To the Trickster
Go the Spoils
In Africa, the Tabwa people tell tales of Kalulu, a trickster hare. Among the Cherokee, he’s known as Jistu. On Saturday mornings, he’s called Bugs Bunny. Tricksters lurk in the rabbit holes, spiderwebs and coyote dens of world folklore. They’re quick and cunning, impulsive and animated, and they relish playing tricks on dullards. Tricksters traditionally serve to explain natural phenomena or entertain children, but sometimes they inspire the oppressed—and guide them in revolt.
The “censored 11” are a group of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons that were banned from television in 1968 for depicting ethnic and racial stereotypes. The sole Bugs Bunny short on the list, “All This and Rabbit Stew” (1941), has Bugs running trickster circles around a dim-witted Elmer Fudd type—except this hunter is an exaggeratedly stereotyped African American. The dynamic is ironic, given the racial genesis of Bugs’s persona. In the Deep South, tales of trickster rabbits, passed along from Africa during the Atlantic slave trade, had served as inspiring parables of slave resistance and master comeuppance.
In 1880 a white journalist named Joel Chandler Harris published a volume of slaves’ oral tales told by a fictional narrator, Uncle Remus. At the time, no one balked at Remus’s vernacular (for example, “Here come Brer Rabbit pacin’ down de road—lippity-clippity, clippity-lippity—dez ez sassy ez a jay-bird”), but by 1946, Walt Disney should have known better than to parrot outmoded, offensive stereotypes in his Uncle Remus adaptation, Song of the South. The film is so racially insensitive it has never been released in its entirety on home video, and its critics have accused it of glorifying slavery.
In his memoir ’Tis, Frank McCourt recalls a revelation he had after binge-watching cartoons with his daughter: “I announced my great discovery, the similarities between Bugs Bunny and Odysseus, that they were devious, romantic, wily, charming.” McCourt predicts that a thousand years hence, scholars will be dissecting the carrot-chomping hare as today they analyze the great-hearted Greek. Odysseus gets up to some Bugsy hijinks in Homer’s Odyssey, adopting disguises (he dresses like a beggar to fool his wife’s suitors), exploiting wordplay (he identifies himself as Nobody to confound the cyclops Polyphemus) and even slapsticking his way to victory (he defeats Polyphemus by poking him in the eye). But his military exploits before his odyssey are what make him antiquity’s greatest trickster. It was Odysseus’s idea to build the Trojan horse.
After 10 futile years of fighting the Trojans, Odysseus adopts a strategy of cunning over force. At his instruction, the Greeks build an enormous wooden horse, pack it with an elite group of soldiers and present it to the Trojans as a victory trophy. After it’s drawn within the city walls, the Greeks disembark under cover of darkness and obliterate the Trojans. As Bugs might say, “What imbezziles!”
Comedian George Carlin, a preeminent authority on tricksterism, acknowledged the trickster’s role in Native American folklore in Napalm and Silly Putty, a compendium book of his cranky reflections. In an epigraph, he quotes a letter that English professor Byrd Gibbens had sent him about tricksters’ essential connection to the sacred. “People could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees [them] from rigid preconception,” Gibbens wrote. “The trickster in most native traditions is essential to creation.”
Like Carlin, the Native trickster could be gruesome in his pursuit of laughs. In one Cherokee tale, the rabbit Jistu (known as Chokfi among the Alabama and Chufi to the Creek) slaughters an orphan child, skewers him on a stick and feigns defecating out his fellow villagers’ bones, all just to set up his next trick—“befriending” a rival he’s actually plotting to kill. Jistu certainly isn’t what we would call child friendly. But then again, maybe our Saturday-morning-cartoon tricksters are just as bad. In the widely banned Looney Tunes short “Horse Hare” (1960), Sergeant Bugs Bunny slays an entire Native American army while proudly tallying his kills and crooning the nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians.” Now that’s one cold-blooded trickster.
Have you seen us, Uncle Remus?
We look pretty sharp in these clothes
Unless we get sprayed with a hose.
