Brer Rabbit, Meet Your Cousin, Cunnie Rabbit
Probably the most popular written example of the Afro-European language in America is found in the stories of Brer Rabbit. Gathering folktales heard on his Georgia plantation, writer Joel Chandler Harris recognized and appreciated the peculiar dialect of the plantation society. When Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings was published in 1880, the Africanisms of the southern plantation were shared on a global scale. The antics of Brer Rabbit became bedtime stories for children throughout the world.
By no means is Brer Rabbit the pure fancy of an American storyteller. Instead, he is a direct descendant of his African predecessor, the shrewd and keen-witted Cunnie (cunning) Rabbit of the Mano River cultures. For centuries, Africans have delighted in the stories of Cunnie Rabbit, his perpetual contest of wits with Mr. Spider, and his clever ways of outsmarting bigger and stronger foes despite all odds.
The role of the rabbit in African folklore symbolizes much more than pure entertainment. Gaining victory over a more powerful adversary was often a daily reality for many African ethnic groups. The enemy could be man, wild beast or bad weather. Only through craft and cleverness could one survive—and win.
West African storytellers were highly admired members of society, and the ability to weave words into mental pictures which both delighted and instructed was a valuable asset to the local villages in which they lived or to their ethnic group. The storyteller passed along the group's history, news from other ethnic groups, details about battles won or lost, and religious or mythological beliefs. Techniques such as repetitive phrasing and audience participation were common. Riddles were (and are) extremely popular. An example of a Gullah riddle with its roots in the Mano River cultures is— "What it be that run from day-clean [dawn] to dead-dark [complete nightfall], and all de night long, too?"*
The Connection in Song
Perhaps the connection found in storytelling and music is one of the most easily recognized today.
The "shout," for instance, the distinctively African custom of a rhythmic beating-out of feet and hand-clapping to songs or chants, is an integral part of gospel music. The storytelling found in almost all modem African- inspired music is filled with repetitive phrasing—from rock-and-roll and Caribbean-born reggae to the searing poetry of rap.
These highly visible connections make an impressive statement on the ability of a culture not only to survive, but also to thrive in situations of contact and change. Just as Cunnie Rabbit's ingenuity grew into Brer Rabbit's American exploits, so have other aspects of African culture continued to advance and adapt to new environments. Today many of the traditions of Africa are reflected in American culture, adding to its richness and diversity.
*The answer to the riddle is "the tide."