It isn’t easy to separate out the artistry and integrity of these traditional stories from the cultural and racial baggage now piled upon them. Both the odd, child-like meter of their rural patois and the seemingly eyebrow-raising, race-baiting slang therein can be misunderstood in modern contexts nearly as much as these vital narratives are forgotten by so many.
The ancient folk tales first recorded and published in French in 1894 as Compair Lapin by Louisiana’s own Alcee Fortier and almost simultaneously in English as “Br’er Rabbit” in Uncle Remus by Georgian Joel Chandler Harris were crucial threads of an oral tradition and a source of community, entertainment and instruction for the long-suffering Senegalese people who lived lives of forced servitude on the plantations of the southern United States as the country’s first African slaves.
Recorded by Fortier just 45 minutes from Baton Rouge at Laura Plantation, a Creole sugar farm that still stands today, these are essential pan-cultural stories of brains overcoming brute force, ingenuity outrunning baseless authority—and they have links to similar myths and legends in Cherokee, South American and European cultures. From Hermes in Greek mythology to Loki in Norse legend to Charlie Chaplin’s “The Tramp” and Bugs Bunny, many diverse groups across the globe have enjoyed stories about characters or talking animals that embody the lovable but flawed, authority-thwarting trickster.
ULL Press’ recent publication of this integral piece of our state’s history contains both the original French dialect and an English translation.