Growing up Grandma (the northern one, not the southern) lived next door at THE BIG HOUSE. Every night before bed Grandma would come in after Mom and rub our backs (my sister and I) and give us a kiss goodnight. Often my last memory was of Mom and Grandma in the Living-room, their voices just discernible every now and again over the TV.
However on some nights we could coerce Grandma into reading us a story. Not just any old story, we wanted her to do “Br’er Rabbit”. We always said “do” because she did all the voices for each of the characters. She had these wonderful southern voices (Mr.Disney had nothing on Grandma) and for the hundredth time we would hear the antics of ol’ Brae Rabbit.
Br’er Rabbit (pron.: /ˈbrɛər/), 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, tweaking authority figures and bending social mores as he sees fit. The name “Br’er Rabbit”, a syncope of “Brother Rabbit”, has been linked to both African and Cherokee cultures. The Walt Disney Company later adapted this character for its animated motion picture Song of the South.
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 Western Africa, Central Africa, and Southern Africa. These tales continue to be part of the traditional folklore of numerous people throughout those regions. In the Akan traditions of West Africa, the trickster is usually the spider (see Anansi), though the plots of tales of the spider are often identical with those of stories of Br’er Rabbit.
Mom HATED those stories. I have no idea why, I think it was the voices. Grandma loved the voices, and for her the story just wasn’t the same without them; and I agree. Every now and again Mom sometimes would drift by and you’d hear a quiet “geesh”. Oh man, I LOVED them, maybe all the more because Mom found them so annoying. I found Br’er Rabbit wonderfully clever and brave.
On the front page of the online version of THE TORONTO STAR featured a photo of 2 seniors reading to a small child, and I was reminded of those stories of Br’er Rabbit. I realize now that those stories have a deep-rooted tradition.
In truth, the human experience of magic – our ancestral, animistic awareness of the world as alive and expressive – was never really lost. Our senses simply shifted their animistic participation from the depths of the surrounding landscape toward the letters written on pages and, today, on screens. Only thus could the letters begin to come alive and to speak. As a Zuni elder focuses her eyes upon a cactus and abruptly hears the cactus begin to speak, so we focus our eyes upon these printed marks and immediately hear voices. We hear spoken words, witness strange scenes or visions, even experience other lives. As nonhuman animals, plants, and even “inanimate” rivers once spoke to our oral ancestors, so the ostensibly “inert” letters on the page now speak to us! This is a form of animism that we take for granted, but it is animism nonetheless – as mysterious as a talking stone.
** [The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world David Abram]
The spoken word has such power to enchant, to bring alive something two-dimensional.
Years ago when my sister and I were quite young an older cousin of ours, who grew up with Mom, at a family Christmas get together one year read from our new Hans Christian Andersson book my sister had received from his Mom, who was our Great Aunt Jo (GrandmaD’s sister). All us cousins gathered round as he told us these wonderfully hilarious tales, and I was completely enamored with this wonderful Mr. Andersson. I talked of nothing else all the way home in the car. None of the adults had been in the room with us while Cousin F was reading to us.
So once at home and all tucked in and kissed, we both wanted Mom to read us THAT book again. We even did the … PLEASE, PRETTY PLEASE “with a cherry on top”. Well, weren’t we disappointed to discover that Cousin F made it all up. Every word was completely different. What a trickster. I have to this day never been able to bring myself to again read the REAL Hans Christian Andersson, it was just not the same.
It illustrates the magic reading out loud can have on a child. The imagination is peaked and we are delighted by the adventurous fantasy and are taken so far into the story that we at once lose ourselves. As adults we move away from that sense of innocent awe. We don’t often have that opportunity to just be taken away with delight, there is often just too much to do.
Our most immediate experience of things is necessarily an experience of reciprocal encounter – of tension, communication, and commingling. From within the depths of this encounter, we know the thing or phenomenon only as our interlocutor – as a dynamic presence that confronts us and draws us into relation. We conceptually immobilize or objectify the phenomenon only by mentally absenting ourselves from this relation, by forgetting or repressing our sensuous involvement. To define another being as an inert or passive object is to deny its ability to actively engage us and to provoke our senses; we thus block our perceptual reciprocity with that being. By linguistically defining the surrounding world as a determinate set of objects, we cut our conscious, speaking selves off from the spontaneous life of our sensing bodies. [ibid]
In The Spell of the Sensuous David Abrams brings to life the history of the written word, and the changes that made to our language and how we interact with our surroundings. Words became imprisoned on the page and over time human’s lost that intrinsic link we had with our environment. Somehow the oral traditions animate our surroundings and speak to us in a way the written word is incapable of.
As technological civilization diminishes the biotic diversity of the earth, language itself is diminished. As there are fewer and fewer songbirds in the air, due to the destruction of their forests and wetlands, human speech loses more and more of its evocative power. For when we no longer hear the voices of warbler and wren, our own speaking can no longer be nourished by their cadences. As the splashing speech of the rivers is silenced by more and more dams, as we drive more and more of the land’s wild voices into the oblivion of extinction, our own languages become increasingly impoverished and weightless, progressively emptied of their earthly resonance. [ibid]
Our imaginations are captured by these anthropomorphic tales. There is something in these stories that speaks to that spirit starved side of our being.
Why Lizards Can’t Sit
An African-American Folktale
Retold by S.E. Schlosser
Back in the old days, Brer Lizard was an awful lot like Brer Frog, meaning he could sit upright like a dog. Things were like this for quite a spell. Then one day when they were walking down the road by their swamp, Brer Lizard and Brer Frog spotted some real nice pasture land with a great big pond that was on the far side of a great big fence. Ooo did that land look good. Looked like a great place for Brer Lizard to catch insects and other good food. And Brer Frog wanted a swim in that big ol’ pool.
Brer Lizard and Brer Frog went right up to the fence, which got bigger and bigger as they approached. It kinda loomed over them, as big and tall as they were little and small. And the boards of that fence were mashed together real tight, and deep into the ground. It was too tall to hop over, and neither of them was much good at digging, so they couldn’t go under. That fence said Keep Out pretty clear, even though no one had put a sign on it.
Well, Brer Lizard and Brer Frog sat beside that tall fence with their bottoms on the ground and their front ends propped up, ‘cause Brer Lizard could still sit upright then jest like a dog, and they tried to figure out how to get through the fence. Suddenly, Brer Frog saw a narrow crack, low to the ground. “I’m going ta squeeze through that crack over there,” he croaked. “Lawd, help me through!” And Brer Frog hopped over and pushed and squeezed and struggled and prayed his way through that tiny crack until he popped out on t’other side.
“Come on Lizard,” Brer Frog called through the crack.
“I’m a-comin’!” Brer Lizard called back. “I’m a-goin’ to squeeze through this here crack, Lawd willin’ or not!”
Brer Lizard scurried over to the crack in the fence and he pushed and squeezed and struggled and cursed. Suddenly, a rail fell down and mashed him flat! After that, Brer Lizard couldn’t sit upright no more. And he never did get through that fence to eat them insects, neither!
** Abrams book is a fascinating history of the written word and how we connect to our environment visually as well through sounds and how that shapes our language. He goes into the origins of many world languages – Chinese, Japanese, Latin, English. It is a wonderful read – check it out @Goodreads – The Spell of the Sensuous
Did you have a favourite book when you were young? If you have children do you read them a bedtime story? What is their favourite book?