Tales from the African Diaspora, Anansi the Spider and Br’er Rabbit
By dopper0189, Black Kos Managing Editor
Anansi is one of the most important legendary characters of West African and Caribbean folklore. In the legends, he often takes the shape of a spider. Anansi is considered to be the spirit of all knowledge of stories, and he is also known as Ananse, Kwaku Ananse, and Anancy; and in the southern United States he has evolved into Aunt Nancy.
Anansi is sometimes depicted in many different ways. He can look like an ordinary spider, sometimes he is a spider wearing clothes, or with a spider with a human face. Sometimes Anansi looks much more like a human with spider elements, such as eight legs.
The Anansi tales originated with the Ashanti of present-day Ghana. The word Ananse is from the Akan language and means "spider". The tales of Anansi later spread to other Akan groups and then to the Caribbean, Suriname (in South America), and Sierra Leone (where they were introduced by Jamaican Maroons when they repatriated to West Africa) . On Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire, he is known as Kompa Nanzi, and his wife as Shi Maria.
Br'er Rabbit (Brother Rabbit), also spelled Bre'r Rabbit or Brer Rabbit or Bruh Rabbit, is a central figure in stories of African-Americans from the Black Belt of the American Southern. Br'er Rabbit is a trickster who succeeds by his wits rather than by brawn, provoking authority figures and bending social mores as he sees fit. Walt Disney later adapted this character for its deeply racially stereotyped but groundbreaking 1946 animated movie Song of the South.
As a child I grew up listening to stories of Anansi from my mom and aunt (as some of you may know my family is from Jamaica). I heard them first as oral stories, and later I was given children’s book filled with his tales. Sometime later while I was in grade school, one of my older sisters was doing a book report on Br’er rabbit and she asked my mom to look at how similar the stories were. This led to a fascinating summer, where my mom took us to the public library and we researched Br’er rabbit (took the book home with us) and compared them to the Anansi story books we had at home.
Anansi the Spider
Anansi stories are some of the best-known tales amongst the Asante people of Ghana. The stories made up an exclusively oral tradition, and indeed Anansi himself was synonymous with skill and wisdom in speech. It was as remembered oral traditions that they crossed over to the Caribbean and other parts of the New World with captives slaves via the Atlantic slave trade.
In the Caribbean, Anansi is celebrated as a symbol of slave resistance and survival. Anansi is able to turn the table on his powerful oppressors by using his cunning and trickery, a model of behavior utilized by slaves to gain the upper-hand within the confines of the plantation power structure. Anansi is also believed to have played a multi-functional role in the slaves' lives; as well as inspiring strategies of resistance, the tales enabled enslaved Africans to establish a sense of continuity with their African past and offered them the means to transform and assert their identity within the boundaries of captivity.
As historian Lawrence W. Levine argues in Black Culture and Consciousness, enslaved Africans in the New World devoted “the structure and message of their tales to the compulsions and needs of their present situation” (1977, 90). Especially before and after Caribbean islands began to gain their independence, Anansi both as a symbol of anti-slavery resistance and as a connection to the pre-slavery African culture, of Caribbean’s black slave, sparked a scholarly revival in study of Anansi. There was also a lot of field work done between the newly independent Caribbean nations and West Africa.
In West African stories, Anansi became such a prominent part of Ashanti oral culture that the word Anansesem—"spider tales"—came to embrace all kinds of fables. One of the few studies that examine the role of Anansi folktales among the Ashanti of Ghana is R.S. Rattray’s Akan-Ashanti Folk-Tales (1930). The tales in Rattray’s collection were recorded directly from Ashanti oral storytelling sessions and published in both English and Twi. Peggy Appiah, who collected Anansi tales in Ghana and published many books of his stories, wrote: "So well known is he that he has given his name to the whole rich tradition of tales on which so many Ghanaian children are brought up – anansesem – or spider tales." Elsewhere they have other names, for instance Ananse-Tori in Suriname, Anansi in Guyana, and Kuent'i Nanzi in Curacao.
For people living in the African diaspora, the Jamaican versions of these stories are the most well preserved. Jamaica had the largest concentration of enslaved Asante in the Americas. Jamaica’s slaves were estimated to be from 60-80% Asante (with the remained mostly made up of Ibo from present day Nigeria). This concentration of ethnic Asantes helped to give them a greater ability to be preserved.
One of the unique feature of all Anansi stories in Jamaica is they have a proverb (in Jamaican patois) attached to the end. For example, at the end of the story "Anansi and Brah Dead", there is a proverb; "If yuh cyaan ketch Kwaku, yuh ketch him shut", which refers to when Brah Dead (brother death or “drybones”), a personification of Death, was chasing Anansi attempting to kill him. The proverb means: The target of a angry person's revenge, will be anyone who is close to the intended target, even innocent loved ones.
