From the deepest recesses of my book shelf, I bring you some scans of a book that caused me deep confusion as a child. This was almost certainly a hand-me-down from my older siblings. Can you believe that my parents even let me have this? Anyway, below are pages from a storybook based on a segment of the now nearly disowned 1946 Disney feature Song of the South. Those faint twos on the left of the title I think are evidence that I was practicing my penmanship.
The story goes like this, Brer Fox and Brer Bear want to eat Brer Rabbit but he is too fast for them to catch. As anyone in their situation would, they build themselves a “tar baby”–as the name suggests, that’s a baby made of tar–and set it along side a path upon which Brer Rabbit travels.
Brer Rabbit comes bounding down the path and offers a friendly hello to the tar baby who says nothing in return. Keep in mind that the tar baby is really just a lump of tar with a hat and coat on. The book assures us that Brer Rabbit it a pretty bright fellow but he doesn’t see through this obvious trap. Brer Rabbit, disgusted with the tar baby’s insubordination, gets aggressive and roughs up the tar baby succeeding only in getting himself caught in the tar from which he is unable to free himself.
Below you can see the exact moment when Brer Rabbit realizes he’s been duped.
As the fox and bear close in, Brer Rabbit uses a little reverse psychology on his predators and totally changes the subject (the subject up until this point is that he’s covered in tar and is about to be roasted and eaten) by begging not to be thrown into a nearby briar patch. The fox can’t resist doing the exact opposite of what the rabbit says regardless of the fact that a few moments earlier he and the bear had been building a fire to roast the rabbit over. Brer Rabbit has the last laugh though, the briar patch is the place of the rabbit’s birth and he feels at home there. Conveniently, briars are apparently harmful to both bears and foxes but not to rabbits. It is never explained how he got the tar off of himself or how the fox and bear planned on extracting the rabbit from the briar patch if the impact killed the rabbit.
I figure that it is probably for the best that the Disney company keep this one in their vault, but, to their credit, they haven’t edit it out of their official history the way that they have some things. Bootleggers keep the film available (look at this pathetic website–there’s nothing official looking about it) and I was able to find this ridiculously thorough history and memorabilia website. While digging up information on Song of the South, I began thinking of that scene in Dumbo with the singing crows. I figured for sure that that business surely wouldn’t fly in this day and age but it seems as though Dumbo was released on DVD as recently as 2006.
What’s that scene with the crows in Dumbo? I don’t remember it at all, and I have a Dumbo book that doesn’t include the crows in it.
Here it is! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOcVkofa1AU
Thanks–that was quick!
I grew up in the 80s and Disney had a strong presence in my household. I had both the Brer Rabbit book featured in this article and a copy of the Dumbo film you mentioned in your comments. Neither one of them instilled any racist beliefs in me, nor did I even recognize such “garbage” at all. I saw a rabbit being tricked by a dummy made of tar and a bunch of birds laughing at the notion that elephants can fly. Being a kid sure was nice.
Even today, though, I have a hard time calling either “racist garbage.” Neither purports anything negative about black people. The tar baby does nothing to promote a negative image–it doesn’t DO anything, it’s not alive. It happens to look very much like a black person, but to say that simply resembling a black person is racist is… befuddling. How so? Would making the baby out of wax or some other lighter-pigmented substance been more racially responsible? Is merely having a “black presence” (remember, it’s not even a character, just a trap) somehow racist?
As for Dumbo, again, I still see birds balking at the prospect of an airborne elephant. Yes, they speak in dialect and the style of the song is in keeping with African American music of the time. How is THAT racist? Couldn’t that just as easily be considered a tribute to the artistic merits of the style and its people? Wouldn’t including this amidst the other styles in the movie be more akin to diversity? Wouldn’t excluding it and “white washing” it be more racist by way of eliminating any non-white motifs?
It seems to me that people are overly sensitive and looking for things to become upset about, even when they really aren’t all that controversial. If you’re going to attack racism in cartoons, there are certainly plenty of examples leagues more offensive than the examples you’ve posed here. I for one can’t dismiss the undertones in the Jungle Book song about a bunch of monkeys (voiced by African Americans) singing about how they want to be more like mankind… and even THAT pales in comparison to what other atrocities have been animated.
