From Compair Lapin to Br'er Rabbit

Laura Plantation was rescued from demolition, not because of its Big House but, because of its remaining slave quarters and what happened in them many years ago. In the 1870s, Alcée Fortier, a young neighbor of Laura's, visited the workers' cabins at this site and at nearby plantations. On his visits, he wrote down stories that he heard the former slaves telling their children in French. Throughout his life, Fortier was known for the passion he had for his native Creole culture and for his special interest in recording folklore that he, as a child, had been exposed to on his family plantation on the River Road and in New Orleans.

As a teenager, Fortier began to collect these stories from former slaves, all lively accounts of Compair Lapin and Compair Bouki, the clever rabbit and the stupid fool. In 1894, Fortier, the president of the American Folklore Society and Dean of Foreign Languages of Tulane University, published his stories, entitling them "Louisiana Folktales."

One year later, Fortier's friend and colleague in Georgia, Joel Chandler Harris, published stories that he had heard in English, tales told by former slaves (whose ancestors were from Senegal) in Georgia and the Carolinas. To great success, Harris published "Tales of Uncle Remus", including his "The Little Tar Baby." Ever since, English-speakers would know Compair Lapin as that rascal: Br'er Rabbit.

Fortier recorded 2 main characters in his tales: Lapin & Bouki. Lapin is French for Rabbit. Bouki is a Wollof word, the language spoken in Senegal in west-Africa, and means "stupid hyena." In the 1720s, when the first slaves arrived in Louisiana, Senegal was the homeland for almost all of these captives. For the next 60 years, Senegalese slaves formed the core of the African experience in Louisiana. Then, in the 1780s, the slave trade shifted to the English colonies, again bringing slaves out of Senegal. During all these years, the Senegalese slaves, whether in Louisiana or on the East Coast, were orally handing down the same tales of the rabbit and hyena to their descendants.

Today, in Senegal, Wollof-speaking children must learn French in school. Third-graders there are taught from one textbook, written in 1953 by a local teacher, Leopold Senghor, who took stories children already knew in their Wollof language and translated them into French. Fifty years ago, Senghor, the first President of Senegal and winner of the Nobel Prize for Poetry, recorded tales about Leuk, the clever rabbit, and Bouki, the stupid hyena, the same stories, almost word for word, that Fortier collected in the 1870s in Louisiana, including the best known: "The Little Tar Baby."

For hundreds of years, in many countries, these same folktales have been handed down, some calling the rabbit Lapin or Malice, Brother Rabbit or Br'er Rabbit or, as he was known for centuries before: Leuk.  Recalled by young and old, rich and poor, enslaved and free, these stories are, today, among the most widely known folktales in the world. It is this shared cultural treasure that visitors re-discover on their tour of Laura Plantation.


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