What I found interesting in these proverbs, is that it suggests that even in times of slavery, Anansi was referred to by his Akan original name: Kwaku Anansi as Kwaku is used interchangeably with Anansi. Many terms in Jamaican patois come directly from Ghana (such as the word “nam” which means to eat). Finding these clues to the original languages of slaves is always interesting. There is also an Anansi story that explains the phenomenon of how his name became attached to the whole corpus of tales:
Once there were no stories in the world. The Sky-God, Nyame, had them all. Anansi went to Nyame and asked how much they would cost to buy.
Nyame set a high price: Anansi must bring back Onini the Python, Osebo the Leopard, and the Mboro Hornets.
Anansi set about capturing these. First he went to where Python lived and debated out loud whether Python was really longer than the palm branch or not as his wife Aso says. Python overheard and, when Anansi explained the debate, agreed to lie along the palm branch. Because he cannot easily make himself completely straight a true impression of his actual length is difficult to obtain, so Python agreed to be tied to the branch. When he was completely tied, Anansi took him to Nyame.
To catch the leopard, Anansi dug a deep hole in the ground. When the leopard fell in the hole Anansi offered to help him out with his webs. Once the leopard was out of the hole he was bound in Anansi's webs and was carried away.
To catch the hornets, Anansi filled a calabash with water and poured some over a banana leaf he held over his head and some over the nest, calling out that it was raining. He suggested the hornets get into the empty calabash, and when they obliged, he quickly sealed the opening.
Anansi handed his captives over to Nyame. Nyame rewarded him by making him the god of all stories.
The Br'er Rabbit stories can be traced back to trickster whom originated from the folklore of the Bantu-speaking peoples of south and central Africa, particularly the hare Leuk . These tales continue to be part of the traditional folklore of numerous peoples throughout those regions.
Some scholars have suggested that in his American incarnation, Br'er Rabbit represented the enslaved Africans who used their wits to overcome adversity and to exact revenge on their adversaries, the white slave owners. Though not always successful, the efforts of Br'er Rabbit made him a folk hero.
However, in African traditions, the trickster is a complex character. While the trickster can be a hero, his amoral nature and his lack of any positive restraint can make him into a villain as well.
For both Africans and African Americans, the animal trickster represents an extreme form of behavior that people may be forced to adopt in extreme circumstances in order to survive. The trickster is not to be admired in every situation. He is an example of what to do, but also an example of what not to do. The trickster's behavior can be summed up in the common African proverb:
"It's trouble that makes the monkey chew on hot peppers."
It generally translates as sometimes people must use extreme measures in extreme circumstances. Several elements in the Brer Rabbit Tar Baby story (e.g., rabbit needing to be taught a lesson, punches and head butting the rabbit does, the stuck rabbit being swung around and around) are reminiscent of those found in a Zimbabwe-Botswana folktale.
Folklorists in the late 19th century first documented evidence that the American versions of the stories originated among enslaved West Africans based on connections between Br'er Rabbit and Leuk, a rabbit trickster in Senegalese folklore.
The stories of Br'er Rabbit were famously written down by Robert Roosevelt, an uncle of US President Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography about his aunt from Georgia, that "She knew all the 'Br'er Rabbit' stories, and I was brought up on them. One of my uncles, Robert Roosevelt, was much struck with them, and took them down from her dictation, publishing them in Harper's, where they fell flat. This was a good many years before a genius arose who, in 'Uncle Remus', made the stories immortal."
These stories were popularized for the mainstream audience in the late 19th century by Joel Chandler Harris (1845–1908), who wrote down and published many such stories that had been passed down by oral tradition. Harris also attributed the birth name Riley to Br'er Rabbit. Harris heard these tales in Georgia. Very similar versions of the same stories were recorded independently at the same time by the folklorist Alcée Fortier in southern Louisiana, where the Rabbit character was known as Compair Lapin in French Creole. Enid Blyton, the English writer of children's fiction, retold the stories for children.
Relationship between Anansi and Br'er Rabbit
Anansi shares similarities with the trickster figure of Br'er Rabbit, who originated from the folklore of the Bantu-speaking peoples of south and central Africa. In the Akan traditions of West Africa, the trickster is usually the spider Anansi, though the plots in his tales are often identical with those of stories of Br'er Rabbit. Anansi however does encounter a tricky rabbit called "Adanko" (Asante-Twi to mean "Hare") in some stories. The Jamaican character with the same name "Brer Rabbit", is an adaptation of the Ananse stories of the Akan people.
Enslaved Africans brought the Br'er Rabbit tales to the New World, which, like the Anansi stories, depict a physically small and vulnerable creature using his cunning intelligence to prevail over larger animals. However, although Br'er Rabbit stories are told in the Caribbean, especially in the French-speaking islands (where he is named “Compair Lapin”), he is predominantly an African-American folk hero. The rabbit as a trickster is also in Akan versions as well and a Bantu origin doesn't have to be the main source, at least for the Caribbean where the Akan people are more dominant than in the U.S. His tales entered the mainstream through the work of the white American journalist Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote several collections of Uncle Remus stories between 1870 and 1906.