Actually, if you take a moment, dumbo’s full of anti-racism sentiment: dumbo’s birth sets the neighborhood gossips’ (the other female elephants) tongues to wagging because of his ears. Little eared elephants are Indian; big eared elephants are African. Dumbo’s mom has in interracial kid out of (if I remember right) wedlock. The interracial kid then makes good.
I could be making a lot out of nothing of course.
I believe the stories “Stephen Wilson” refers to below were written down by Joel Chandler Harris (http://www.uncleremus.com/bio.html) and in fact may have been derived from both American Indian roots (rabbit is I think a coyote like trickster figure in the US southeast) and from Yoruba stories.
I agree with Mim, above; I was raised in the South in the 50’s, saw as much racism & name calling as anyone- I never, in my many times of viewing “Song of the South” felt any racial feelings about the “tar baby”. Do a little research, you will find that the “Uncle Remus” stories were originally told by black people in bondage, showing where your wits ( Brer Rabbit) can overcome the oppressor, ( Fox & bear). geeze, somebody needs to write a book, ” Klansmen behind every bush” in the vein of “Confederates in the Closet” Everything isn’t about race.
Thank God for liberal turds suffering from white guilt! If it weren’t for them, I would never know how outraged and upset I should be. By the way, the best and most popular ride at Disney World is based on this story. So much more for scrubbing and sanitizing history for your comfort, eh?
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I always saw the Tar Baby as a trap of pride. Brer Rabbit never had to touch it but his pride got into the way. Luckily for him once he was trapped by his pride and his enemies were lurking he used his brains to get out of the situation.
P.S. Leave Dumbo alone. One of my all time favorite stories. It was the crows who gave Dumbo the confidence to fly. BTW, crows and ravens are super smart they use all kinds of tools to get the things they desire.
I find it difficult to believe that anyone’s mind can be so clouded by the desire to be politically correct in every respect that they would condemn cartoons that are all-time classics. The Uncle Remus stable of characters as fleshed out in the long running comic strip are my favourite comic characyers of all time. They possess a timeless charm and folk wisdom and are drawn in a most appealing fashion.
Do you also condemn the classic Tex Avery Girl and Wolf cartoons as sexist?
Well guess what? They’re admired by all students of animation.
Some would say that they pity you for being so constrained by the forces of political correctness. Well I’m not one of those. I’ll tell it to you straight. I simply view those who would censor cartoons of old to remove any possibility that delicate modern sensibilities might be offended with disgust and contempt.
You’re right about the actual Uncle Remus stories. They are folklore and wisdom, by which blacks in America, were taught how to understand what was really going on, and how to get themselves out of a trap.
They are also my favorite stories and characters. But the actual stories, not Disney’s.
As with African Americans, these stories give us the much needed context of moral liberty, to do what we need to do, to protect ourselves.
However, it is a mistake to think that the Disney versions, as marketed to kids, is not in error, to say the least. If the artwork makes you smile, that tells me a lot about you. Please see my other comments.
In any event, this is a very long running argument, that students and educators of American literature have been debating for a long while.
Thank you for your pity and for your straight talk, sir.
Chainedandperfumed, why are you apologizing to such ignorance. Hold your own. Follow up on the facts, the good sense and the instincts you had to post this.
I like what you said about this being a confusing book as a child. In more ways than one.
Not simply the racism, but the violence. None of my friends or teachers in India understood the notion of beating up on someone because they didn’t say hello.
And lets not begin to talk about the subtext of eroticism throughout. “Confusing” to a child is exactly right. Simply need to articulate it, and don’t let them accuse you of political correctness. That is an out!
I wasn’t really apologizing to any one for posting this. I was being sarcastic.
Thanks for your comments and info.
It’s interesting though. You see the tar baby and you immediately see a black man. Is the racism therefore within the cartoon or is it within you?
Please educate yourself, in history, literature, psychology, art, philosophy, and in general, life!
