The Tar Baby
A Global History
A richly nuanced cultural history of an enigmatic and controversial folktale
Perhaps 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 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.
Bryan Wagner explores how the tar baby story, thought to have originated in Africa, came to exist in hundreds of forms on five continents. Examining its variation, reception, and dispersal over time, he argues that the story is best understood not merely as a folktale but as a collective work in political philosophy. Circulating at the same time and in the same places as new ideas about property and politics developed in colonial law and political economy, the tar baby comes to embody an understanding of the interlocking processes by which custom was criminalized, slaves were captured, and labor was bought and sold.
Compellingly argued and ambitious in scope, the book concludes with twelve versions of the story transcribed from various cultures in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
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.