Summer Reading Series – Bryan Wagner’s The Tar Baby: A Global History

The fable of the tar baby is one that spans both centuries and continents; as far back as the late 1800’s and across Europe, Africa, South America, and Asia, you can find the simple tale of a fox ensnaring a rabbit using a life-like figurine made of tar as punishment for stealing the former’s crops.  This is more than a folk tale, Professor Bryan Wagner argues in his newest book, The Tar Baby: A Global Historywhich seeks to understand the story of the tar baby as “a collective work in political philosophy.”  This book, which explores the larger implications of access to food and water in relation to colonialism, global capitalism, and slavery through the lens of this fable, has been embraced by critics and was recently featured in a story by NPR

Below you will find an excerpt from the first chapter of the book titled “Ideas of Culture.”


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 is not, however, trapped for long: he tricks the wolf into tossing him into the briar patch, where he makes his escape.

This composite obviously, perhaps inevitably, fails to capture the true range of variation in the oral tradition of the tar baby. In the hundreds of versions on record, the thief is sometimes a rabbit, other times a spider or a monkey. The owner is sometimes a wolf, other times a possum or a lion. The thief sometimes takes grain from a field, other times fruit from an orchard or water from a well. This flexibility is normal in any vernacular tradition, and any interpretation of the tar baby needs to account for the regular substitution of characters, props, and incidents that occurs as the story is related again and again. Accordingly, one of the central tasks undertaken by scholars interested in the tar baby has been to explain how the story traveled so widely, and why it changed, when it did, along the way.

This longstanding interest in the tar baby, in where the story has been and how it has moved from one place to another, has proven extraordinarily fruitful. This chapter outlines the tar baby’s intellectual reception in anthropology, literature, history, and folklore — disciplines that were being professionalized in the same decades when collectors were publicizing their surprising discoveries about the scale of the story’s worldwide circulation. Although the most elementary questions asked about the tar baby — how it traveled from location to location, why it traveled as far as it did — have never been, and likely never will be, answered empirically, this has never put a stop to speculation. Indeed, it has always been the things we cannot say for sure that have inspired the most influential discourse about the tar baby. The mystery of the story’s diffusion, in particular, helped to shape the terms in which it became possible to think more capaciously about culture.

During the late nineteenth century, the tar baby was one of the examples most often cited by collectors interested in the cultural traditions that slaves had transmitted from Africa to America. Joel Chandler Harris, in particular, was convinced that the tar baby, like the other tales told by Uncle Remus, came from Africa, and in his introductions to the Uncle Remus books, he sought to substantiate this connection by comparing the stories he collected in Georgia to stories collected by Wilhelm Bleek in South Africa and Charles Hartt in Brazil. Based on the similarities among these stories, Harris suggested that they represented the culture that united the African diaspora. According to Harris, stories like the tar baby expressed a racial point of view. They were political allegories in which the relative position of the weaker animals corresponded to the global perspective of the race.

Others followed Harris in this interpretation, looking for analogues to Brer Rabbit wherever there were people of African descent. Some scholars, such as Thomas Crane and Héli Chatelain, recognized prototypes for the tar baby in trickster tales found in Liberia, Congo, Mauritius, South Africa, and the Gold Coast, and they tracked the changes that occurred in the story as it traveled to such places as Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico, and Louisiana. Like Harris, these collectors were committed to an approach that they inherited from Johann Gottfried Herder and the Brothers Grimm, an approach that assumed folk traditions conserved national or racial identity as they were transmitted from generation to generation. In 1892, David Wells put the point succinctly. It was possible, Wells noted, to reconstruct the “history of a race” by tracing the “alterations” in its “typical legends.” In 1896, Alice Bacon agreed with Wells, suggesting that stories like the tar baby were the “chain” that linked “the American with the African Negro.” “Every story in Uncle Remus,” Bacon elaborated, “can be shown to exist in a more primitive shape in Africa, and among people who cannot be suspected of having imported it.” As early as 1877, William Owens was prepared to affirm what seemed obvious: that stories like the tar baby were “as purely African” as the “faces” of the people who told them. Summarizing this prevailing wisdom in 1914, Charlotte Sophia Burne noted the importance of the “African slave-trade” to the “dissemination of folk-tales,” citing as her main example the “Tar-Baby story,” which was known to have been “inherited” by the “coloured population of the United States” from the “tribes of Angola and the Congo.” Writing in 1933, Alice Werner makes the same point. Not only “the Tar-baby” but literally “every story in ‘Uncle Remus,'” she proposes, “can be shown to exist in a more primitive shape in Africa, and among people who cannot be suspected of having imported it from America or elsewhere.”

