Compair Lapin at the Laura Plantation

My mother is visiting me and so of course, we went out to tour the plantations. While we roamed about my favorite, the Laura Plantation, our very colorful guide regaled us with several Br’er Rabbit stories.

The Laura Plantation

The Laura Plantation

As a very little girl, my grandmother used to let me go to my grandfather’s book cabinet and bring out  her antique book of children’s stories. We read these stories again and again. Somewhere, that book still lurks in my grandfather’s book cabinet at my parent’s house, even though both of my grandparents are long gone.  One of my favorite memories remains that of my grandmother reading “Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby” to me from that book.

My grandmother was one of those teeny tiny old ladies with perfectly coiffed hair who always wore a fifties style house dress. She went to church twice a week, wore her high heels to do the housework and when she died, she was the oldest living Avon Lady in Ohio. I was the only grandbaby that lived nearby and was spoiled rotten accordingly.

Looking back on it, picturing my grandmother acting out Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox is more than a little bit hilarious, but at the time I was simply delighted and would help her act the story out.

Fritz-Eichenberg Uncle Remus Illustration of the Tar Baby from The Wren's Nest

Fritz-Eichenberg Uncle Remus Illustration of the Tar Baby from The Wren’s Nest

If you don’t know the story, Br’er Rabbit is a Trickster and he manages to annoy Br’er Fox to no end.

Br’er Fox comes up with a way to get back at him though. Fox mixes some tar and turpentine and makes a tar baby that he leaves in the road where Br’er Rabbit will find it. He then hides in the bushes to see what will happen.

Sure enough, Br’er Rabbit comes along and greets the Tar Baby. When the Tar Baby doesn’t answer him, Br’er Rabbit threatens bodily harm if the Tar Baby isn’t going to be polite. When the Tar Baby still doesn’t answer, Br’er Rabbit hits the Tar Baby and gets his hand stuck deep in the Tar.

Br’er Rabbit demands that the Tar Baby let go of his hand and when he doesn’t, hits him again with his other hand. This goes on until Br’er Rabbit is entirely stuck in the Tar Baby.

At this point, Br’er Fox pops out of the bushes:

“I’ve got you this time, Brer Rabbit,” said Brer Fox, jumping up and shaking off the dust. “You’ve sassed me for the very last time. Now I wonder what I should do with you?”

Brer Rabbit’s eyes got very large. “Oh please Brer Fox, whatever you do, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.”

“Maybe I should roast you over a fire and eat you,” mused Brer Fox. “No, that’s too much trouble. Maybe I’ll hang you instead.”

“Roast me! Hang me! Do whatever you please,” said Brer Rabbit. “Only please, Brer Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.”

“If I’m going to hang you, I’ll need some string,” said Brer Fox. “And I don’t have any string handy. But the stream’s not far away, so maybe I’ll drown you instead.”

“Drown me! Roast me! Hang me! Do whatever you please,” said Brer Rabbit. “Only please, Brer Fox, please don’t throw me into the briar patch.”

“The briar patch, eh?” said Brer Fox. “What a wonderful idea! You’ll be torn into little pieces!”

Grabbing up the tar-covered rabbit, Brer Fox swung him around and around and then flung him head over heels into the briar patch. Brer Rabbit let out such a scream as he fell that all of Brer Fox’s fur stood straight up. Brer Rabbit fell into the briar bushes with a crash and a mighty thump. Then there was silence.

Of course old Br’er Rabbit was thinking on his feet and escapes, “Then Brer Fox heard someone calling his name. He turned around and looked up the hill. Brer Rabbit was sitting on a log combing the tar out of his fur with a wood chip and looking smug. ‘I was bred and born in the briar patch, Brer Fox,’ he called. ‘Born and bred in the briar patch.’” (To read the full story, go here).

Br’er Rabbit is a character from Joel Chandler Harris’ collection of stories that were gathered from slaves at the Turnwold Plantation near Atlanta right before the Civil War. While Harris himself supported slavery (and in fact interpreted Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be a “wonderful defense of slavery”), the stories themselves are an interesting collection of a mix of Yoruba and Native American folklore and myth. I love the Br’er Rabbit stories because they show how much the many different cultures mixed down here in the South (which of course also resulted in things like Spiritualism, Hoodoo and Voodoo).