—Frank Zappa, “Uncle Remus”
The Birmingham campaign delivered an iconic image of the civil rights movement: jets of water from high-pressure fire hoses forcing black children against a brick storefront. Ordered by Birmingham’s public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, the hoses conveyed the clear message that Alabama wouldn’t stand for racial integration. But Martin Luther King Jr. had tried to provoke this kind of response—and Connor fell right into his trap.
In the Uncle Remus tale “Tar Baby,” Brer Fox tricks Rabbit into getting stuck to a resin-covered doll. As Fox toys with him, Rabbit uses reverse psychology. “I don’t keer w’at you do wid me,” he says, “[but] don’t fling me in dat brier-patch!” Once he is flung where he was “bred en bawn,” Rabbit frees himself. Using a similar strategy, King baited Connor into giving him exactly what the movement needed: an unforgettable photograph for the national news. When asked about Uncle Remus’s oeuvre, Birmingham campaign strategist Wyatt Walker confirmed tricksterism’s influence. “Poking fun at the master,” he said, “runs through the idiomatic expression of the Negro.”
Wyatt Walker, Martin Luther King’s chief of staff and the architect of the Birmingham campaign, was a master of the arts of diversion and deception. When his initial efforts to organize nonviolent demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, failed to gain momentum, drawing droves of black spectators but only a handful of marchers, Walker devised an ingenious tactic: He delayed the marches to let the gawking crowd grow, deceiving outsiders with the impression of a much larger demonstration. The white media, seeing only black faces without distinction, mistakenly lumped bystanders and marchers together in their crowd estimates. “We weren’t marching but 12,” said Walker. “But the papers were reporting 1,400.”
Walker’s strategy recalls the tale of Terrapin, the trickster tortoise of Southern and Native folklore, who outwits Deer in a race by inserting his relatives throughout the course. No matter how fast Deer runs, Terrapin always appears to be ahead of him. Deer’s disdain for the lowly creatures prevents him from distinguishing among them. To Deer, all tortoises “am so much like anurrer you can’t tell one from turrer.” And to the white man, in Walker’s words, “all ni---rs look alike.”
In 1862 a redheaded, freckly 16-year-old boy began an apprenticeship with The Countryman, a newspaper headquartered on a Southern plantation. Although he went there to learn the printing trade, much of his education came after hours, when he retired to the slave quarters to hear tales of the trickster Brer Rabbit that had been passed down through the generations from various African legends. Eighteen years later, Joel Chandler Harris compiled the tales he had heard into Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, amalgamating the raconteurs of his youth into one fictional, gregarious storyteller.
But the tales attributed to Uncle Remus also have Native American roots. As Southern slaves interacted with their indigenous neighbors over the years, their folktales likewise mingled. Some Remus characters thus have corresponding Native ones—Brer Rabbit and the Creek’s Chufi, for instance—and some African slave stories, such as Remus’s famous “Tar Baby,” have Native analogues. Some scholars have argued for the study of a merged African–Native American folklore, while others reject this innocent view of cultural syncretism. And many may even see Harris as the sticky-fingered star of his own trickster tale: “How the White Man Stole the Indians’ Folklore.”
American history contains countless examples of white settlers tricking indigenous peoples out of their land. Among the tricksiest is the so-called Walking Purchase of 1737. In a thirst for acreage, white settlers in Pennsylvania (including sons of the colony’s founder, William Penn) claimed to have unearthed a deed from 1686, signed by the Delaware Indians, promising the colonists a tract beginning at the Delaware River and extending as far west as a man could walk in a day and a half. The colonists abruptly decided to remeasure the boundaries—and for that they hired three of their fastest runners and pointed them west. The scheme extended the settlement by 1,200 square miles and displaced the protesting tribe.
Naturally, Native Americans began integrating white-skinned would-be grifters into their folklore. In the Apache tale “Coyote Tricks the White Man,” a white visitor on horseback asks Coyote to teach him his trickster ways. First, says Coyote, he’ll need to borrow the man’s horse so he can go and get his trickster “medicine.” After taking the horse, Coyote asks for the man’s hat, on yet another flimsy pretense, then his boots, pants and gun—until finally the white man has lost all his property.