One of the times Anansi himself got tricked was when he tried to fight a tar baby after trying to steal food. But Anansi got stuck to it instead. It is a tale well known from a version involving Br'er Rabbit, found in the Uncle Remus stories and adapted and used in the 1946 live-action/animated Disney movie Song of the South. These were derived from Southern African-American folktales, that had part of their origin in African folktales preserved in oral storytelling by African Americans. Elements of the African Anansi tale were combined by African-American storytellers with elements from Native American tales, such as the Cherokee story of the "Tar Wolf", which had a similar theme, but often had a trickster rabbit protagonist.
The Native American trickster rabbit appears to have resonated with African-American story-tellers and was adopted as part of the Anansi character with which they were familiar. Thus, the tale of Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby represents a coming together of two separate folk traditions, Native American and African, which coincidentally shared a common theme.
Today in modern America, the stories of Br'er Rabbit exist alongside other stories of Aunt Nancy, and of Anansi himself, coming from both the age of slavery but also from the Caribbean and directly from Africa as immigration from these areas increased after 1965.
Stories of Anansi and Bre'r Rabbit both represent direct connections to the stories and legends that African slaves carried with them to North America. Even as Western slave plantation culture attempted wipe out all memory and connection of enslaved African people to their original country of origin, the spirit of resistance of slaves allowed these stories to endure. These are stories from the “old country”; preserving, understanding, and knowing their origins is an important part of preserving our common culture. Like all stories immigrants to America (both voluntary and forced through slavery) they are now part of the great melting pot of America culture, and the proverbs and wisdom they carry with them, adds to what makes us all Americans.
News round up by dopper0189, Black Kos Managing Editor
The title of Black Cake, Hulu’s new adaptation of Charmaine Wilkerson’s bestselling novel of the same name, speaks to those in the know. The show, executive-produced by Oprah, follows two estranged Black American siblings who are brought together when their Caribbean mother dies, leaving behind audiotapes revealing the truth of her tumultuous life—one that, unbeknownst to them, spanned multiple countries and name changes, and decades of severe trauma. The title is a reference to the Caribbean rum fruitcake usually made around the Christmas season. But it carries another layer of meaning, touching on not just the myriad manifestations of oppression and adversity that a Black woman may face, but also the beauty that is made in spite of that—or, in fact, because of it.
Black Cake is about Blackness, darkness, sweetness, and, pun intended, just desserts. But it is also about, well, cake, among other beloved dishes of Caribbean cuisine. What the show does so well is depict the relationship between food and the diaspora: the idea that communities are connected not merely by blood or location, but by the things, both intellectual and tangible—like the recipes you remember, as well as the dishes that come from following those recipes—that they take with them. Because of this, no matter how far you stray from your roots, you can always, in some way, come home.
The series tells the story of Coventina “Covey” Lyncook, an Afro-Chinese Caribbean girl who runs away from tragedy to the United Kingdom using her estranged mother’s surname, Brown. There, she experiences even more harrowing hardships, but her inability to safely return home leaves her no choice but to adopt another name, Eleanor Douglas, which she uses for the rest of her life, only changing her surname when she marries. At home, Covey would find solace in her mother’s singularly phenomenal black cake. Throughout the remainder of her life, after Covey has been forced to flee her home and her loved ones, the cake brings her comfort. The cake becomes a point of pride and a meaningful symbol to her children as well, a tangible reminder of their amorphous and distant cultural background. When Covey—by then, Eleanor—dies, she leaves a black cake in the freezer for her estranged children to share as they make sense of the harsh realities their mother is entreating them to hear from beyond the grave.
Black cake has many names—rum cake, or if your family’s Caribbean history is, like mine, more closely entangled with the British flavor of colonialism, rum plum pudding. My grandmother, my aunt, our family friends, and I have gathered on numerous December days to make my family’s famous rum plum pudding recipe. It’s a laborious process that, for some, like my grandmother, starts months before, when she soaks an assortment of fruits in rum. When we get together to bake, the rummy fruit is blended together and mixed into a cake batter full of the usual butter, sugar, flour, eggs, and, most importantly, spices. It’s a lot more technical than I’ve let on—the separating of the egg whites, the careful folding of the batter, the water bath to create steam in the oven—but I’m not in the business of revealing precious family secrets. Just trust me when I say that making this is a euphoric experience, with the dessert’s boozy aroma intermingling with the sounds of Caribbean Christmas music, the mentions of old island neighbors whom I’ve never met, and the sublime first mouthful of the pudding, as we remember all those to whom we wish we could offer a taste.