Most people are familiar with the Trickster Coyote, but Coyote belongs to the Western side of the United States. In the East, the Trickster is usually regarded as the Hare. The lessons that Br’er Rabbit teaches are about thinking on your feet and using cunning over strength. He doesn’t fight fair and he usually gets away with it.

While Harris himself strongly believed in slavery, Br’er Rabbit is usually seen as a character of defiance against slavery. Br’er Rabbit challenged the social order and stood up to authority. It’s more than slightly ironic that Br’er Rabbit is probably the most remembered character from Harris’s Uncle Remus stories.

Harris’ early folklore is well known; what is less well known is that he was not the first person to translate these stories in the U.S.

That person was Alcée Fortier right here in Southern Louisiana. His Br’er Rabbit character was called Compair Lapin and was written down in the patois of Creole French on the Laura Plantation.

As I’ve said, the Laura plantation is one of my favorites to visit. Not only is it beautiful, but it is an excellent example of the differences between American plantations and Creole plantations. It was also run by several generations of wealthy, successful women.

Fortier

Fortier

Fortier himself was the grandson of Valcour Aime, who was the richest man in the South at that time and grew up near the Laura Plantation. While I’m sure that Br’er Rabbit stories were told all over the South, it’s fascinating to be able to the visit the place where they were first written down and translated.  Sometimes I get so focused on European mythology and folklore, that I forget that I’m sitting the middle of some of the most fascinating bits of our very own American mythology and folklore. Compair Lapin is certainly a character you won’t find anywhere else.

Slavery itself was a terrible institution and the working conditions in the sugar cane fields were inhuman, but Br’er Rabbit is an example of a people that refused to be broken. There is a great deal to be learned from Br’er Rabbit and it is important to remember these stories as a part of our American heritage. Not just for their morals, but for the culture they came from. I’m glad that my grandmother took the time to read those stories to me. When times are hard, it’s good to remember that even the thorniest spots can be places of hope and that there is always a way out. And that it is possible for you to take a bad situation and turn it into one that is advantageous for you.

Br’er Rabbit certainly gets in the last laugh at Br’er Fox, and even though we still suffer from issues of racism and hatred, the plantations are a standing testament to the courage of those that abolished slavery and assured freedom for those of all races.

 

* I realized after writing this yesterday that today (9/17) was my grandmother’s birthday as well as the day that she died. She would have been 102 today.

Advertisements

Masking

In New Orleans, we love a good masquerade. Here, costume wearing is pretty standard. Most of us have dedicated closets and drawers and shelves for our costume pieces. Masking is part of our identity. I’ve only lived here two years and in that time, my not already inconsiderable costume collection has grown at least five times larger than it was before.

Of course, down here, masking is tied into Carnival, brought to Louisiana by the French. Mardi Gras was first celebrated in Louisiana in 1699  and other than a few years here and there, the tradition has continued ever since. Most people outside of New Orleans think that Mardi Gras is a single Day event. It’s not. In actuality, Mardi Gras starts the day after Twelfth Night and continues on to Fat Tuesday. It’s also not something that goes on for the tourists: the entire city celebrates for the entire season.

Why are we talking about Mardi Gras when we aren’t anywhere close to Twelfth Night? Because it is Halloween ,and Halloween seems to be the city’s Mardi Gras prequel. While Halloween itself is on Wednesday, the weekend before Halloween is traditionally when we all gather and celebrate in the Quarter. It’s a time of local revelry and of course, masking.

Masking is probably one of the longest traditions practiced by mankind. It has both practical and spiritual uses, and goes back at least 40,000 years. Masking was used in antiquity for many things; ritual persona, sacred dance, theater and warfare.

