The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story by Joel Chandler Harris, 1881

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by Joel Chandler Harris, 1881

A major force in shaping racial imagery in American literature, Joel Chandler Harris's tar baby story presents a unique combination of African American folklore and Euro-American stereotypes. Told by the stereotypical Uncle Remus, the story of Brer Rabbit's entrapment and escape articulates the anger and separatist philosophy of many African Americans during slavery and Reconstruction.

Originally published in 1879 in Harris's popular Atlanta Constitution column, "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story" circulated widely in 1881 in Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, the first of Harris's 10 Uncle Remus collections. Reflecting Harris's concern with maintaining audience interest, the story was presented in two episodes divided by a cliff-hanger of an ending. "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story" focuses on Brer Rabbit's entrapment by the malicious Brer Fox. In "How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp for Mr. Fox," Brer Rabbit uses his wits to escape to his home in the "brier-patch."

Derived from West African folklore, the tar baby story had become a fundamental part of the African American oral tradition by the time Harris heard it while growing up on a Georgia plantation. In numerous forms it would exert a lasting effect on American culture generally. As a trickster who outwits more powerful adversaries, Brer Rabbit influenced familiar cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny. The Walt Disney movie Song of the South adapted Harris's characters to support an image of the Old South as a benevolent patriarchy. Conversely, revisionist treatments such as Toni Morrison's novel Tar Baby (1981) and Ralph Bakshi's movie Streetfight emphasize Brer Rabbit rather than Uncle Remus, while critiquing racist psychology.

Harris's original audiences in both the North and the South understood the tar baby story as a charming fable reflecting the fundamentally childlike character of blacks. Contradicting the abolitionist emphasis on the brutality of slavery, the image of the loving Uncle Remus with the white boy comforted those seeking reconciliation of sections following the Civil War. In the introduction to Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, Harris describes Uncle Remus as a "type" of the black race: "[Uncle Remus is] an old negro who appears to be venerable enough to have lived during the period which he describes—who has nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery." Although Harris presents his book as a correction of "the intolerable misrepresentations of the minstrel stage," Uncle Remus remains a reassuringly asexual version of the "happy darky" or "kindly uncle."

Harris sensed, however, that the animal tales articulated a substantially different vision of racial relations. Some passages in his introduction anticipate revisionist understandings of the tales as racial allegories pitting symbolic blacks (Brer Rabbit) against larger, more powerful but less intelligent symbolic whites (Brer Fox, Brer Bear). Harris wrote, "It needs no scientific investigation to show why [the Negro storyteller] selects as his hero the weakest and most harmless of animals, and brings him out victorious in contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox." In fact, the unapologetic images of violent death in "The Awful Fate of Mr. Wolf" and "The End of Mr. Bear" suggest that the animal tales symbolically enact the desire for vengeance against whites.

The primary concern of the tar baby story, however, is with survival rather than revenge. The tale transmits two fundamental pieces of wisdom for blacks who, like Brer Rabbit, find themselves in a position of relative weakness in a world dominated by irrationally malicious forces. The first part of the story endorses a separatist stance as a way of avoiding conflict with whites; the second part emphasizes the importance of indirection, intelligence, and verbal agility in responding to problems once they have arisen.

The separatist reading of the tar baby story hinges on an understanding of the tar baby as a white representation of blacks.

Built by Brer Fox specifically to entrap Brer Rabbit, the tar baby recalls basic stereotypes of blacks; it is dark black, foul smelling, motionless, and brainless. Brer Rabbit's first mistake is interacting with the tar baby at all. Although it can do him no harm if he chooses to ignore it, Brer Rabbit demands that the tar baby treat him with proper respect. When it fails to respond to his civil greeting, he resorts to physical violence. At each stage of his entrapment, the best strategy available to Brer Rabbit is calm withdrawal. The angrier he becomes with the tar baby, the more deeply entangled he finds himself. By the time Brer Fox leaves his rocking chair, Brer Rabbit is nearly indistinguishable from the tar baby. His desire to correct the white stereotype, to gain recognition for himself as a real human being, delivers him into the hands of the oppressor. The implications are clearly separatist. The best strategy available for blacks is simply to ignore the white folks and their inaccurate ideas.

Once Brer Rabbit has been entrapped, the story shifts its focus to the use of trickster strategies for survival and escape. The most important resource for Brer Rabbit as trickster is his knowledge of the symbolic whites' cruelty toward and ignorance of blacks. Aware that "Brer Fox wanter hurt Brer Rabbit bad ez he kin," the trickster pleads to be lynched, drowned, or skinned rather than thrown into the briar patch, an image of the true black home. Ignorant of the realities of black life and accepting the stereotype that blacks lack the intelligence needed to outthink and manipulate whites, Brer Fox falls for the trick and releases Brer Rabbit to his home.

Reflecting the fundamental realism of the folk tradition, Harris's half-conscious presentation of an African American wisdom that belies his reassuring frame tale concludes with the situation back where it started. Brer Rabbit, the symbolic black, is no longer in the clutches of his tormentors. But the tormentors, the symbolic whites, have not gone away or changed. The continuing power of what Harris called "the legends themselves in their original simplicity" derives in large part from the continuing relevance of this vision to race relations in the United States.

—Craig Hansen Werner

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The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story by Joel Chandler Harris, 1881

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