Seeing the role that black cake plays in Black Cake felt personal. The work that goes into making the cake is no different than the work that goes into passing down culture from one generation to another, especially when one of those generations can no longer lay direct claim to the ancestral homeland—an educational lesson between those who are from a place and those who are merely of a place. A dish like black cake is also a bridge connecting migrants back to the lands they came from.
Jurors failed to reach a unanimous verdict on federal civil rights charges Thursday in the trial of a former Louisville police officer charged in the police raid that killed Breonna Taylor, prompting the judge to declare a mistrial.
Brett Hankison was charged with using excessive force that violated the rights of Taylor, her boyfriend and her next-door neighbors. Hankison fired 10 shots into the Black woman’s window and a glass door after officers came under fire during a flawed drug warrant search on March 13, 2020. Some of his shots flew into a neighboring apartment, but none of them struck anyone.
The 12-member, mostly white jury struggled fruitlessly to reach a verdict over several days. On Thursday afternoon, they sent a note to the judge saying they were at an impasse. U.S. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings urged them to keep trying, and they returned to deliberations.
The judge reported there were “elevated voices” coming from the jury room at times during deliberations, and court security officials had to visit the room. Jurors then told the judge Thursday they were deadlocked on both counts against Hankison, and could not come to a decision — prompting Jennings’ declaration of a mistrial.
The lawyer for the family of Dexter Wade, whose body was dumped in a pauper’s grave after he was hit and killed by a police car, renewed his demand the U.S. Justice Department get involved in the case.
Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney representing the family, posted the demand on social media following the revelation that Wade had identification with his home address on him at the time of his death.
“How much longer does Ms. Bettersten Wade Robinson have to wait before Jackson (MS) police and officials provide ANSWERS?! ” Crump wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “They must be accountable for the circumstances surrounding #DexterWade’s death at the hands of police! We need the U.S. Dept. of Justice to investigate!”
Dexter Wade, 37, was last seen on March 5. An off-duty Jackson police corporal driving an SUV hit and killed Wade that day as he crossed a six-lane highway, Interstate 55..
Kenya's parliament has approved a controversial plan by the government to deploy about 1,000 police officers to Haiti to help stop gang violence. BBC: Kenya's parliament back Haiti mission despite court case
This is despite a court order barring any deployment, pending the outcome of a legal challenge into the plan. Opposition lawmakers condemned the vote, but the ruling party used its majority to back the government following a fiery debate.
Haiti had appealed for international help to tackle growing lawlessness.
Kenya's offer won the UN Security Council's approval last month, but the plan has been opposed by the main opposition party. About 300 gangs are active across Haiti and 80% of the capital, Port-au-Prince, is under gang control. These groups have taken increasing control of the city since the assassination of the country's president in 2021 threw Haiti into a political crisis.
At Thursday's vote in Kenya's parliament, lawmakers supporting the motion said the country was part of the global community and could not ignore the appeals for help from other countries.
They also argued that the East African nation has a history of peacekeeping missions such as in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone.
Seventy-six people were arrested for attending a birthday party for gay people in northern Nigeria, the country’s paramilitary agency said on Monday, adding that the organizer had also planned to hold a same-sex wedding, which is illegal.
There are the latest arrests targeting LGBTQ Nigerians after police in August raided a gay wedding in the southern city of Warri in Delta state, and arrested dozens of people. The accused are out on bail.
In Nigeria, like in most parts of Africa, homosexuality is generally viewed as unacceptable, and a 2014 anti-gay law took effect despite international condemnation.
Buhari Saad, the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) spokesperson for the largely Muslim Gombe state, said after receiving a tip off, the agency raided a party on Saturday night that was being attended by “homosexuals and pimps.”
He said 59 men had been arrested, including 21 who confessed to being homosexual, and 17 women.
The Federal Communications Commission has enacted new rules intended to eliminate discrimination in access to internet services, a move which regulators are calling the first major U.S. digital civil rights policy.
The rules package, which the commission ratified on Wednesday, would empower the agency to review and investigate instances of discrimination by broadband providers to different communities based on income, race, ethnicity and other protected classes.
The order also provides a framework for the FCC to crack down a range of digital inequities including the disparities in the investment of services for different neighborhoods, as well as the “digital divide,” a term experts use to describe the complete lack of internet access many communities experience due to regional or socioeconomic inequality.
FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said that Congress required the agency to adopt rules addressing digital discrimination, through bipartisan infrastructure legislation passed at the start of the Biden administration.
“The digital divide puts us at an economic disadvantage as a country and disproportionately affects communities of color, lower-income areas, and rural areas,” Rosenworcel said in a statement to The Associated Press.
“We know broadband is essential infrastructure for modern life, and these rules will bring us one step closer to ensuring everyone has access to the internet, no matter who they are or where they live,” she said.
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