The Origins of The Tarbaby

John Hanno   March 30, 2017

“Origins of The Tarbaby”

For thousands of years, storytellers of mythologies and folklore around the globe and from every culture have used animals to tell their stories. Rabbits (the cunning tricksters) and Foxes (often portrayed disparagingly) have played prominent roles.

Some of America’s most popular stories draw from Aesop, a slave and storyteller believed to have lived in Greece between 620 and 564 BC. First published in English in 1484, he created stories using various intelligent animals to illustrate an important morality, “the moral of the story”. One of Aesop’s Fables, “The Fox and the Grapes” told of the fox in a vineyard trying to get at the grapes hanging from the vines. Hard as he tried, he couldn’t reach the grapes. He took solace in the fact that they were probably sour anyway. The moral of that story is: people sometimes belittle things they can’t have. This fable brought about the popular expression, “sour grapes”.

These oral stories, eventually transcribed long after Aesop’s death, have been passed down for millennia. The fables were originally written for adults and encompassed social, religious and political themes, but were eventually used for the education and enlightenment of children. Some first appeared in the bible (A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing). These stories, parables or fables, having been passed down orally, transcribed, and eventually translated into dozens of languages, are colored and reinterpreted by cultures and religions throughout the world. No doubt 10’s of millions of stories, fables and interpretations did not emanate solely from Aesop but were created and nurtured  independently from the hearts and minds of folklorists trying to establish a moral compass and to cope with a world rife with danger, bondage, war and chaos.

It’s believed that interpretations of these fables were brought to the new world by slaves. Some also originated from European and Native American traditions. Joel Chandler Harris (December 9, 1845 – July 3, 1908) was an American journalist, fiction writer and folklorist best known for his Uncle Remus stories. Harris was born in Eatonton Georgia. He worked as an apprentice on a plantation as a teen and recorded these slave tales. He spent most of his adult life working as an associate editor at the Atlantic Constitution. He worked and supported racial reconciliation during and after Reconstruction. He recorded many Brer Rabbit stories from the African-American oral traditions and thereby revolutionized children’s stories.

One of his most popular stories, from his collection of American African Fables, The Uncle Remus stories was “Brer Rabbit and the Tarbaby.” Harris published the stories in the dialect used by African slaves. There are no doubt dozens or more versions of  the Tarbaby story, but one later interpretation printed in English, is a version we were told as children. Like the statement orally repeated down a long line of people, where that statement often changes markedly by the time it gets to the end, this is my own version. Feel free to pass on your own versions. And if you’re really ambitious, you can relate the stories in Harris’s original slave dialect.

One day Brer (Brother) Fox, Brer Wolf, Brer Bear and Brer Possum and all the other animals, except Brer Rabbit, decided to dig a well. Brer Rabbit refused to help and only wanted to play. After the animals dug the well, they decided to plough the field and plant corn. But again Brer Rabbit refused to help and only wanted to play. When the animals asked what Brer Rabbit would do when he needed water and corn, he said he would just go and take it.

After the well was dug and the corn was planted and cut, Brer Rabbit just came along and helped himself to it. Brer Fox, Brer Wolf, Brer Bear, Brer Possum and all the other animals decided to catch Brer Rabbit so he couldn’t steal their water and corn any more. But Brer Rabbit was very clever, and nobody could catch him. Brer Wolf took some straw and made it into a baby with a head, arms, legs, a body, and he covered it with sticky black tar until the tar baby looked just like a real baby. Then he sat Tar Baby right next to the well and went away.

