Thursday, November 09, 2006

In Search of Brer Rabbit

Below the reader will see a feature article I wrote three years ago, which was published by a Richmond magazine called FiftyPlus. It is about a writer named Daryl Cumber Dance. She’s a charming woman who is well known in some circles. But I suspect many of SLANTblog’s readers will be learning about her for the first time when they read the piece. Dance is a University of Richmond English professor who has written extensively about African American folklore. Enjoy.

In Search of Brer Rabbit

Unbeknownst to the slave traders transporting their kidnapped human cargo from Africa to the New World, there was a stowaway onboard. Folklore scholars tell us that Brer Rabbit made his way across the Atlantic Ocean, hidden in the minds of shackled men and women on their way to a life that might as well have been on another planet.

Impish Brer Rabbit is just one of the fascinating characters from African American folklore who appeal to University of Richmond English professor Daryl Cumber Dance.

In Dance’s newest book, From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore, she has fashioned an eclectic collection of African American folklore, music lyrics, art, toasts, proverbs, riddles, and superstitions.

“What I’m doing is capturing a certain tradition, in print,” she said of her 736-page anthology, published last year by W. W. Norton.

That “certain tradition” was a subculture that in its time relied entirely on the spoken word of storytellers, or griots (pronounced gree-oh). After all, it was illegal during extended parts of America’s slavery era to even teach Negroes how to read and write.

In From My People, next to her collection of yarns featuring mythical characters, such as Brer Rabbit, the Signifying Monkey, and Stagolee, Dance includes thought-provoking samples of the words of well-known black figures, including Ralph Ellison, Jelly Roll Morton, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Then, too, there’s a chapter on Soul Food, with plenty of useful recipes.

While Brer Rabbit made it to America’s shores in the memories of slaves, Dance pointed out, it was Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908), author of the Uncle Remus stories, who brought Brer Rabbit to the reading public.

Slaves told him those stories, featuring animals blessed or cursed with human-like traits, when he was a boy. Uncle Remus, the kindly yarn-spinner, was Harris’s invention. Significantly, the stories were written in a style he asserted was the dialect spoken by slaves in his youth. Harris also underlined the universal nature of stories concerning subjugated underdogs and their struggle for survival with dignity intact.

Dance happily subscribes to the basic idea expressed by mythology guru Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), when he held forth, in his authoritative writings on storytelling in ancient civilizations, that fables about heroes and their transforming quests are more similar than not.

Now, well after the days of Harris’ Uncle Remus, the study of folklore has become quite important to historians and anthropologists. Then, too, folklore can also be seen as the forerunner to today’s popular culture of magazines, movies, popular music and broadcasting.

The word “toast” is among the interesting terms Dance examines in From My People. As she explains, toasts were artful rants presented from the point of view of a powerful black man. They began to be a popular form of expression/entertainment in urban neighborhoods around the turn of the century. They were always bawdy.

“A clean version of a toast is not a toast,” said Dance, eyebrows raised.

She struggled with how to include such material in From My People. Nonetheless, Chapter Nine contains some traditional toasts, including Stagolee.

If that title has a familiar ring to it, that’s because there is a raft of songs out there about a gun-toting Stagolee, or Stagger Lee. New Orleans singer/songwriter Professor Longhair did his take on it, “Stag O Lee,” in 1974. There was also Lloyd Price’s big hit, “Stagger Lee,” in 1959. Still, Mississippi John Hurt’s version of the song, “Stack O'Lee Blues,” in 1928, is considered the definitive version.

Deciding the book needed some examples of traditional toasts in it, while also wanting to make it accessible to young readers, Dance compromised her long-held belief in absolute authenticity, to do with wording. She crafted a few substitute terms, here and there, hoping to retain the original toast’s meaning and verve.

As a toast, Stagolee probably originated in turn-of-the-century Memphis. It may well have been based on a real murder. Eventually the songs came, with all the variations on the same theme. Today, it’s easy to imagine the bloody saga of Stagolee and Billy presented with a hip hop treatment.

“Rap is an outgrowth of the toast,” said Dance. “Things find ways of going on.”

That apt observation sheds light on such acts as the legendary Last Poets. Their first performances in New York City in 1968, of what many popular culture aficionados see now as seminal rap music, could also be seen as bringing the long-established tradition of the toast forth for a new generation.

Click here to read the entire piece.


Mosquito said...

F.T. Rea this piece just goes to show why you're tops in Virginia's blogging world. thanks for introducing me to Daryl Cumber Dance and her work.

This is a rare 5 buzzes....


F.T. Rea said...



The best thing about writing features about accomplished people for magazines, on a freelance basis, is meeting those people and asking them questions.

Of course, the worst thing is being broke all the time because it doesn't pay all that well, and most publishers have cut back on their use of freelancers.