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The Tar BabyA Global History$
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Bryan Wagner

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780691172637

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691172637.001.0001

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States of Nature

States of Nature

(p.20) Chapter Two States of Nature
The Tar Baby

Bryan Wagner

Princeton University Press

This chapter focuses on Robin D. G. Kelley and Earl Lewis' standard interpretation of the tar baby story. Recurring themes in this interpretation include the affirmative emphasis on the independent culture of the slave quarters, construed as a counterbalance to the deadening routine of suffering and exploitation; the idea that stories like the tar baby were designed to instruct slaves in the methods necessary for survival, encouraging caution and modeling tactics of deception and misdirection; and the suggestion that there is nothing “distant and abstract” about the tar baby, as the story is grounded in everyday existence. This interpretation extends to twentieth-century folklore anthologies describing the vicarious satisfaction that slaves found by identifying with the underdog in trickster stories.

Keywords:   tar baby, Robin D. G. Kelley, Earl Lewis, slave quarters, suffering, exploiting, survival, underdog, trickster stories

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