Brer Rabbit came along, saw Tar Baby and stopped. He thought it was a real person sitting there. But he needed the water, so he said politely: ‘Good evening, sir. Fine weather we’re having, sir!’ But the Tar Baby made no reply. Brer Rabbit came closer and asked politely, ‘How is your mother, sir? And your grandmother? And your children? And all the rest of your family?’ But still the Tar Baby made no reply. Brer Rabbit came closer and still Tar Baby did nothing and said nothing. Then Brer Rabbit said, ‘You there! Get out of my way!’ But still Tar Baby said nothing. ‘You there!’ said Brer rabbit again. ‘If you don’t move out of my way, I’ll hit you with this paw!’ And he held up his right paw. Tar Baby still said nothing. So Brer Rabbit hit him on the head, and Brer Rabbit’s paw got stuck in the tar and he couldn’t pull it loose! Then Brer Rabbit began to shout, ‘Let me go, let me go!’ But Tar Baby wouldn’t let him go. So Brer Rabbit hit him with his left paw, and with his right foot, and with his left foot – and they all got stuck in the tar! Now Brer Rabbit was very angry, and butted Tar Baby with his head – and his head got stuck in the tar! Brer Rabbit pulled and pulled, but couldn’t get loose, and there he had to stay till the morning, when Brer Wolf came by to see what he had caught.  ‘Good morning, Brer Rabbit,’ said Brer Wolf. ‘How are you this morning? You seem to be a little stuck today!’ And Brer Wolf laughed until his stomach hurt. Brer Rabbit said nothing. Brer Wolf picked up Brer Rabbit and said, ‘It seems you wanted water. So let me throw you into the well.’ ‘Yes Brer Wolf, throw me into the well, but please don’t throw me into that briar patch!’ cried Brer Rabbit. Brer Wolf looked surprised. Brer Rabbit wanted to be thrown into the well? ‘Well then, I will light a fire and roast you and eat you,’ said Brer Wolf. ‘Yes Brer Wolf. Light a fire and roast me and eat me, but please don’t throw me into the briar patch!’  Brer Wolf thought for a minute. ‘Brer Rabbit doesn’t mind the well, he doesn’t mind the fire. But he minds the briar patch!’ And Brer Wolf pulled Brer Rabbit loose from Tar Baby and threw him straight into the briar patch. ‘There now! The briars will poke him and jab him and hurt him!’ he said. Brer Wolf waited and listened for Brer Rabbit’s howls, but instead he heard Brer Rabbit laughing. ‘Thank you Brer Wolf, thank you for sending me back home,’ cried Brer Rabbit. ‘I and my family grew up in this briar patch!’ And off ran Brer Rabbit through the brambles.

When our father told us, in his own words, stories of Aesop and from the Joel Chandler Harris Uncle Remus books of children’s stories, he tried to impress on us the lessons to be learned; the principles of empathy, sharing, generosity, hard work, humility, cooperation and of taking responsibility.

In books and films and songs, the fables and parables of Aesop, Uncle Remus and others have taught many generations of American children and even adults these important principles. Many of these fables have ensconced themselves and their morality firmly into American literature, culture and our everyday vocabulary: Most are attributed to Aesop. Some of those principles are:

(Generosity and Greed) “The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg” or “The Dog and the Bone (Reflection)”

(Never trust someone who deserts you in need), “The Bear and the Travelers”

(Telling the Truth) “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”

(renown is accompanied by risks of which the humble are free)”The Bramble and the Fir”

(A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush) “The Fisherman and the Little Fish”

(The perils of flattery) “The Fox and the Crow”

(Honesty is the best policy) “The Honest Woodcutter”

(Carry your share of the load) “The Horse and the Donkey”

(Notoriety is often mistaken for fame) “The Mischievous Dog”

(Being charitable with your fortune) “The Miser and His Gold”

(Warning against the promises of politicians “Great cry and Little Wool”) “The Mountain in Labour”

(The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence) “The Ass and His Masters”

(Clothes may disguise a fool but his words will give him away) “The Ass in the Lions Skin”

(“In my opinion, Golden Rule, Better be lonely than be with a fool”) “The Bear and the Gardener”

(group of mice who debate plans to nullify the threat of a marauding cat) “Belling the Cat” or “The Mice in Counsel”

(When we are avoiding present dangers, we should not fall into even worse peril) “Jumping from the frying pan into the fire”

(One’s basic nature eventually betrays itself) “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” From the Bible.

I will attempt through this blog, to use the lessons we were taught or should have learned from our parents growing up, to make sense of a world often obsessed with fortune, fame and winning at all costs. I’ll explore how they help to effect our nature, our ambitions, one’s humility, intelligence, temperament, compassion and how they nurture our souls. The modern day definition of a tarbaby is “a situation, problem, or the like, that is almost impossible to solve or to break away from.” In a legal sense, its a case that just won’t end or be resolved.

A Tarbaby, like Brer Rabbit’s dilemma, embodies something that appears worthy or profitable but turns out to be a grandiose illusion; It could be a person, a place or an object, or anything we lust after but may then regret getting.  There are tarbabys in every aspect of modern society. We’ll explore them together. I ask that anyone who contributes, to please respect the process; and to refrain from restating talking points repeated time and again. Please be creative, original and entertaining. And please respect the fact that younger folks and children might be contributing. Thank you, John Hanno