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Tar-Baby was a doll made of tar and turpentine, used to entrap Br'er Rabbit in the second of the Uncle Remus stories. The more that Br'er Rabbit fought the Tar-Baby, the more entangled he became. In contemporary usage, "tar baby" refers to any "sticky situation" that is only aggravated by additional contact. The only way to solve such a situation is by separation. Usage with respect to a person is likely to be viewed as controversial as it may have other interpretations.


In one tale, Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear construct a doll out of a lump of tar and dressed it with some clothes. When Br'er Rabbit comes along he addresses the tar "baby" amiably, but receives no response. Br'er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as the Tar Baby's lack of manners, punches it, and in doing so becomes stuck. Now that Br'er Rabbit is stuck, Br'er Fox ponders how to dispose of him. The helpless, but cunning, Br'er Rabbit pleads, "but do please, Brer Fox, don't fling me in dat brier-patch," prompting Fox to do exactly that. As rabbits are at home in thickets, the resourceful Br'er Rabbit escapes. Using the phrases "but do please, Brer Fox, don't fling me in dat brier-patch" and "tar baby" to refer to the idea of "a problem that gets worse the more one struggles against it" became part of the wider culture of the United States in the mid-20th century. The story was originally published in Harper's Weekly by Robert Roosevelt; years later Joel Chandler Harris wrote of the tar baby in his Uncle Remus stories. A similar tale from African folklore in Ghanamarker has the trickster Anansi in the role of Br'er Rabbit.


Although the term's provenance arose in African folklore (e.g., the gum doll Anansi created to trap Mmoatia, the dwarf), some Americans now consider "tar baby" to have negative connotations revolving around negative images of African-Americans. In recent years, several politicians who have publicly used the term have encountered some controversy, mocking, and censure from African-American civil rights leaders, members of the popular daily media, and other politicians.

In an interview, Toni Morrison said the following of its use in her book, in an acting of reclaiming: "Tar Baby is also a name, like 'nigger,' that white people call black children, black girls, as I recall…. At one time, a tar pit was a holy place, at least an important place, because tar was used to build things…. It held together things like Moses' little boat and the pyramids. For me, the tar baby came to mean the black woman who can hold things together."


Walt Disney Studios released Song of the South, which contains the Tar-Baby story, in 1946. The film was never released on VHS in North America due to issues relating to race. Currently Disney is considering releasing the film on DVD. The ride Splash Mountainmarker, which is in three of the Walt Disney theme park, is based on the stories by Uncle Remus. However, instead of the Tar-Baby, Br'er rabbit is captured in a beehive. The changes were made most likely to avoid similar racial controversies that plagued Song of the South from being released on home video.

The Tar Baby was featured as one of the guests in House of Mouse.

Tar Baby also appears in the Toontown countryside in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Related stories

Variations on the tar baby legend are spread among the folklores of more than one culture. In the Journal of American Folklore, Aurelio M. Espinosa examined 267 versions of the tar baby story. The mythical West African hero Anansi is recorded as once being similarly trapped. [107231] In a Spanish language version told in the mountainous parts of Colombiamarker, an unnamed rabbit is trapped by the "Muñeco de Brea" (tar doll). A Buddhist myth tells of Prince Five-weapons (the Future Buddha) who encounters the ogre, Sticky Hair, in a forest.

The Tar Baby theme is present in the lores in various tribes of Meso-America and of South America : it is to be found such stories as the Nahuatl (of Mexico) "Lazy Boy and Little Rabbit" (González Casanova 1946, pp. 55–67), Pipil (of El Salvador) "Rabbit and Little Fox" (Schultes 1977, pp. 113–116), and Palenquero (of Colombia) "Rabbit, Toad, and Tiger" (Patiño Rosselli 1983, pp. 224–229).

According to James Mooney in "Myths of the Cherokee", the tar baby story may have been influenced in America by the Cherokee "Tar Wolf" story, which is unlikely to have been derived from similar African stories: "Some of these animal stories are common to widely separated [Native American] tribes among whom there can be no suspicion of [African] influences. Thus the famous "tar baby" story has variants, not only among the Cherokee, but also in New Mexico, Washington [State], and southern Alaska—wherever, in fact, the pine supplies enough gum to be molded into a ball for [Native American] uses...". In the Tar Wolf story, the animals were thirsty during a dry spell, and agreed to dig a well. The lazy rabbit refused to help dig, and so had no right to drink from the well. But she was thirsty, and stole from the well at night. The other animals fashioned a wolf out of tar and placed it near the well to scare the thief. The rabbit was scared at first, but when the tar wolf did not respond to her questions, she struck it and was held fast. Then she struggled with it and became so ensnared that she couldn't move. The next morning, the animals discovered the rabbit and proposed various ways of killing her, such as cutting her head off, and the rabbit responded to each idea saying that it would not harm her. Then an animal suggested throwing the rabbit into the thicket to die. At this, the rabbit protested vigorously and pleaded for her life. The animals threw the rabbit into the thicket. The rabbit then gave a whoop and bounded away, calling out to the other animals "This is where I live!".

References and notes

  1. Maven's Word of the Day: Tar Baby, 1999-02-12, accessed 2008-03-07.
  2. urbandictionary content warning, accessed June 23rd, 2009
  3. Romney Apologizes For 'Tar Baby', 2006-07-31.
  4. White House Press Briefing, 2006-05-16.
  5. Barbara Crossette Washington at Work; The Senator Pursues 'Untold' M.I.A. Story New York Times, 1992-08-10.
  7. Hamilton Spectator. Canadian Liberal candidate is referenced as 'tar baby', 2007-08-19.
  8. Seabrook City Councilman under fire for using term "tar baby"
  10. Raised on point of order, Debates, House of Commons, Ottawa, Canada, Conservative MP, Pierre Poilievre, uses the term twice answering separate questions during Question Period. 2009-05-29.
  11. The Inauthentic Tar Baby: An Essay on Toni Morrison's Tar Baby by Anniina Jokinen ("An Interview" 255).
  12. Espinosa, A. (1943). A new classification of the fundamental elements of the tar-baby story on the basis of two hundred and sixty-seven versions. Journal of American Folklore, 56, 31-37 as cited in Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York, New York: MJF Books, 87. ISBN 1-56731-120-2.
  13. Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York, New York: MJF Books, 85-89.
  14. Enrique Margery : "The Tar-Baby Motif", p. 9. In :- LATIN AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURES JOURNAL, Vol. 6 (1990), pp. 1-13
  15. James Mooney, "Myths of the Cherokee", Dover 1995, pp. 271-273, 232-236, 450. Reprinted from a Government Printing Office publication of 1900.
  • González Casanova, Pablo (1946) : Cuentos indígenas.
  • Schultze Jena, Leonhard (1977) : Mito y Leyendas de los Pipiles de Izalco. El Salvador : Ediciones Cuscatlán.
  • Patiño Rosselli, Carlos (1983) : Lengua y sociedad en el Panlenque de San Basilio. Bogotá : Instituto Caro y Cuervo.

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