“The story has three characters. The brer rabbit, brer fox, and tar baby. It tells the moral story of how resourcefulness can allow you to reach your goals.”
My informant heard this story growing up as a child in Louisiana. It is an African-American folktale related to and a variation of the “Tortoise and the Hare” tale.
A: “This is the story of a sly fox and clever rabbit. The sly fox makes a tar baby figure, lays it in the path of bre’r rabbit, and hides behind a nearby bush. When the rabbit comes walking down the trail it gets stuck to the tar and can’t get free. The bre’r fox walks from behind the bush to see the effect of the trap he set, taunt, and contemplate how he wanted to kill bre’r rabbit. Bre’r rabbit begs and pleads to brer fox to do anything but throw him in the nearby briar patch. Bre’r fox hears this and decides to do exactly that. What he doesn’t know is that rabbits are brought up in dense thickets so he is accustomed to it and shouts “I was bred in a briar patch”. Being thrown in the briar patch ultimately allows him to escape from bre’r fox who is shocked and can’t really believe what had just happened.”
Q: “What do the names bre’r and tar baby mean or come from?”
A: “Bre’r is used a lot in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) as another way to say brother or like acquaintance. In its original context, tar baby just represented a sticky situation that was harder to get out of the more you struggled but in other contexts it was interpreted as having negative racial connotations. In this story though, it refers to a black doll made of tar with a straw hat.”
Q: “Where did you hear this story?”
A: “Well these characters were part of James Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories from the late 80s and my grandpa would read the stories to me and my siblings growing up. They would try to get across lessons like the the importance of community and resourcefulness, and the dangers of pride.”
This text is a folk tale or fable in my interpretation, specifically, a trickster tale. It is a variation of the commonly know fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” where the hare is over confident in his speed and takes a nap during the race meanwhile the tortoise takes its time moving steadily and wins the race. The rabbit and tar baby variation is more commonly heard in African American communities and is representative of the African American experience during times of slavery. The tar baby is a metaphor for the exploitation of African Americans by slave owners and the institution of slavery as a whole. It is a mild retelling for children of the “sticky situation” showing how it can be overcome through resourcefulness and intelligence. The brer rabbit symbolizes that ingenuity and resourcefulness of enslaved people as they used their creativity and astuteness to withstand and survive their oppressors. The fable is a form of trickster tales as the brer rabbit takes the role of the trickster as well as the fox. As Carroll describes, the trickster term is illustrative of a clever hero in a tale who uses their cunning ability and wits to achieve their end goal. The brer fox, the trickster “villain” of the variations of the brer rabbit and tar baby tale, is representative of a trickster who uses their sly nature to deceive others for their own personal gain often resulting in his own loss. In the variation from “The Tortoise and the Hare” tale, the moral of the story also adapts and is reflective of the cultural context from which it may have originated. As bre’r is a term stemming from AAVE, it implies a sense of African-American brotherhood making it clear the context and origin of the characters and story.