Bryan Wagner on a controversial folktale: The Tar Baby

WagnerPerhaps the best-known version of the tar baby story was published in 1880 by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, and popularized in Song of the South, the 1946 Disney movie. Other versions of the story, however, have surfaced in many other places throughout the world, including Nigeria, Brazil, Corsica, Jamaica, India, and the Philippines. The Tar Baby: A Global History by Bryan Wagner offers a fresh analysis of this deceptively simple story about a fox, a rabbit, and a doll made of tar and turpentine, tracing its history and its connections to slavery, colonialism, and global trade. Wagner explores how the tar baby story, thought to have originated in Africa, came to exist in hundreds of forms on five continents.

What is the tar baby story?

BW: There are hundreds of versions of the story, involving many characters and situations. It’s not possible to summarize the story in a way that can encompass all of its variants. The story does, however, follow a broad outline. I provide the following example in the book: “A rabbit and a wolf are neighbors. In the summer, the rabbit wastes his time singing songs, smoking cigarettes, and drinking wine, while the wolf stays busy working in his fields. The rabbit then steals from the wolf all winter. The next year, the wolf decides he will catch the rabbit by placing a tar baby, a lifelike figurine made from tar softened with turpentine, on the way to his fields. When the rabbit meets the tar baby in the road, and the tar baby does not reply to his greetings, the rabbit becomes angry and punches, kicks, and head-butts the tar baby until he is stuck at five points and left to the mercy of the wolf. The rabbit, however, is not trapped for long as he tricks the wolf into tossing him into the briar patch where he makes his escape.” In addition to this summary, I also provide an appendix with versions of the story transcribed in Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, the Cape Verde Islands, the Bahamas, Corsica, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, the Philippines, and the United States. I also include a map of these stories representing when and where they were collected.

Why did you write a book about the tar baby story?

BW: The tar baby has some familiar associations. People think about the ways in which the term “tar baby” has been used as a racial slur. Or they think about it as a figure of speech referring to a situation that gets worse the harder you try to solve it. Or they think about the version of the story that was published by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings (1881). Or they think about the adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories in the Walt Disney movie Song of the South (1946). Most people don’t know that that the story of the tar baby was not invented by Harris. They don’t know that the story exists in hundreds of versions in the oral tradition that were collected on five continents in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Scholars during these decades were fascinated by the story. They wanted to know how the story came to exist in all of these far-flung places. Some people, including Harris, thought the tar baby story was a key example of the cultural tradition that slaves brought with them from Africa to the Americas. Others believed that the tar baby originated not in Africa but in India or France. Still others believed it was invented by American Indians and borrowed by African Americans. The argument was fierce, and the stakes were high. Did culture belong to a race of people? Or did it cross over racial lines? Did culture construct or transcend racial identity? These questions have stayed with us even as they have been applied to a wide range of examples. It is important to recognize that the tar baby was one of the earliest and most important cases through which these questions were formulated.

The tar baby story is important to ideas about culture and race. Is it also important for politics?

BW: Yes that’s right. Increasingly over the twentieth century, scholars looked to trickster stories like the tar baby for evidence of how peasants and slaves reflected on the politics of everyday life.

Peasants and slaves told stories like the tar baby, it was argued, to share lessons about how to survive in a hostile world where the cards were stacked against you. These ideas were essential to intellectual movements like the new social history and certain strains of political anthropology. At the same time, other scholars have questioned this approach, arguing that it turns politics into the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest, failing to account for the importance of cooperation. I think that scholars have been right to bring these big questions about culture and politics to the story, but I also think that the answers they have discovered in the story have been insufficient. My book approaches the tar baby as a collective experiment in political philosophy. It argues that we need to understand the ways in which the story addresses universal problems—freedom and captivity, labor and value, crime and custom—if we are to gauge its powerful allure for the slaves, fugitives, emigrants, sailors, soldiers, and indentured workers who brought it all the way around the world.

What about the story’s longstanding association with racism? Is “tar baby” a racist term?

BW: That last one is a complex question, but the short answer is yes. Some people like William Safire and John McWhorter have argued that the racism associated with the term “tar baby” is a recent invention, and that the term’s original meaning is not about race. This is disproven by the fact that there are examples from the early nineteenth century where the term was already being used as a racial slur specifically directed at African American children. Harris published his first version of the tar baby story in the Atlanta Constitution at a time when the newspaper was using the term as a racial slur in its news articles. The term’s racism is not incidental to the story. This is also confirmed by the fact that illustrations from early versions of the story represent the tar baby as having phenotypically African facial features. In complex ways, the story is about the history of racism, and for this reason, I don’t think the term should be used in an offhand way as a figure of speech for an intractable situation. This usage is offensive not least for its willful ignorance of the long history of suffering and exploitation that the story attempts in its own way to comprehend.

Bryan Wagner is associate professor in the English Department at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Disturbing the Peace: Black Culture and the Police Power after Slavery and Tar Baby: A Global History.

Jack Zipes on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

The Sorcerer’s ApprenticeZipes by Jack Zipes enlightens and entertains with enduring, spellbinding tales of sorcery. The title might conjure up images of Mickey Mouse from the Disney film Fantasia, or of Harry Potter. But as this anthology reveals, “sorcerer’s apprentice” tales—in which a young person rebels against, or complies with, an authority who holds the keys to magical powers—have been told through the centuries, in many languages and cultures, from classical times to today. This unique and beautifully illustrated book brings together more than fifty sorcerer’s apprentice stories by a plethora of writers, including Ovid, Sir Walter Scott, and the Brothers Grimm. Zipes recently took the time to answer a few questions about his latest book.

