tar (ta: (r)), sb.1 Forms: a. I teru, teoru (-o), (-tearo); 3-5 (6-Sc.) ter, 4 (Sc.4-) terr, 4-6 terre, 4-5 teer, (5 tere). B. 4-7 tarre, 4-8 tarr, 5 taar, 6-tar. Y. I tyrwe, 2 tirwe. (OE. teru(gen. terw-es), teoru (-0): -* terwo-neut. = MLG. ter. tere, LG. And (thence) mod. Ger. teer, Du. teer; also ON. tjara fem. (Norw. tjora, Sw. tjara, Da. tjaere). OE. had also the deriv. Form * tierwe, tyrwe-*terwjon. Generally considered to be a derivative of O Teut. *trewo-, Goth. triu, OE. Treow tree (Indo- Eur. Derw: dorw-: dru-): cf. Lith. Darva pine-wood. This terwo may have meant orig. ‘the product(pitch) of certain kinds of trees.’

    1. A thick, viscid, black or dark-coloured, inflammable liquid obtained by the distillation of wood (esp. pine, fir, or larch), coal, or other organic substance.

    2. Applied fig. in derogatory reference to someone of mixed black (or Indian, etc.) and white origin.

    3. v.1 trans. To smear or cover with tar.

    4. Attrib. and Comb. Made of, from or with tar; consisting of, containing, or derived from tar.


baby (beibi), sb. Forms: 4-6 babi, 5 babee, 6 babye, 6-7 babie, 4- baby; 6-9 dial. Babby (A pet form of babe (see y4), which passed into familiar use, while babe remained as the dignified word (e.g. in Scripture) and is now chiefly poetic.

    1. sb. An infant, a young child of either sex. (formerly synonymous with child; now usually restricted to an infant ‘in arms.’).

    2. A doll, puppet (obsolete form).

    3. Fig. (contemptuously) a foolish or childish fellow – to smell of the baby: to be childish.


tar baby-

    1. the doll smeared with tar, set to catch Brer Rabbit (1881); hence transf., spec. an object of censure; a sticky problem, or one which is only aggravated by attempts to solve it(colloq.);

    2. a derog. term for a Black (U.S.) or a Maori (N.Z.).

    3. something from which it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself.

    4. n. a "sticky problem" (20th century use).

    5. A Black person (used in the U.S., 1940s).

    6. A derogatory term for a Maori (used in N.Z., 1950s).

    7. A Negro baby. Cf. Tar pot (sense 1) (U.S. colloquial, mid 1800s-present).

tar pot- a Negro child or baby. (U.S., 1900s).



Works Consulted for the above definitions:

The Oxford English Dictionary

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang

Slang and Euphemism




Chronological References in Print of "Tar Baby:"


1881- Joel Chandler Harris publishes Uncle Remus, a collection of African American folklore including the stories of Brer Fox, Brer Rabbit, and "The Wonderful Tar Baby Story:"

"Brer Fox . . . got ‘im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun what he call a *Tar-Baby."

1910- a "Mark Twain" Autobiog. (1924):

"For two years the Courant had been making a ‘tar baby’ of Mr. Blaine, and adding tar every day and now it was called upon to praise him."

1924- Rudyard Kipling’s Debits and Credits(1926):

"Number Five Study . . . were toiling inspiredly at a Tar Baby made up of Beetle’s sweater, and half a dozen lavatory towels; . . . and most of Richard’s weekly blacking allowance for Prout’s House’s boots."

1946- Charles Parrish, Journal of Negro Education, "Color Names and Color Notions:"

In this census type of document, "tar baby" is used with other adjectives such as "medium-light" and "dark" to refer to the shade of an African American’s skin.

1948- S. Lewis’ Kingsblood Royal:

"I didn’t know she was a tar baby."

"Don’t be so dumb, can’t you see it by her jaw?"

1959- M. Shadbolt’s New Zealanders:

"What a hide, though-"

"Those tar-babies and that fellow in the sweater."

1976- National Observer(U.S.)May 15:

"The troubled U.S. Postal Service is fast becoming the political tar baby of the year."

1978- J. Updike’s Coup (1975):

"She was one of those white women who cannot leave black men alone . . . some questing chromosome within holds her sexually fast to the tar baby."

1981- Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, the novel (see also Tar Baby Myth).

1996- Richard T. Cooper, Los Angeles Times, April 21:

"Far from bestriding the Washington scene like a master or painting Clinton into corners, Dole last week looked a lot like the rabbit who wrestled the tar baby."

1996- Lance Morrow, Time, August 26:

"Before Johnson fell for the tar baby of Vietnam, Americans believed their presidents almost always told them the truth."

2000- John Williams, November 25. He submitted what is believed to be the earliest known use of "tar baby" in print to The Oxford English Dictionary. The term appeared in a magazine pre-dating Uncle Remus by 11 years (1870).

2001- the Tar Baby website debuts to feature an all girl (predominantly white) band from London.







Oral History of "Tar Baby"


The origin of the tar baby seems to lie in the capable hands of Uncle Remus; however, many historians actually trace the tar baby back at least 2500 years before the beloved folktale. The tar baby’s oral history is linked to the history of the rabbit trickster tales in which a rabbit or hare plays the trickster while he is often tricked by the Fox or Wolf. Specifically, the tar baby shows up either as a main character, central theme OR as part of a "stickfast" motif:

"From Bobtail to Brer Rabbit: Native American Influences upon Uncle Remus," an essay by Jay Hansford C. Vest, explores the origin of the trickster rabbit and his tar baby.

Aurelio Espinosa (folklorist) determines that "The Wonderful Tar Baby Story" may have its origins in India, he also thinks that it may have been shared , transported to Africa, and then to the Americas by the Spanish. A cycle of trickster tales in Africa were "associated with the spider, Anaanu."

