“Anansi and the Tar-Baby”

Informant Data: My informant is an International Relations major here at the University of Southern California. He is African-American, and was brought up on many West African folktales. When he retells the following tale, he speaks emphatically and passionately.

Item: The folk-tale of “Anansi and the Tar-baby.” The following quotations are direct transcriptions of my dialogue with the informant, while the additional information provided is paraphrased.

“So once Anansi lived with his wife and many children in a house somewhere in West Africa. Every day, Anansi’s wife and his children would go out to the farm where they live and they would pick yams and tend to the farm animals and all the while Anansi would recline at home and eat the fruits of their labor. And every day, once his family returned from their hard day at work, they would find that Anansi had eaten everything in the house, having contributed nothing to the labor. And as they grew thinner and thinner, Anansi grew lazier and lazier and fatter and fatter. Anansi’s wife devised a plan to get rid of him; they would play on his pride and his anger. She goes out to the fields and she makes a visage of Anansi out of tar. The next morning she came in and told Anansi there was a stranger on their property, and he wouldn’t leave no matter how much they implored. So Anansi, full of pride and self-righteous anger, went out to confront this trespasser. Anansi addressed the tar-baby, but the tar-baby didn’t respond, which made Anansi angry. Anansi repeats his challenge, but again gets no response. And what he perceives as an additional slight infuriates Anansi and drives him to punch the tar-baby. His hand becomes stuck in the tar and he demands the tar-baby to return his hand to him. Upon getting no response, Anansi is further angered and strikes the tar-baby with his other hand, resulting in it getting stuck as well. So he continues to kick and punch the tar-baby until all his limbs are stuck. His anger continues until he is driven to bite the tar-baby. His face becomes stuck in the tar as well, which causes him to suffocate and die.”

Contextual Data: The informant first heard this tale in his early childhood. “I must have been pretty young [when first introduced], my mom used to tell them to me and my older brother when we were little on long car rides, the stories in my family are one of the few cultural things I have from my West African heritage, so Anansi and his many stories definitely hold significance to me.” I asked my informant to describe and, if possible, define “Anansi” and his transcending role in his stories, to which he replied “Anansi is a lazy trickster thief of West African legend who is credited with winning Stories from the Sky God and bringing them to the people of the earth.” He emphasized that “Stories” was with a capital “S” because he was not simply the keeper of stories, but “the origin, the concept and the sharer.” I asked how this made my informant feel and what he thought of Anansi, to which he replied: “I think he’s awesome. I really like his stories, I named my dog after Anansi and still name things after him today, like internet passwords or small things. The messages of his tales are always concise, and there’s beauty in the simplicity.” As for what the message of this particular tale is, he assuredly stated: “To reprimand pride and laziness.” The tale serves a purpose beyond that of entertainment; it provides an anecdotal exaggeration to caution listeners about their self-serving actions. It clearly defines the actions of Anansi as undesirable, immoral and worthy of reprimand, in attempts to serve as a guiding script in the future actions of the audience. Tales like that of “Anansi and the Tar-Baby” are often, regardless of their original targeted audience, utilized as parenting tools to introduce and engage children with the expected moral standard of their society, as evidenced in my informant’s personal interaction with the folk-tale.