The Tar Baby: A Global History

The Tar Baby: A Global History

The Tar Baby offers a fresh analysis of a deceptively simple story about a wolf, a rabbit, and a doll made of tar and turpentine. Examining the story's variation and reception, Bryan Wagner argues that the tar baby is best understood not merely as a folktale but as a collective work in political philosophy. Circulating at the same time and in the same places as new ideas about property and politics developed in colonial law and political economy, the story embodies an understanding of the interlocking processes by which custom was criminalized, slaves were captured, and labor was bought and sold.

"Exhaustively researched, meticulously argued, and elegantly written, Bryan Wagner's The Tar Baby places Brer Rabbit and the gang at the very heart of an investigation that both illuminates the intricacies of the tar baby and exposes it to an uncustomary broadening of the scope and range of its meanings. Wagner's tar baby is not one we know; his account opens a wider horizon of persuasions and alignments that interrogate the onset of capitalism and the disorienting experience of early globalization."―Hortense J. Spillers, Vanderbilt University

"A remarkably rich and wide-ranging book that draws on many histories, geographies, and disciplines in exploring one of the nation's―and the world's―most disturbing but strangely elusive racial stories."―Eric J. Sundquist, Johns Hopkins University

Publication date: 
April 25, 2017
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