THE story of the Tar-Baby is perhaps the best-known of the Uncle Remus tales. In a
fashion that Harris would utilize again, it begins where "Uncle Remus Initiates the
Little Boy" ended, with the ramifications of the conflict between Brer Rabbit and
Brer Fox. The story opens with Brer Fox creating the Tar-Baby as an attempt to capture
Brer Rabbit once and for all. This story is perhaps the first story in which the reader
sees a dual side of Brer Rabbit. Instead of the victimized underdog, we learn of the many
"affronts" that Brer Rabbit has committed within the animal community. We also
learn of his prideful nature when he insists that the Tar-Baby is remiss in ignoring
"respectubble folks" like himself. Essentially, this story introduces a
fundamental aspect of Harris' tales--the reader reaction to Brer Rabbit. After his
depiction in "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story", he assumes a much more
complex characterization--a characterization that makes it more difficult for the reader
to render a judgement about him. Do we applaud him for being the underdog or do we condemn
the fact that he does not triumph because of his good nature, but rather through his
trickery? In the introduction to the tales, Harris identified this dilemma by commenting
on his own mixed feelings in rooting for Brer Rabbit, while having misgivings about his
manner of escape.
In many ways, the racial characterization is as blurred as the moral characterization.
If the tale is to be read as the depiction of one race triumphing over another, who is the
victor in Tar-Baby? Contemporary literary critics, like Houston Baker, have
suggested that the trickster figure--Brer Rabbit--frequently represents the way slaves saw
themselves--getting along in a white plantation culture through subversion and cleverness.
If this is the case, then why does Brer rabbit assume a superior attitude when dealing
with the unresponsive Tar-Baby. Certainly his reaction may be attributed to pride, but
Harris may also be documenting the subtleties of race relations. Is Brer Rabbit asserting
his own superiority over one who is lower than he is one the social order? Does the silent
Tar-Baby represent the lowest tier of plantation culture--the slave who has neither the
education or the desire to assert himself in a white dominated world?
When Brer Rabbit is caught in the sticky substance of the Tar-Baby, the social
implications of the tale shift. Instead of lording his "respectubbleness" over
the Tar-Baby, Brer Rabbit is at the mercy of the Tar-Baby and its creator--Brer Fox. Is
this a subtle reminder from the slave tradition of the dangers of assuming a position of
superiority in a culture that hinges on the relationship between the dominant and the
subordinate? Was the tale intended to function as a commentary of the plantation culture?
Or, were they as Harris suggested--pithy anecdotes passed down for entertainment value?