Racism and the Tar Baby

I doubt that many read Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908) these days. The Uncle Remus guy.[1]  He was de riguer reading for children in my day, and his stories involved an old black man named Uncle Remus sharing tales about the Old South, typically with animals as stand-in for humans. Disney made a few animated movies about Chandler’s stories, as I recall. One recurring theme throughout the stories was the rivalry between Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit and the unsuccessful attempts by Brer Fox to catch Brer Rabbit, in the manner of Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.

My favorite Uncle Remus story as a child was “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story,” which begins with Brer Fox hatching yet another scheme to snare Brer Rabbit.  The gimmick has Brer Fox creating a human baby out of tar, placing a hat on its head, and situating it in the middle of a path frequented by Brer Rabbit.  Brer Fox lay in wait behind a nearby briar patch for Brer Rabbit to pass by, which he does, soon enough. Brer Rabbit approaches the black baby and greets it.  Infuriated by the disrespectful silence of the Tar Baby, Brer Rabbit threatens violence if the cheeky Tar Baby does not show due respect by removing its hat.[2] Further silence. Brer Rabbit loses his temper and punches the Tar Baby. Of course, his paw becomes stuck in the Tar Baby’s head. Brer Rabbit belts the Tar Baby with his free front paw. Same result. Brer Rabbit attempts to kick the Tar Baby into submission, achieving the same predictable results. After head-butting the Tar Baby, Brer Rabbit is entirely stuck.

I wonder if we might learn something from this story. Perhaps we might consider the Tar Baby as black America, and Brer Rabbit as the system that resorts to violent measures to cow dissenters into submissiveness should blacks not know their place. The more wedded to violence, the more hopelessly we find ourselves ensnared in the tar of racism.

So, what happened to Brer Fox, you ask?  We left him hiding out in the briar patch. Did he eat Brer Rabbit? Well, no. While Brer Fox contemplates how to kill his prey, Brer Rabbit implores his captor not to hurl him into the briar patch. Eventually, Brer Fox does just that, and Brer Rabbit escapes to a nearby hilltop, from where he mocks Brer Fox.
“Bred en bawn in a brier-patch, Brer Fox–bred en bawn in a brier-patch!”

So who or what does Brer Fox represent? To me, he represents the US justice system. So how is it that Brer Rabbit escapes justice? You tell me.


[1] A quick biography of Harris can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Chandler_Harris

[2] (“‘I’m gwine ter larn you how ter talk ter ‘spectubble folks ef hit’s de las’
ack,’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Ef you don’t take off dat hat en tell me
howdy, I’m gwine ter bus’ you wide open,’ sezee.)  The text of the story can be found here: http://www.en.utexas.edu/amlit/amlitprivate/texts/remus.htm

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