In 1521, after the capture of a Siouan Indian near Winyaw Bay, South Carolina, Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon brought him back to Spain where he was interviewed by historian Peter Martyr. In Martyr’s De Orbe Novo, the author shares his interview during which the Indian relates a folktale of the "stickfast" motif.

As early as 1612, the idea of a "mightie great Hare" as the "chief god" of the Native Americans is introduced by William Strachey (The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania).

In "My Mother’s Brother: Monacan Narratives of the Wolf from the Virginia Blue Ridge," Jay Hansford C. Vest shares the following tale, surely a predecessor of Uncle Remus’ "The Wonderful Tar Baby:"

"Bobtail stooped down and uncovered his friend, exclaiming ‘Go get him Piskey!’ Without hesitating Wolf leapt upon the Piskey (tar baby) slapping him with both front paws which stuck fast . . . they became tightly affixed to the Piskey; and in a last desperate act, Wolf bit the Piskey about its head. Now he was stuck fast . . ."

"The Pointing Man of the Trickster Cycle" of the Winnebago Indians (retold by Richard L. Dieterle) tells the tale of a man who is fooled by a tree stump with a branch that sticks out like a pointing finger. He believes it is a man who is trying to irritate him by not responding or showing due respect to him. For the Winnebago, the moral to this story becomes: "We never look before we set, we do everything without thinking, we think we know all about it." This is easily compared to the tar baby story since the tar baby is "naturally silent."

The most well-known of the trickster rabbit/tar baby tales is of course, Uncle Remus’ "The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story" (1881) which finds its oral history rooted deeply in the stories of slaves told to Joel Chandler Harris. He uses the myth, as many others do, to comment on life at the time.


Tar Baby Myth


The tar baby myth finds itself deeply entrenched in the trickster myth, and so a few clarifications on the trickster myth and its use in literature:

Joel Chandler Harris employs the trickster myth as he spins the tale of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit emerges as a most prideful character who is offended that the Tar Baby is ignoring "respectubble folks" like him; he immediately assumes a superiority complex. The Tar Baby character remains "unresponsive" which is integral to the tale as well as to the future stories it will influence. In fact, Harris has been noted as trying to document "the subtleties of race relations" via his characters. A caste system appears in the story of Tar Baby and Brer Rabbit, with the former "lower" than the latter on the "social order." This low rank may reflect the "lowest tier of plantation culture- the slave who has neither the education or the desire to assert himself in a white dominated world; therefore, he remains "naturally silent." Harris also seems to comment on the hazards associated with taking on a superior role as he clearly places Brer Rabbit at the mercy of Tar Baby and its creator- Brer Fox.

Charles Waddell Chestnut in works such as The Conjure Woman (1899) also uses "ex-slave narrated folk history" and socially charged stories such as the John and Old Marster trickster tales within the frameworks of his novel. These tales were a "prominent subtype" of the classic trickster tale as they provided comic relief through the characters of the wily slave and his master; though they deviated from the animal archetypes, their message was much the same.

Ralph Ellison also uses folklore thematically as he combined the "African American trickster with literary art" in characters such as Trueblood from The Invisible Man.

Even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow uses the Native American/New World trickster tales in his Song of Hiawatha (1855).

Toni Morrison encompasses the true "saturation of fiction" with folklore much of her work. Obviously, Tar Baby is no exception. What Morrison does with these myths and folk tales is to redefine, re-image, remythologize the stories to suit her purpose. She questions the meaning of the retelling and reshaping of "her people." The newly emerging myth of the tar baby becomes this tar baby metaphor to represent black women. Karen Baker-Fletcher ("Tar Baby and Womanist Theology") cites the symbolism of the tar as a "shiny, powerful," and holy substance with the ability to hold things together; it is "a symbol of black women’s cohesive power." Morrison’s earthy female characters are of the tar, of strength, and able to hold together family, community, and life itself. Interestingly, Morrison believes that the tar baby myth actually comes from the tar lady myth of Africa- "powerful symbol of black womanhod . . . a black woman who holds things together; she is a builder and cohesive force." Morrison identifies the plantation version of the myth while using what she feels is the original myth to define the tar baby. In addition, she refers to the derogatory use of the term, especially when applied to black girls, by white society. She expresses the "distortion" of blacks, especially in such myths, by the white culture and she implores blacks to "redefine" those myths on their own terms. There is a focus in her work on a "rediscovery of an African past, lost through slavery and perhaps irretrievable except through myth." In the novel, Tar Baby, the two main characters play the roles of Brer Rabbit (Son) and Tar Baby (Jadine) plus through Morrison’s genius the characters exchange the mythical roles throughout the novel.




Brown, Mary Ellen. Encyclopedia of Folklore and Literature (pp. 117, 183-184, 288, 333-336, 424-425, 665). ABC-CLIO. Santa Barbara, Ca. 1998.


Green, Jonathon. Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (p.1182). Cassell & Co. London. 1998.


Peach, Linda. New Casebooks Toni Morrison. MacMillan Press LTD. London. 1998.


Rigney, Barbara Hill, The Voices of Toni Morrison. Ohio State University Press. Columbus, Ohio. 1991.


Simpson, J.A. The Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition.

Volume I (A-Bazouki, p.851) and Volume XVII (Su-Thrivingly, Pp. 634-635). Clarendon Press. Oxford. 1989.


Spears, Richard A. Slang and Euphemism (pp. 388-389). Jonathon David Publishers, Middle Village, NY, 1981.


Webber, Elizabeth, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Allusions (p. 528). Merriam Webster, Inc. Springfield, Mass. 1999.



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Copyright 2001 by Nancy Maurer


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