“The Wonderful Tar Baby” is one of the many Brer (brother) Rabbit tales passed down by African slaves and retold by journalist and folklorist Joel Chandler Harris in a series of seven books, all narrated by a character called Uncle Remus. Harris wrote the stories in a dialect intended to imitate the speech of plantation slaves in the Deep South. The character of Uncle Remus is an elderly freedman who tells the folktales to a child known as “Aunt Sally’s little boy.”
Brer Rabbit is an archetypal trickster. He is not physically imposing and cannot get his way by virtue of his size or through direct conflict. But he inevitably makes up for these limitations by using his wits. In coded way, Brer Rabbit sets an example for and teaches a lesson to the slave community. Like Brer Rabbit, slaves were not in a position to take on their oppressors openly, but they could attempt to better their lives by relying on their wits.
In “The Wonderful Tar Baby,” Brer Rabbit gets himself into trouble because he feels insulted and resorts to physical violence. He does, however, get himself out of a literally sticky situation by using his wits. Brer Fox, who frequently makes an appearance as a nemesis of Brer Rabbit, constructs a figure out of tar, the “tar baby.” Brer Rabbit mistakes the tar baby for a real person and greets it. When the figure does not reply, Brer Rabbit takes the silence for rudeness and slaps the tar baby. He first gets one paw stuck, then another, then both feet and even his head. He manages to outsmart Brer Fox, however, by begging that he be given any form of punishment except for that of being thrown into a briar patch. Of course, cruel Brer Fox does exactly that. The fox throws him into the briar patch, assuming that this is the worst possible punishment. Of course, he is unaware that rabbits are perfectly at home and safe in briar patches.
The more Brer Rabbit engages with the tar baby by hitting it, the more stuck he himself becomes. This alludes to the idea that some situations are made worse by direct engagement, and are better dealt with in an indirect way.
Slaves could not take on the powerful and terrible institution of slavery with individual force. Brer Rabbit, as a kind of folk hero, offers a survival strategy through allegory. Just as Brer Fox does not understand the ways of rabbits and therefore does not know that their freedom lies in the briar patch, slave owners do not understand the intelligence and mettle of their slaves. This lack of knowledge provides an advantage to the slaves. They can use their wits for survival strategies and to make their daily lives more bearable.