Are we now to compare college diplomas and such? And how pray tell would that be relevant to the question under consideration?
You might instead educate yourself to the Disney catalogue of Brer Rabbit stories. Given that I’ve been collecting these for a number of years, I rather suspect that mine is probably more extensive than yours.
It’s got to be me. I’m sure that it was unintentional in the cartoon.
Well finally you seem to have got something right!
Now what about your comment regarding the “pathetic website” for Uncle Remus/Brer Rabbit enthusiasts? How soon can we expect an apology?
I never called SongoftheSouth dot net pathetic—if that site is the one you’re affiliated with.
I called the Official UnofficialSongoftheSouth dot com pathetic. The design of that site leaves a lot to be desired so I stand by that. It shouldn’t be considered official at all on any level in my estimation.
I’m not affiliated with any website. I’m simply a fan of the Uncle Remus stories. The comic strip was carried in my local newspaper when I first started perusing the comics in 1959.
I was very much surprised to say the least to hear that Disney had come under criticism from some quarters for these charming characters. Of course some people will complain about anything these days.
Well I’ll give you kudos for posting much of this Brer rabbit story on your site. The artwork always brings a smile to my face.
I am an Asian Indian, and I wanna thank you so much for the images of this book. It brings back memories of my childhood in India. I received this as a birthday gift package from the USA, and am sorry I didn’t keep the book.
First, read up on the history of tar and its uses as a punitive measure in the Americas.
Tar was something put on fences, and other places, to catch runaway slaves. If a slave managed to escape away from the tar, he would at the least be marked by the tar, so that anyone seeing the slave would know what to do. They wouldn’t be able to get far.
The Tar Baby is a racist deragatory comment to black people. The book as published by Disney, for kids, can have the harmful effect of subverting the real history of African slaves.
The Rabbit as the stereotype of the black person, in the worst fears and disgust of the white man, is shown to be a trickster. But stupid, since his pride would get in the way, and the fear that black people have to resort to violent behavior, if they have a little leeway, or moral authority, as the Rabbit does over the Tar Baby, when it doesn’t comply by the social norms, and reply with a hello. He is going to teach it a lesson.
White people projected their evil nature on the blacks with this sort of racist stereotype, violent, aggressive, morally judgmental, unfair, authoritarian, tricksy, stupid, liar, ungentlemanly, etc.
And if you grew up with this story, thinking it cute, you would be desensitized to the inhuman history of slaves in the American South.
Sorry, about the punctuation errors before. But I also meant to talk about the part of the book that most confused me as a child.
The “briar patch” was the symbol of the suffering of the slaves, the plantation life, and being owned by another person. The Rabbit, ironically enough, is happy to go back there, because that is where he was born. A very tragic pathetic response to a very hopeless situation. There was no escape from that life for them!
Nonsense. Has it ever occurred to you that a rabbit might just be a rabbit? Not only are you finding themes that Disney never intended, you’re positively determined to force the story into your own sociopolitical perspective.
What’s next, book burning festivals for Little Big Books?
Hi, I just stole your pic of the crows for my blog (hope that’s ok)
I actually just had a debate over how racist the crows really are, and decided to open it up to my blog readers (link)
I’d love your opinion
I stole that pic from somewhere myself so you’re welcome to it.
I’ll come over and have a look around.
I´ve been trying to find this story for along time. I remember the images where quite disturbing. maybe because I had it before I learn to read and they were lost when I did, so I never knew what the heck was this about. Maybe I´m wrong but I weren´t the more strange images at the end? ..I mean after the rabbit is thrown into the briar patch there was this two pages picture of him on a thorn field or something. ..and another of him caught up in something? Is thee a way to get this? ..just curious 😛
I’m not sure where my copy of this book is. I’ve moved twice since this was posted. I’m sure you can find a copy on ebay or abebooks or amazon
I found the story on youtube it was pretty odd tell for children I agree. . Still I´d like a copy so tanks for the tip. Actually tanks a lot for the post really I´ve spent a few nights searching for every crappy old Disney´s story to try to figure it out which was it. Interesting post tank u.