Activities: Context Activities
Monkeying Around: Trickster Figures and American Culture
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 Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus cover (c. 1880), courtesy of the University of Virginia.
Just like written literary traditions, oral storytelling traditions have genres and styles. The "trickster tale" is one of many genres of oral narrative tradition. The central figure in these tales is the "trickster," usually depicted as an animal. Characterized by paradox, duality, cleverness, shape-shifting, duplicity, and a knack for survival, trickster figures are appealing in their ability to assert their individuality and shatter boundaries and taboos. From traditional African American folktales about Brer Rabbit, Brer Tortoise, and the Signifying Monkey to Native American fables about Coyote, Raven, and Iktomi the Spider, trickster tales have served as powerful cultural expressions of ethnic identity. For many groups, these tales functioned as a means of representing and commenting on the mixing and meeting of cultures and the power relations such meetings entail, since the flexibility and polyvalent qualities of the trickster make him a useful figure for articulating resistance to dominant groups or oppressive colonizers. Trickster figures continue to be central to American culture. One need only turn on the television on Saturday morning to see their influence: the weekly celebrations of Bugs Bunny's exploits and his clever victories over the well-armed and supposedly more powerful Elmer Fudd are clear indications of the enduring appeal of the trickster tradition to new generations of Americans.
The trickster, by his very nature, is almost impossible to define. Because he is a master of dissolving boundaries, confounding certainties, and exploiting ambiguity, it is difficult to pin a clear description on him. As cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it in his influential study The Signifying Monkey:
A partial list of [the trickster's] qualities might include individuality, satire, parody, irony, magic, indeterminacy, open-endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, chance, uncertainty, disruption and reconciliation, betrayal and loyalty, closure and disclosure, encasement and rupture. But it is a mistake to focus on one of these qualities as predominant. Esu [the trickster] possesses all of these characteristics, plus a plethora of others which, taken together, only begin to present an idea of the complexity of this classic figure of mediation and of the unity of opposed forces.
Perhaps one of the most useful evocations of the trickster's complex identity is the African carving of Esu which presents him as having two faces--one at the front of his head and one at the back--thus highlighting his duality and ambiguity.
Traditional African American folktales celebrate the way the trickster's duplicity allows him to escape unscathed from even the most seemingly hopeless situations. Brer Rabbit's ability to outwit the more powerful animals Brer Fox and Brer Bear makes him an appealing hero. While literary critics disagree about the extent to which Joel Chandler Harris understood the deep ironies of the African American stories he transcribed in his Uncle Remus tales, Harris was able to see the cultural usefulness of Brer Rabbit's trickster qualities to enslaved African Americans. In the introduction to one of his Uncle Remus collections, he explains, "It needs no scientific investigation to show why he [the black] selects as his hero the weakest and the most harmless of all animals, and brings him out victorious in contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox." The manner in which these tales invert the roles of the powerful and the weak, so that the supposedly submissive figure cunningly outwits his powerful oppressor, offers a subversive moral that must have provided hope to oppressed slaves.
Native American trickster tales are similarly interested in the inversion of social norms and the breaking of boundaries; their tales of Coyote and other supernatural characters celebrate the trickster as simultaneously vulgar and sacred, wise and foolish, but always surviving. In Charles Alexander Eastman's transcription of the traditional Sioux tale of the trickster turtle, Turtle's strategies exactly parallel Brer Rabbit's. Just as Brer Rabbit uses reverse psychology to convince Brer Fox to throw him into a briar patch--the environment in which he is most comfortable--so does Turtle convince his captors to confine him in water, a fluid medium which of course allows him to escape. The identity of the trickster continues to resonate in Native American culture today. Harry Fonseca's playful paintings about Coyote testify to the figure's enduring cultural importance. Fonseca's representations of Coyote show him skillfully mediating between the "old ways" and the new: in Coyote in Front of Studio, Coyote pairs a modern leather jacket and high-top sneakers with a traditional Plains Indian war bonnet and pipe bag. With two eyes on one side of his head, this Coyote embodies the duality and flexibility of contemporary Indian culture, figuring both resistance and strategic accommodation to Euro-American culture.
- Comprehension: What are some of the animals commonly chosen to represent trickster figures in African American and Native American traditional trickster tales? What qualities do these animals have in common?
- Context: While Adventures of Huckleberry Finn does not contain any traditional animal trickster figures, many of Huck's adventures resonate with trickster traditions. How does Twain draw on traditional trickster schemes and qualities in his narrative of Jim and Huck's journey down the river? Which characters in the novel seem most trickster-like?
- Exploration: How do characters such as the Joker in Batman, or the Road Runner or Bugs Bunny in Looney Tunes draw on trickster traditions? How are they similar to figures like Brer Rabbit or Iktomi? How are they different? What kinds of cultural values do they seem to espouse?
 Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus cover (c. 1880),
courtesy of the University of Virginia.
Joel Chandler Harris's trickster tales that Uncle Remus narrates--with their subversive focus on the triumph of seemingly weak characters over their aggressors--are characterized by poetic irony and a subtle critique of oppression and prejudice.
 James Brown, Dancing for Eels (1848),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZC4-4542].
This lithograph with watercolor features a scene from a mid-nineteenth-century play intended to depict New York "as it is." A dancing black man in tattered clothes maintains the interest of observers of all types--the young, old, white, black, poor, and wealthy.
 A. B. Frost, Brer B'ar Tied Hard en Fas (1892),
courtesy of Houghton Mifflin.
Illustration of Brer Rabbit tying Brer B'ar to a tree, taken from Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus and His Friends: Old Plantation Stories, Songs, and Ballads with Sketches of Negro Character. As trickster tales, the African American fables published by Harris contain a subtle critique of oppression.
 Greg Sarris, Interview: "Coyote" (2002),
courtesy of Annenberg/CBP and American Passages.
Greg Sarris, author, professor of English, and Pomo Indian, discusses the trickster Coyote.
 Charles Eastman, "Turtle Story" (1909),
courtesy of Wigwam Evenings, Sioux Folk Tales.
This collection of Sioux tales by Eastman and his wife, Elaine Goodale Eastman, contains twenty-seven Sioux narratives, including creation stories and animal legends.
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