Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Introduction to ... a Brer Rabbit fanatic. :-)

Here we are: Fall 2019! My first semester at OU was back in the last century (back in the the last millennium!). Fall 1999 was when I first arrived on campus, teaching in the Classics department; that Fall semester I taught a course on Ancient Epics (Iliad and Mahabharata), and also a Latin prose course (we read Suetonius and watched I Claudius). Of course, that was a loooooong time ago, back when I was teaching in the classroom. Here I am 20 years later, happily teaching online, and I've actually been teaching online since 2002. That means I have many more years of teaching online than in the classroom! Pretty soon, I'll be able to say to new students that I've been teaching online since before they were born. THAT is going to be a very cool moment, ha ha. And every year brings me closer!

This semester in addition to teaching Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics, I'm also going to be a student in the Myth-Folklore class. I hope you don't find that too weird! With these online classes, there is no front of the classroom defining who is the teacher and who is the student (which is one of the reasons why I like teaching online... it's lonely up at the front of the classroom). Online, we are all just reading and writing and sharing together, which means I can be a student in the class just like everybody else, completing the same assignments in my blog, creating a class project, etc.

Last semester, I was in the Indian Epics class, and I did a Storybook project about Hanuman: Hanuman in the Ramakien: Tales of the Monkey Warrior.

(screenshot of my Storybook site)

This semester, I am going to be doing a Portfolio project instead, collecting stories about Brer Rabbit and comparing them to African folktales. That's actually what I worked on this past summer, and it was an amazing summer. Using Diigo as my bookmarking tool, I bookmarked literally thousands of African folktales online, along with thousands of Caribbean and African American folktales too. I also collected thousands of Native American stories;  there are some great Native American trickster traditions, plus there was back-and-forth borrowing between the African and Native American storytellers, especially in the southern United States.

And Brer Rabbit is my focus for all of that. The Brer Rabbit character that you may know from stories like "Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby" is actually a trickster hero from Africa. The African slaves brought to this country and to the Caribbean brought their folktales with them. Even though the slave owners did their best to wipe out every trace of the slaves' African cultures, forbidding the use of African languages, names, religions, and so on, they could not stop the telling of these stories. As a result there are hundreds of Brer Rabbit stories, and the majority of them are versions of folktales that were first told in Africa. I started obsessing about this topic last December, and on the very first day of summer, I started reading and reading, and the more I read, the more I wanted to read. When August arrived, I was not ready for the summer to be over (because there is still so much more I want to read!) ... so I am really excited to be in the Myth-Folklore class this semester, sharing some of the fabulous stories that I discovered this summer.

I'm really lucky with this project because the key books I am relying on were all published before 1923, which means they are in the public domain and out of copyright. That also means the books are available online at public domain libraries such as Hathi Trust and the Internet Archive. There were a few books, however, that I could not find online, so I also spent time this summer looking for cheap used books published before 1923 that I could buy and then scan. For example, from a used bookseller in London, I bought an edition of Nights with Uncle Remus published in 1907; it only cost me $20 (isn't that incredible?), and I scanned the illustrations so that I could share them online with others; here they are in a Flickr album (album embedded below).

So, as someone who has been in love with books all my life, it is like a dream come true being able to find all these beautiful books online for free. I hope you will have fun exploring online books and stories this semester. I am always excited at the start of the new school year... but this year, I am REALLY excited.

Let there be... RABBITS! :-)


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Flickr slideshow of Nights with Uncle Remus illustrations by J. A. Shepherd (originally published in 1907):

Nights with Uncle Remus (Shepherd, ill.)

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