Creolizing Currents: Bambara

Brer Rabbit Tales and Louisiana's Alcé Fortier and Georgia's Joel Chandler Harris

For the first 60 years of Louisiana's colonial past, from 1715, the vast majority of African slaves were imported from Mali via Senegal's coast. About two thirds were Bambara and like their African neighbors, the Mandigo or Malinka, spoke a Mande dialect or language. By their overwhelming numbers, these Bambara, along with some of the Mandingo and Wolof, became the main foundation, for many successive generations, of Louisiana's African identity, bringing their skills, customs, traditions, food, music and folklore. From 1719 until the slave revolt against the Compagnie des Indes in Senegal about 1730, over 3,000 Senegambians were brought to Louisiana. Until Spanish colonial times, only a few hundred slaves from other places were imported to Louisiana, making the three generations of Bambara the core of Louisiana's African experience.

Professor Alcée Fortier, who lived in Vacherie and in New Orleans in the 1870s, collected and transcribed what we know today as the Tales of Brer Rabbit, (Compair Lapin, Piti Bonhomme Godron or Tar Baby and Compair Bouki, published in 1888 and 1894) In 1880 Joel Chandler Harris, born in Eatonton, Georgia and living in Savannah and then Atlanta, published his original Brer Rabbit tales, thirty four plantation tales or fables, all stories he collected from former slaves living in Georgia and the Carolinas, mostly from his grandparents' Turnwold Plantation in Georgia between 1862 and 1866. Importantly, all Harris' stories originate in West Africa, but from slaves imported from the 1770s and later, brought in by the English slave trade. Both Harris and Fortier, contemporaries, were collecting stories at the same time, from two geographically distant regions, but which both originated in Senegal.

Fortier's sources are from French-speaking African-Creole former slaves who are descended from those first Bambara arriving in Louisiana between 1719 and 1749, during the French Colonial period. Harris' source is from slaves brought to the English East Coast in the 1770-80s who would pass the stories in their Gullah or Geechee idiom and then into English.

In the 1880s, Fortier was president of the American Folklore Society and would have been familiar with Harris and his work and vice-versa. We do not know how closely they communicated about their story collections. When Fortier gave his "Tar Baby" presentation for the Folklore Society in 1884, that the close link between the Gullah version by Harris and Fortier's Creole version were evidence that this particular folk heritage related to the animist spiritual beliefs of the Bambara had its roots not in America but, for many previous centuries, in Senegal.

What is most amazing is the incredible strength of the West African oral tradition that today allows us to see the Senegambian connection. In 1980, Steve and Kathleen Duplantier and I formed the Louisiana Folkloric Puppet Theatre to teach students about our varied ethnic heritage in Louisiana. Under a grant from LEH, we researched different folktales, including some 30 Creole tales, all footnoted by Fortier and credited to a slave in Vacherie. Whether this refers to a single enslaved person (griot) or many, we do not know. We believe that Fortier visited many of the neighboring plantations in Vacherie as well as collecting stories in New Orleans.

One of the stories that we decided to use in our performances was Fortier's "The Elephant & the Whale." Many years later, in 1996, we were given a copy of Senegal President Senghor's "Leuk le Lievre," the recent president of Senegal's primer for Senegalese Wolof-speaking students learning French that he published in 1953. To our astonishment upon reading Senghor's version, it was almost "word-for-word" right out of Fortier's book. Remember, the slaves from Senegal came here in the 1720s, some 225 years prior to Senghor's book. Still, the two versions are basically unchanged and identical. Fortier collects this same tale in the 1870s, unchanged and identical. How vitally important were these stories to the generations of the enslaved in Louisiana not to change a single iota!

Coincidentally, in our research of Laura's (of Laura Plantation) family, we have visited many times her ancestral village, Ste-Honorine-du-Fay, in Normandie, never realizing until too late, that Senghor was living the last years of his life just five miles down the road.

We have had the pleasure of meeting with descendants of President Senghor, grandchildren, who, before Katrina, were living in New Orleans with their families. At present, our publishing company is working again with Steve Duplantier, now living in Costa Rica, on a new book regarding Fortier's Brer Rabbit (Compair Lapin) tales.

Norman Marmillion, Laura Plantation

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The New Orleans African American Museum (NOAAM) is located in Faubourg Treme, at 1418 Governor Nicholls Street, phone (504) 566-1136.

Generous assistance provided by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation.