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.