At the same time as these various critics and collectors were casting their argument for the diasporic provenance of the tar baby, others suggested that the entire tradition concerned with speaking animals, including the collection of ancient fables attributed to Aesop, could only have come from Africa. As early as the thirteenth century, a Byzantine scholar named Planudes speculated that Aesop was a black man from Ethiopia, but this idea did not gain broader acceptance until the nineteenth century when writers like William Godwin and William Martin Leake developed an argument based not only on the evidently false etymological connection (Aesop to Aethiop) that Planudes had made, but also on specific examples, such as “Washing the Ethiopian White,” and on the flora and fauna that recur in the fables. While these claims about Aesop’s blackness remained conjectures, they were common enough to shape the interpretation of the trickster stories that had become, thanks to Harris, strongly associated with African Americans. Some critics, like Arna Bontemps, have even argued that the only “question” is not whether but how Aesop’s fables were turned into the animal stories told by slaves, with others, like J. H. Driberg, suggesting that “if Aesop was not an African, he ought to have been” given the powerful correspondence between his fables and the modern trickster tradition.

The tar baby’s importance to the African diaspora was also emphasized in later studies, including James Weldon Johnson’s Native African Races and Culture (1927) and Melville Herskovits’s The Myth of the Negro Past (1941), which made the case for the influence of African retentions in New World slave societies more comprehensively and systematically than had previous collectors, like Harris, whose research was limited in its coverage and frequently based on specious generalizations. Even as scholars broadened their base of evidence, the tar baby story remained an important touchstone in the argument for African cultural survivals. According to Herskovits, the story was a primary example of the “cultural luggage” that Africans brought with them to America. These claims were supported by field research, as the tar baby had in fact been recorded in locations throughout the African continent from peoples including the Makua, Mbundu, Duala, Dinka, Manganja, Hausa, Fantee, Baronga, Namwanga, Nyungwe, Yao, Temne, and Ewe. As Herskovits notes, the tar baby was considered “so characteristic of West Africa” that collectors had used the version narrated by Uncle Remus as a “point of comparative reference” when seeking out their own folklore on the continent. Collectors sometimes substantiated theirclaims for the tar baby’s diasporic provenance by citing informants who learned the story in Africa before coming to America, as is the case with Lattevi Ajaji, who told the story to John Lomax in Texas. Other times they explained that their informants had learned the story from a friend or relative who had heard it in Africa. Collectors also argued for an African origin by tracking cognates — elements whose strong similarity suggests direct transmission or a common source — marking parallels between “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story” and stories like “The Leopard in the Maize Farm” (collected by John Weeks in the Lower Congo) or “The Spider and the Farmer” (collected by Alfred Burdon Ellis in the coastal territory later known as Ghana). Even when there was no evidence for direct transmission, it seemed plausible to assume a link between stories with such similarities, especially when the stories in question were shared by a racial population presumably related by blood.

This line of argument has always been controversial. Right from the beginning, some scholars disputed Harris’s claim that the tar baby story came from Africa. Even before Harris published his first book, he received a letter from John Wesley Powell, the head of the Smithsonian Bureau of Ethnology, proposing another possible origin for the Uncle Remus stories that Harris had been printing in the Atlanta Constitution. Encountering “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” when it was syndicated in his own evening newspaper, Powell recalled that he had heard versions of the story during his fieldwork with the Southern Paiute in Utah, though at the time he had no idea that the tar baby was also being told by slaves. Powell asserted in his letter to Harris that the tar baby story, like many other Uncle Remus tales, was not in fact invented by African Americans but borrowed from American Indians.

Others noticed the similarities between “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” and the trickster tales that geologist Charles Hartt had collected among the Amazonian population in Brazil. Although Harris maintained that the Amazonians had been taught the story by Africans recently imported as slaves, other scholars, such as James Mooney, held that Hartt’s evidence actually supported the opposite conclusion and that the tar baby story was in consequence not an ancestral inheritance from Africa but instead a cultural compound that could only have been made in the Americas.

Things only became more confusing as collectors continued to find versions of the tar baby in far-flung regions of the world that were assumed to be culturally distinct from one another. The realization that African Americans and Amazonian Indians had culture in common was one of many discoveries from this time that challenged prevailing wisdom about the circulation of culture, during which it was revealed again and again that people from different lands, speaking different languages, were telling the same stories. Such revelations raised basic questions about the relationship between race and culture. In 1906, William Wells Newell detailed the potential implications. Rather than a “closed race handing down from generation to generation its own stock of ideas and beliefs,” Newell imagined bits and pieces of information that were continually “differentiated into new forms” as they drifted from place to place with “disregard” for “barriers” of “descent or language.”

