Project Partners

Participating Institutions

Year 1 (2007/08): The 17th & 18th Centuries

Summer Institute 2008

Year 2 (2008/09): The 19th Century

Summer Institute 2009

Year 3 (2009/10): The 20th Century

Summer Institute 2010

View/Submit Lessons

Additional Resources

Photo Gallery

Contact Us











Understand Slave Culture Through Oral Tradition

Created by:
Barbara Langel
Absegami High School

Kim Cramer
Absegami High School

Pam Lawler
Absegami High School

Slavery in the 19th Century

Grade Level:
9 to 12


Fables and trickster tales are short narratives that use animal characters with human features to convey folk wisdom and to help us understand human nature and human behavior. These stories were originally passed down through oral tradition and were eventually written down.

In this unit, students will become familiar with fables and trickster tales from different cultural traditions and will see how stories change when transferred orally between generations and cultures. They will learn how both types of folktales employ various animals in different ways to portray human strengths and weaknesses and to pass down wisdom from one generation to the next. Use the following lessons to introduce students to the world of folklore and to explore how folktales convey the perspectives of different world cultures.

Historical Context

Storytelling, which aids in giving the younger generation traditions and establishes morality, is an important African custom. In addition, storytelling passes along the history of a group. The tribes of Africa used storytelling, with requisite songs and poems, throughout the years. In their stories, nature and animals appear often. The animals in the stories had human characteristics and personalities.

When Africans were transported to the New World the continuation of their storytelling tradition persisted. Slavery was established in the Americas soon after discovery and colonization. Through the years millions of Africans were taken from their homeland to be forced into slavery. Standard African traditions were forbidden, along with native African languages, as slave-owners feared any type of situation in which slaves could collaborate without the masters' knowledge.

Conditions for slaves were harsh; they worked from sun-up to sun-down. In those rare moments of free time, stories were told. Stories, such as the Brer Rabbit and Little John tales, portrayed the underdog as triumphing over the more powerful adversary. In this way, slaves could believe that they would also one day triumph over the powerful slave-owner. Brer Rabbit and other slave stories depicted the downtrodden as clever and able to get over on his master. The hero of these tales achieves his ends by devious means. Slaves could tell these stories without provoking anger from the slave-owner. The animals in the Brer Rabbit tales were given human characteristics and personalities in the traditional African way.

These stories, along with songs, were forms of entertainment among slaves. Slave-owners were able to affirm that slaves were content with their lifestyle, due to the fact singing and storytelling are generally positive activities. However, the songs and the stories had double meanings. Listening to the Brer Rabbit stories bolstered the courage of the slaves, as they could relate to Brer Rabbit and hope for a time when they could outsmart their own Brer Fox, or slave-owner.

Slaves were forced to transmit these stories orally as literacy among the slaves was outlawed. Slave-owners feared an educated slave population. In addition, if a slave could read and write, he or she may have the opportunity to forge documents.

White children of the South were also told the Brer Rabbit stories. As with any oral tradition, stories are altered in the re-telling. Joel Chandler Harris, a White Southerner from Georgia, heard these stories as a child and profited from publishing the tales after the Civil War. He also included a caricature of a slave called Uncle Remus and added a bright White child, further subverting the message.


cultural lives of slaves, oral history, responses to slavery (coping mechanisms), emotional lives of slaves

Goals and Objectives:

After completing this activity, students will be able to:

1. Identify the definition and understand elements of fables and trickster stories.

2. Identify the specific narrative and thematic patterns that occur in fables and trickster tales across cultures.

3. Analyze and interpret oral histories


6.1.A: Social Studies Skills- Students will utilize historical thinking, problem solving, and research skills to maximize their understanding of civics, history, geography, and economics.

6.4.A: United States and New Jersey History: Family and Community Life

6.4.B: United States and New Jersey History: State and Nation

6.4.G: United States and New Jersey History: Civil War and Reconstruction

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

Brer Rabbit Meets a Tar Baby Reading

Brer Rabbit And The Trickster Tricked Reading

Brer rabbit Earns a Dollar-A-Minute Reading

Brer Rabbit Fools Sis Cow Reading

Brer Rabbit Falls Down the Well Reading

Brer Fox Catches Old Man Tarrypin Reading

Recording Oral History and Writing A Trickster Story Handout

Details of Activity

Part I: Brainstorm Activity (5 min.)

Ask students to imagine that they are enslaved and brainstorm the ways in which they would hold onto their identity and what coping mechanisms they would use to survive the experience. Ask them to explain how creating songs, stories, poetry, and art help people to cope with difficult situations.

Part II: Oral History (5 min.)

Provide students with a brief history of the Brer Rabbit stories as ask students what might be some pros and cons of oral history in general, and pros and cons of using oral history to study subjects such as slavery. Chart student responses on the board.

Part III: Story Distribution and Homogeneous Small Group Work (15 min.)

Divide the class evenly into 6 small groups. Number the groups 1-6, then assign each person in the group a letter (Appendix A, B, C & etc.). Provide each group with a copy of a different Brer Rabbit story and give the groups a few minutes to read the short story. After having read the story, the group should complete the analysis worksheet and be prepared to orally translate the story to other students in the class. When the groups have finished, collect the work so that the students no longer have access to the written copy of the Brer Rabbit story.

Part IV: Heterogeneous Small Group Activity (15 min.)

Reorganize the groups based on their individual assigned letter. One story at a time, the students should orally tell the story they read to one person in the group, who then passes the story on. This should mimic the game "telephone." The last person would tell their version of the story aloud to their small group. The original story teller should then tell the actual story. After ten minutes of passing along the stories, have the students stop and complete the second worksheet, recording oral history.

Part VI: Wrap Up (5 min.)

Ask the class if this exercise has demonstrated both the pros and cons of oral history that were charted on the board from earlier in the class period. How does the message in the Brer Rabbit stories serve as a coping mechanism for slaves? How reliable is oral history? Why is oral history valuable none-the-less? Distribute homework as a reinforcement activity.

Practice and Reinforcement

On their own students should write their own trickster tale where their main character uses wit to outsmart the adversary. This assignment is described in the homework handout. Give the students a few nights to complete their tales. You could then have them share them aloud with the class on the due date.


Web Links:
Provides access to stories on Brer Rabbit.

Provides access to stories on Brer Rabbit.

Provides access to stories on Brer Rabbit.

Provides the history behind African-American liter

Historical information on African American literat

This website contains almost seven hours of record

Supplementary Materials








For more information about the Teaching American History Program click here