Brer Rabbit

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I was browsing the shelves of my local secondhand bookshop recently and there, tucked away in a dusty corner, was an old copy of The Classic Tales of Brer Rabbit.

Rereading a few of the short stories took me back to my childhood when I devoured tales of Brer Rabbit and his gang Brer Bear and Brer Moose.

For those who don't know, "brer" (sometimes spelt br'er or bre'r) is simply a shortened form of "brother".

Brer is a trickster and a hustler. He is a figure who always succeeds in outwitting his arch-enemy, Brer Fox, through his wit and cunning, but never through brawn. Brer Rabbit is an anti-hero - mocking the powerful and bending the rules.

Brer Rabbit is not always right and he is certainly an amoral character. But, as the saying goes, extreme situations often require extreme solutions.

The origins of the stories go all the way back to Cherokee and African cultures and were passed down orally from generation to generation. The US versions of the stories originated among the black slaves working on the plantations.

The original Brer represents the enslaved African who outsmarts his white slave owner through cunning and skill. The stories were first written down by Robert Roosevelt (the uncle of US president Theodore). They were then published and popularised by Joel Chandler Harris in the late 19th century.

Walt Disney brought out a patronising, and I believe racist, interpretation of the Brer Rabbit stories in his film Song of the South (1946). You think you don't know it but you do - it's the one where the happy black plantation worker sings "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah".

Film director Ralph Bakshi brought out an interpretation of the Brer stories in his film Coonskin (1975). In my opinion it's one of the most brutal and disturbing films to come out of the "blaxploitation" era and is a savage and uncomfortable exposé of racism and racial stereotypes.

The other month I met a union rep who works in a depot for a large multinational company. As will become obvious, and for the purpose of this column, it is appropriate to use the nom de guerre Brer Rabbit. This is his story:

Once upon a time there was a nasty manager called Brer Fox.

He told his workers that he had the right to search their lockers, test them for drugs and put CCTV cameras in their changing rooms. Scared and fearful, the workers voted to accept Brer Fox's nasty plans.

One day Brer Rabbit was told that a worker named Brer Goose had been seen on CCTV hiding goods he had stolen from the warehouse in his locker. Brer Fox was going to cook the Goose!

But Brer Rabbit had a cunning plan. He told Brer Goose to take the day off work sick. Brer Rabbit then met Brer Fox and told him that a worker had to be present when their locker was searched.

Brer Fox wasn't troubled. He insisted that the locker was taped up so it could not be tampered with. Brer Fox could smell blood - his trap was set.

But that night Brer Rabbit sneaked into the darkened changing room, pulled Brer Goose's locker from the wall and unscrewed the back. The stolen goods were removed and the back was carefully screwed back on.

The next day Brer Goose returned to work. He was made to open his locker in the presence of Brer Fox, Brer Wolf the security manager and Brer Rabbit.

When Goose opened the locker it was empty! Brer Fox was crestfallen. Goose was free and went back to work. But the story doesn't end there.

Brer Rabbit then insisted that if it was okay to search the workers' lockers then it was only right to search Brer Fox's locker. Brer Fox huffed and he puffed but he finally agreed.

He strode up to his locker and brazenly opened the door. Out tumbled a number of stolen DVD players and TVs.

Brer Fox huffed and he puffed. He even shed a little tear, saying, "Something has gone badly wrong." Brer Wolf had no choice. He had to escort Brer Fox out of the premises and suspend him.

Brer Fox has now been banished to a far off depot, never to return to his old lair.

The end.

Just like the Brer Rabbit stories, the warehouse worker's story has been passed from one depot to another, embellished by some and adapted to local situations by others. But the core of the story remains.

The moral is that the struggle to beat the fox takes many forms.