nature, but share a disposition to anger and tease those around them. The mischief they cause is never grave, but leaves the victim unharmed: When Brer Rabbit tricks Brer Fox into the well, Brer Fox does not drown, but is left to get out of the mess alone; and the bombshells Bugs places under his opponents (or rather returns to them) never kill the victim, but only upsets it even more.
Again, it must be stated here that there is no difference in the character (not the language or the medium) of Bugs and Brer Rabbit that would allow the conclusion that Brer Rabbit was African American, while Bugs was Anglo-American.
4.3.2 Tortoise beats Hare
One Cartoon where the relationship between Brer Rabbit and Bugs Bunny becomes very obvious is the cartoon “Tortoise beats Hare” from 1941.
Here, Bugs Bunny and Cecil Turtle engage in a race. Bugs, sure of his victory, starts to run immediately, whereas Cecil Turtle calls other turtles to place themselves along the way. Running, Bugs Bunny sees a turtle every few meters and speeds up to leave it behind, always wondering how the turtle could have managed to overtake him. Arriving at the finish line, Cecil Turtle is waiting for him there and demanding the $10 the winner was supposed to get. The cartoon plot is almost identical with the story “Brer Rabbit Finds His Match At Last” from the “Legends of the Old Plantation”.
Furthermore, this plot is part of the oral and/or literary traditions of many cultures. The famous German fairytale of the Hare and the two hedgehogs, who hid on the opposite ends of the racing track and confused the hare by their similar looks, is just one example.
It seems that Brer Rabbit, Bugs Bunny, Hermes, Mutlayana and the two hedgehogs all originate from the same source, which, lacking reasonable cultural connections in the case of Hermes and the two hedgehogs, must be attributed to humanness itself.. They are archetypes.
An archetype, according to the writings of Carl Gustav Jung, is a recurring image or symbol, present in every psyche, and, accordingly, in every culture. His reasoning involves a great deal of mythical, psychological and religious arguments, which do not fit into the frame of a paper like this, so I decided to merely concentrate on the concept itself and not upon its origin. The concept of the archetype is very helpful in explaining the existence of a figure in the mythology of every culture which roughly has the same characteristics. A realm full of archetypes is early drama. There, characters had few individual qualities but were what we nowadays call “flat characters”. One of the most easily recognisable archetypes is the Trickster.
He is described as
- Sly, intelligent
- Playing tricks on people
- Not affiliated with either the Good or the Bad
- Mediator between “Heaven” and Earth
- Only interested in his own well-being
- Speaking truths no-one else would dare to utter, and being allowed to do so.
Of course, the trickster never appears in such a pure form that he would share every characteristic described above, but Jungian psychology assumes that people, whenever they encounter a trickster, instantly recognise him as such, as he is a representation of an image pre-existing in their psyche.
Well-known representations of the Trickster archetype are e.g.:
- Hermes, the Messenger (Ancient Greece)
- Loki (Germanic mythology)
- The Hoppediz (Düsseldorf carnival )
- Amor (Roman Deity )
- Reinecke Fuchs (Fables)
- The Clown/ Jester
- Anasi (Spider from African folktales)
- Lupo (“Fix & Foxi” comics)
And of course, Brer Rabbit/Bugs Bunny from the American cultural sphere. So, a cousin of Brer Rabbit can be found in every culture, with roughly the same characteristics.
Considering all this, it becomes evident why one cannot claim an “African American copyright” for Brer Rabbit. Here again a synopsis of my argument:
As I have shown, most of the culture-specificity and the reason why Brer Rabbit is perceived as “theirs” by African Americans lies within the situation the stories were told in and not in the content itself. The mechanism that explains this fact is the co-operative principle, which “forces” the human mind to give sense to what is said. The example of the well-diggers has shown that the same story could be interpreted differently in a different setting.
Secondly, there are cousins of Brer Rabbit everywhere on the globe, and that no culture can claim to have “invented” it.
Certainly, it is a very decisive statement to refute the common-sense opinion that “Brer Rabbit has got something to do with African-American culture”, and one could certainly not do so completely, but on the other hand I found it impossible to pin down specific traits of character with Brer Rabbit or story plots that would mirror the power structure of the Old South.
The one thing one could say about Joel Chandler Harris’ Brer Rabbit concerning African American culture-specificity is not that he is typically African-American, but rather that it is typically African-American to tell stories of him, a small but very important difference.
 Belsey, Catherine “Critical Practice”, (New York City: Ruthledge, 2002) 1
 Murray, Melissa “Editor’s comment on “ Brer Rabbit, he is a good fisherman”” American Studies @ The University of Virginia [http://xroads.virginia.edu/~UG97/remus/anafish.html] (10 June 2003)
 Yules, George “The Study of Language” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985)
 Pontikis, Nick “Hermes” (1998) Thanasis.com [http://www.thanasis.com/hermes ] (10 June 2003)
 Werner, Alice, “Brer Rabbit in Africa” Myths and Legends of the Bantu (1933) Sacret-texts.com [ http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/mlb/mlb19.htm] (10 June 2003)
 Meacham, Cal “The Persistence of Bugs Bunny” Teemings Online Magazine, Ed. August/September 2002 [http://www.teemings.com/issue12/calmeacham.html] (10 June 2003)
 Tortoise beats Hare Dir. Fred Avery, Leon Schlesinger Studios, 1941
 Jung, Carl-Gustav “Archetypen” ( Olten/Switzerland: Walter Verlags AG) 45
 Jung, Carl-Gustav “Archetypen” 159