What prompted you to collect all the different “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales?

JZ: We are still living in the Dark Ages, and consequently, five years ago, I wanted to shed some light on what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer have called the dialectic of the Enlightenment, and why reason has been obfuscated and overshadowed by superstition, religion, government, and corporate powers in so-called modern “enlightened” times. At one point in my research I came across various versions of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” that contradicted the popular Disney tale with which I was most familiar. These were stories in which the apprentice defeated a sordid, power-hungry sorcerer and which showed how knowledge could be used for emancipation and enlightenment. From that point on, I could not stop collecting similar tales that are included in the present anthology.

Why are these tales so significant?

JZ: The “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales are highly significant because they present magic primarily as a stable value of transformation that allows for self-consciousness and self-fashioning. These unusual tales counter the defamation of magic by religion, science, and the state, and raise the question of the master/slave dialectic that challenges elites and the status quo. In this regard, I have framed this anthology of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales to represent the two major strains of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tradition and their historical development. It begins with tales of “The Humiliated Apprentice,” followed by “The Rebellious Apprentice” stories and Krabat tales. The majority of the tales stem from “The Rebellious Apprentice” tale type. This larger number, compared to the smaller amount of “The Humiliated Apprentice” tale type, is not due to my prejudices but simply to the fact that I did not find as many “Humiliated Apprentice” tales in my vast research as I did “Rebellious Apprentice” tales. The disparity speaks for itself, for the rebellion of apprentices of all kinds is a constant in all societies and in all ages.

What is at the basis of the conflict between the sorcerer and his apprentice?

JZ: Our knowledge of ourselves and the world is attained through experiencing “slavery” and knowing what being in slavery entails. This means that we are all involved in what the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in Phenomenology of Spirit, calls a dialectical bloody battle to death that underlies all types of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales. In most of the oral tales and many of the literary tales about sorcerer’s apprentices, the narrative perspective is what I call the “slave’s perspective,” a voice and view from below, no matter who the collector, mediator, or publisher of the tale may have been. This view is what makes the tales so striking. Though it may be difficult to explore and explain how people, defined and treated as slaves, contributed to the formation of culture from below, it can be done. The renowned American folklorist Richard Dorson drew important historical connections in his collection Negro Folktales in Michigan in dealing with American master/slave tales told by African-Americans. The“Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales do not provide a solution to the master/slave conflict; they are not prescriptions or formulas for ending this conflict. What I have tried to demonstrate through collecting tales from various periods, and from different European, Asian, African, and American countries, is how these stories play out essential conflicts whose resolutions determine the nature of what it is to be human and humane.

Why do magic and magical transformation matter so much in people’s lives?

JZ: For a variety of reasons throughout the centuries, people have sought knowledge and power through magic. Tales about the desire for magic, which have evolved from words, fragments, and sentences, are not only wish-fulfillment tales but also blunt expressions of emotions that reveal what the people who tell, write, and listen to the tales lack, and what they want. Most people in the world believe in some kind of magic, whether religious or secular, and want to control “magic,” or “mana,” to escape enslavement and determine the path of their lives. According to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, all people are stamped by what he calls our habitus—the beliefs, values and customs that mark and shape our thoughts, values, and behavior from birth. To know ourselves and to free ourselves, Bourdieu writes, we must continually confront masters, who, if they do not learn from their slaves, will ultimately have to die in order for the slaves to gain release and freedom.

In what way did Walt Disney warp the tradition of the rebellious apprentice?

JZ: People tend to believe that the ideal, if not definitive, version of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is the Disney cinematic and literary tale produced as part of the film Fantasia in 1940. This is a misconception, and our unquestioning acceptance of the Disney version, which reinforces notions of humiliation, has ramifications for the abusive way we treat children. In fact, the transformation of the ancient “Humiliated Apprentice” tales into a “charming” children’s tale is one of the ways in which mass-mediated and commodified children’s literature ideologically warps if not perverts folklore to induct children into authoritarian civilizing processes. On the other hand, the oral traditions of anonymous storytelling that favor the “Rebellious Apprentice” tales oppose the oppression of commodified tales. Stories, storytellers, and writers look for the most fitting and artistic modality they can find to articulate views about life and the world. In the formation of what I call a memetic tradition of folk-tale types and fairy tales, there has always been a communal expression of themes that formed tales relevant to be remembered. Many of the themes are connected to beliefs in magic and magical transformation. Indeed, the pursuit of magic often underlies the patterns of folk and fairy tales. In this regard, the themes found in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales are organically connected with the customs and beliefs of people who engendered them, and they form never-ending cultural traditions of resistance to the domination of magicians who misuse power. This unique collection of “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales sheds light on how young people have rebelled against the oppression and domination of magicians who use magic to control and exploit apprentices. The long history of the“Sorcerer’s Apprentice” tales that date back to Greco-Roman times reflects how rebellion is key to understanding the relevance of the tales which expose the contradictions in the popularity of the Disney commodified version.

Jack Zipes is the editor and translator of The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. He is professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. Natalie Frank is an American artist currently living and working in New York City. Her work is held in multiple museum collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum. They are the author and illustrator of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Anthology of Magical Tales.