The word "Br'er" in his name (and in those of other characters in the stories) presumably reflects a Baptist practice of including the title "Brother" in addressing male members of one's church congregation. The stories, however, can be traced back to trickster figures, particularly the hare, that figured prominently in the storytelling traditions of West Africa. These tales continue to part of the traditional folklore of such people in Africa as the Wollof of Senegal. In his American incarnation, Br'er Rabbit represents the Black slave who uses his wits to overcome circumstances and even to enact playful revenge on his adversaries, representing the White slave-owners. Though not always successful, his subversive efforts made him both a folk hero and friendly comic figure.
These stories were popularized for the mainstream audience in the late 19th century by Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote up and published many of the stories which previously were passed down only by oral tradition. Joel Chandler Harris heard the tales in Georgia. Very similar versions of the same stories were recorded independently at the same time by folklorist Alcee Fortier in southern Louisiana, where the Rabbit character was known as Compair Lapin in Creole French.