Our fascination with the trickster figure, whose presence is global, stems from our desire to break free from the tightly regimented structures of our societies. Condemned to conform to laws and rules imposed by governments, communities, social groups and family bonds, we revel in the fantasy of the trickster whose energy and cunning knows no bounds and for whom nothing is sacred.
One such trickster is Brer Rabbit, who was introduced to North America through the folktales of enslaved Africans. On the plantations, Brer Rabbit, like Anansi in the Caribbean, functioned as a resistance figure for the enslaved whose trickery was aimed at undermining and challenging the plantation regime. Yet as Brer Rabbit tales moved from the oral tradition to the printed page in the late nineteenth-century, the trickster was emptied of his potentially powerful symbolism by white American collectors, authors and folklorists in their attempt to create a nostalgic fantasy of the plantation past.
American Trickster offers readers a unique insight into the cultural significance of the Brer Rabbit trickster figure, from his African roots and through to his influence on contemporary culture. Exploring the changing portrayals of the trickster figure through a wealth of cultural forms including folktales, advertising, fiction and films the book scrutinises the profound tensions between the perpetuation of damaging racial stereotypes and the need to keep African-American folk traditions alive. Emily Zobel Marshall argues that Brer Rabbit was eventually reclaimed by twentieth-century African-American novelists whose protagonists ‘trick’ their way out of limiting stereotypes, break down social and cultural boundaries and offer readers practical and psychological methods for challenging the traumatic legacies of slavery and racism.
List of Illustrations
Chapter 1: African Trickster in the Americas
Chapter 2: Anansi and Brer Rabbit: The Trickster and the Dynamics of Racial Representation
Chapter 3: Harris, Jones Jr. and Fortier: The Paradox of the Collector’s Delight
Chapter 4: From Bugs Bunny to Peter Rabbit: Problematising Popular Adaptations
Chapter 5: Writing Back to Remus: Cheating the Cycle of Trauma in the Fiction of Ralph Ellison and Nella Larsen
Chapter 6: Toni Morrison: Brer Rabbit Reclaimed
American Trickster: Trauma, Tradition and Brer Rabbit lays out all of the ironies embedded in the story of how this trickster tale came into its own as African American folklore, directly related to the lives of Blacks within plantation culture, only to be appropriated in the form of plantation fantasies by White collectors as an alibi for the system of slavery the tales worked to circumvent and subvert. Zobel-Marshall’s study foregrounds the rich and complex cultural history and impact of Brer Rabbit trickster tales within African American, American, and global culture, from cultural appropriation and alienation to the cultural reappropriation of the tales by African American authors to overcome the trauma of their past.
Emily Zobel Marshall traces the figure of Brer Rabbit across African American history and culture from the Plantations to the fiction of Toni Morrison. This book is a wonderfully subtle examination of why the story of Brer Rabbit is about resistance, survival and ambivalence.
The origins and cultural specificity of the Brer Rabbit stories - fables of a trickster whose cunning overcomes adverse circumstances and adversaries - have been contested in fierce exchanges over decades. Writing in a clear and concise style in American Trickster, Emily Zobel Marshall teases apart and ably illuminates this complicated cultural phenomenon in a way which, though academically rigorous, will also enthral readers unfamiliar with Brer Rabbit's complexity.
Drawing on a wealth of research, Zobel Marshall's close textural reading weaves together an impressive tapestry of ownership and remembrance. She is a skilled navigator charting Brer Rabbit's brisk and challenging journey, from the stories' African roots through to their sanitised renditions in support of a mythologised, idyllic ante-bellum South, before their eventual reclamation by African American storytellers.
In doing so at this time of cultural crisis, with the kind of beguiling wit worthy of her subject, Zobel Marshall reminds us of the importance of keeping the past in the present.
Countless millions of American and European children—including epic-oriented presidents (“Teddy” Roosevelt) and genteel UK writers (Beatrix Potter)—grew up on Uncle Remus & Brer Rabbit, Joel Chandler Harris’ whitewashed expropriation of African-American trickster-lore. Marshall, yoking Harris’ tales to European and American racial tastes, demonstrates that classic tricksters—Hermes, Anansi, Brer Rabbit—have long been in, and walked among, us. For those attuned to the cultural history and politics of trickster-lore and African-American literary responses, American Trickster is a welcome addition.