Do you know what event triggered the evolution of the rabbit from an animal with a long bushy tail to one who would forever be referred to as Peter Cottontail?
Joel Chandler Harris wrote about it during the middle of the nineteenth century.
In case you don’t know who Harris is, he is the writer credited with penning stories that were likely conceived in the mind of a Georgia plantation slave who had incredible insight but no formal education. Harris probably heard the stories over and over again until they became imbedded in his soul. Some of the most prominent characters he wrote about include a very cunning rabbit, a dumb acting bear, and a semi-foxy fox. He referred to them as Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, and Brer Fox. He wrote of other characters as they appeared in his fictionalized animal kingdom.
Many of his books and stories have been banned because some have declared them racist. I personally don’t know what all of the fuss is about but if it is because of the difference in the dialect of the slaves’ common to that era and the young lad he is telling the stories to, then maybe we ought to consider modernizing the stories and removing the offending language. It is a shame that an entire generation has been denied the wisdom so brilliantly shared by a suppressed people.
One of my favorite stories offers a plausible explanation for the origin of the phrase, “Freeze your tail off.” You might know that it includes fishing as a key component.
The story begins with the young lad interrupting the old man who is just beginning one of his tales with Brer Rabbit walking down the road shaking his long bushy tail.
“Everybody knows that rabbits don’t have long, bushy tails,” the youngster said.
After some discussion back and forth, the old man continues his tale just as Brer Rabbit encounters Brer Fox toting a nice stringer of fish. Brer Fox tells Brer Rabbit that he caught them down at the baptizing creek. Since in those days the rabbit had a tail similar to the fox, Brer Fox explained that he just lowered his tail into the water around dusk and waited there until morning. At first light he pulled his tail in and it was full of fish just hanging on. Brer Fox said that he threw the little ones back.
In a few minutes they part and Brer Rabbit goes home and picks up a bottle of something to drink and even though it is turning cold, Brer Rabbit heads out for the creek. Brer Rabbit finds a comfortable spot and lowers his tail into the water and there he sat and sat drinking and thinking how cold he was. Eventually morning comes and Brer Rabbit likely thinking of nothing but the fresh fried fish he will be having in a few minutes, tries to pull his tail out of the water. When he pulls again, the restraining forces give way and he turns to admire his catch and then realizes that he doesn’t have any fish but worse than that, he has no tail. He had pulled it clean off.
The little boy asked if all rabbits are bob-tailed because of Brer Rabbit and the old man explains that they all took after their paw.
As you can easily see, the rabbit’s tail didn’t evolve to nothing slowly over thousands of years. No, in one long cold night of fishing, his long bushy tail was gone forever.
The Uncle Remus stories were a very good source of entertainment for me when I was young, so much that I read them to our children and then to our grand children.
Just so you know writing for me is like me being thrown into the briar patch, my briar patch. Maybe I will share that Uncle Remus tale at another time.
Reference: “The Favorite Uncle Remus” book of stories by Joel Chandler Harris (1845-1908) Copyright 1948, renewed 1976 by Houghton Mifflin Company
Wayne Brady 1/26/2014