Without standard units of measurement or other methodological controls, folklore collectors were free to sketch any number of speculative itineraries for the tar baby story. Following Powell’s argument in his debate with Harris, many claimed the story was invented in America by the Cherokee, Natchez, or some other tribe before it was borrowed by slaves. Also common was the hypothesis that the tar baby was formulated in Europe, where it was supposed to have descended from the Roman de Renard, a medieval story sequence that was alleged to have traveled from France to Haiti to Louisiana. According to F. M. Warren, the similarity between the two stories appeared to indicate a “very close connection,” or almost a “translation,” the “Roman de Renard being written 700 years ago and Uncle Remus some fifteen years ago.” Elsie Clews Parsons suggested another theory, holding that the tar baby had once belonged to the “Master Thief” story cycle transcribed by Herodotus, and that its independence came relatively late in its passage from Europe to Africa to America. Others believed they had located the story’s origin in Spain, Portugal, or Lithuania. Franz Boas took the time to try out several theories about the tar baby’s “peculiar distribution,” the most striking of which was the idea that the story was carried to places like Mexico and the Philippines by European sailors who had learned the story from slaves who had come to Spain and Portugal direct from Africa. “It is not improbable,” Boas concludes, that European settlers were ultimately “instrumental” in “disseminating tales of Negro origin.”

No matter where these arguments turned, they retained the same stakes. If the tar baby originated in Africa and was carried to other continents by Africans, its transmission could be conceived as diasporic and therefore discernible, across time and space, as a kind of heredity. On the other hand, if the tar baby came from somewhere other than Africa, or if it was transformed during its global diffusion by some intermediary influence, then the strong claim about the story’s connection to racial identity did not hold. If you could track the story’s derivation to Europe, Asia, or America, it followed that there was no necessary connection between culture and race. Whether culture follows or crosses over lines of descent, whether culture is racial, or race is cultural, whether culture constructs or transcends racial identity — these questions have persisted in something like their original form in a range of disciplines including folklore, anthropology, history, musicology, religion, literature, and geography, not to mention interdisciplinary fields such as African American Studies and Ethnic Studies that have made the problem of culture into one of their foundational concerns.

After Harris, the most influential theory about the story’s origin and subsequent diffusion was offered by Joseph Jacobs in his book Indian Fairy Tales (1892). Responding directly to Harris’s hypothesis about the story’s racial descent, Jacobs rejected the idea that the tar baby story came from Africa, proposing instead that it came from India, where it had derived from another story called “The Demon with the Matted Hair,” the fifty-fifth installment from the Jatakas, a cycle of legends recounting the previous lives of the Buddha. In this story, Buddha is a prince who battles a demon, striking it repeatedly and becoming stuck at five points to its syrupy hair. Jacobs cites circumstantial evidence to build his case that “The Demon with the Matted Hair” is the precursor to “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story,” but his claim rests mostly on the oddness of the five-point attack, which is so “preposterously ludicrous” in both tales as to suggest that they could not have been “independently invented.” For Jacobs, the fact that there are tar baby variants in South Africa in regions where there are also Buddhist symbols woven into the local culture “clinches the matter.” The story, he decides, must have been invented in India more than 1,500 years before it was taken to Africa by Buddhist missionaries and then brought to America through the slave trade. Over time, other scholars agreed with Jacobs that the story came from India even as they imagined new pathways for its diffusion — suggesting that its arrival in Africa, for instance, might have come as late as the sixteenth century, with the arrival of Portuguese sailors. Others argued the story went from India to Europe before it was taken to America and taught to slaves by their masters. Others still found versions in Japan, Indonesia, and the Philippines that appeared to have been transmitted directly from the Indian subcontinent.

During the first half of the twentieth century, scholars led by Aurelio Espinosa further subdivided the tar baby by adapting techniques from the so-called “historical-geographical” method in folklore studies, an approach championed by Archer Taylor and Stith Thompson in the United States, which was supposed to provide the tools for breaking down any story (or “tale type”) into its “fundamental motifs” (“motifs” in this case referring to the smallest elements in a story “having a power to persist in tradition”). In a monumental series of essays published between 1930 and 1944, Espinosa gathered together every version of the tar baby he was able to locate, two hundred and sixty-seven by his count, and parsed them using statistics, tables, figures, and graphs to reveal the sequence of the story’s development as well as the course of its global diffusion. Charts measured versions of the story in which the thief is a rabbit against others in which the thief is a spider, a monkey, a jackal, or a human. Calculations were performed to demonstrate how the thief’s role in the story pivots around the changing mechanism of the trap, which in some cases involves artifice (a figure made from tar, wax, or bird lime), in others a naturally occurring entity or substance (a rotten stump or an ogre’s unwashed hair), and in others still a supernatural agency (a cursed amulet or vodou doll).

Excerpted from The Tar Baby: A Global History by Bryan Wagner. Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.