Why Beatrix Potter told Brer Rabbit to shh
I hate the conversation around cultural appropriation. It’s usually simplistic, polarised and needlessly controversial in a way that diminishes public interest in actual creative theft.
So when my husband sent me an article on how Beatrix Potter stole the story of Brer Rabbit, our 4 year old’s favourite story, I rolled my eyes.
Until it came up in my local writers' group chat that is. When a good friend said it was nonsense, something stirred in me. The West African jumping out? Who knows. But I realised this particular claim of plagiarism had convinced me, and it bothered me.
I went down a (Peter) rabbit hole and found the original piece in The Conversation which, unlike some of the articles on the topic, was nuanced and detailed. In this article, Dr Emily Zobel Marshall delivered the damning clincher that kills all debate. A line in a letter that Beatrix Potter wrote to her publisher in 1911 about her new Peter Rabbit story:
“I think the story is amusing; its principal defect is its imitation of ‘Uncle Remus’. It is no drawback for children, because they cannot read the Negro vernacular. I hardly think the publishers could object to it? I wrote it some time ago. I have copied it out lately.”
So why did Ms Potter not want credit given for the African inspiration behind the quintessentially English blue-jacket wearing bunny trickster who outsmarted Farmer McGregor? And why does that matter today? Dr Marshall addresses those questions in her book on trauma, tradition and Brer Rabbit. I’m not going into all that here. What I do want to say is the whole situation reminded me of how much I care about African stories being told. About Anansi the trickster; the legend of the vampiric Adze; the sea witch Mami Wata; and yep, Brer Rabbit.
I want my kids to read the stories of the African mythological characters who outwitted those out to harm them. And I want to read more of them too. I love a faerie and dragon packed fantasy novel as much as the next person, but there is so much space for other mythology. I want to read fantasy based in different historical time periods and in different locations. Widening inspiration beyond Tolkien’s Middle Earth only serves to enrich the genre.
So I’ve started a series of African folk tales.
Naturally, the first one is a Brer Rabbit story. My kids were big fans and I hope you like it too.