When you don a mask, you become someone or something else.  You take on a character that is both ‘other,’ and also greater than yourself. As my Significant Other points out, “masking comes from the sacred clown tradition, which is represented by the Fool in the tarot deck. the Fool, the zero card, represents unlimited potential and rebirth”. In New Orleans, we celebrate this potential of the city to constantly reinvent itself moment by moment. The city does this yearly, creating an atmosphere of constant flux and possibility. It’s probably one of the reasons we bounced back from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina so quickly; the city was able to redefine itself, to strike a new pose, carrying the people within it into its rebirth: it’s used to this sort of thing after all.

There’s a great deal of the trickster spirit in masking. From Coyote to Harlequino, from Loki to Prometheus, Tricksters often take on different personas to go about their business of foolery, which ultimately brings about positive change. Transformation and resurrection, along with a healthy dose of heroic action, are characteristics of the Trickster. Whether or not you like the Trickster, he certainly brings about an often chaotic transformation. When we mask, we’re recreating the actions of the Trickster to change our reality into something greater and better.

As Titus Burckhardt says in his article The Sacred Mask, “It derives from the expression persona itself. We know that in the ancient theater, derived from the sacred theater of the Mysteries, this word designated both the mask and the role. Now the mask necessarily expresses not an individuality—whose representation scarcely requires a mask—but a type, and hence a timeless reality, cosmic or divine”. In this way, the mask transcends itself from being a simple costume, to a whole new identity with many ritual possibilities. New Orleans is a city that ritually masks to transform herself year to year into something new and different each time.

Lady Deer on Frenchmen St, NOLA

Lady Deer on Frenchmen St, NOLA 2012

Burckhardt continues on to say “Moreover, man spontaneously identifies himself with the role that he plays, one that has been imposed on him by his origin, his destiny, and his social ambience. This role is a mask—most often a false mask in a world as artificial as our own, and in any case one that limits rather than liberates. The sacred mask, on the contrary, along with all that its wearing implies as regards gestures and words, suddenly offers one’s “self-consciousness” a much vaster mold and thereby the possibility of realizing the “liquidity” of this consciousness and its capacity to espouse all forms without being any one of them.” When people mask in New Orleans, in many ways they are bringing to bear the sides of themselves that they hide from the mundane world. People mask to become the people of their dreams and imaginings.

Another Deer on Frenchmen St, NOLA 2012

Another Deer on Frenchmen St, NOLA 2012

The idea of a city that masks is not confined to New Orleans. Other cities have Carnival as well: Rio De Janeiro, Venice, Rome, Paris…all of these cities do the same sort of thing and this gives our cities a much different reality than cities that don’t mask. Cities that mask see magic in the world more easily.

Angler Fish and Bubble Wrap on Frenchmen St, NOLA 2012

Angler Fish and Bubble Wrap on Frenchmen St, NOLA 2012

The roots of Mardi Gras lie first in Paganism, but within modern history, within the Catholic celebration of Carnival leading to Lent. The Catholic tradition holds that we each have a dark self, prey to temptation: a shadow-self. Masking ensures people confront their shadow selves. The Jungian archetype says that “The Shadow represents the traits which lie deep within ourselves. The traits that are hidden from day-to-day life and are in some cases the opposite of the self is a simple way to state these traits. The shadow is a very important trait because for one to truly know themselves, one must know all their traits, including those which lie beneath the common, i.e., the shadow. If one chooses to know the shadow there is a chance they give in to its motivation”. Masking brings on a self-awareness of  identity; we mask to confront the shadow, so that the motivation to give into it is much less.

Capricorn on Frenchmen St, NOLA 2012

Capricorn on Frenchmen St, NOLA 2012

I love that my city is a constant celebration of the sacred dance of magic and ritual. While most people who participate probably don’t see it in that light, I, as a Pagan, certainly do. Last night in the Quarter, who knows who I was rubbing elbows with. I’m sure that many of the local spirits and deities join in with the mayhem of our very human celebrations. I see masking as vital to living a healthy life. Being  someone who we aren’t for a night let’s us see the world through fresh eyes. It allows the world to see us differently, and to create a vehicle for the divine to come more easily into our life.

Me on the Saturday before Halloween, NOLA 2012

Me on the Saturday before Halloween, NOLA 2012

And in the end, being able to change personas for a night makes us appreciate who we are even more.