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A NOTE ON THE TAR BABY AND PROJECTIVE IDENTIFICATION

by Robert M. Young

The other day I happened to see a bit of Disney’s awful rendition of Uncle Remus’ stories, ‘Song of the South’. The Tar-Baby story was particularly badly told.

I had a very un-PC upbringing, and among my favourite now-banished tales were ‘Little Black Sambo’ and Uncle Remus. I always thought that in these stories the black people triumphed by cunning, wit, endurance and perseverance in an unremitting struggle where force was never on their side. Sambo ran the tiger ragged until it melted into butter. Brer Rabbit outsmarts the fox every time - or gets rescued. They are quintessential underdogs, like the little guy played by Charlie Chaplin. The equivalent modern couple of preying and preyed upon are Tom and Jerry (with Spike as Brer B’ar) and Sylvester the cat and Tweetie the canary. Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck are similar.

I was told these stories by a black woman, Lucy Wilkerson, who cared for me when I was a boy and to whom I dedicated my last book. The copy of Uncle Remus I am using was given to my son by his aunt’s family, and he tells the stories to my grandchildren, just as I will tell them to my soon-to-be-born sixth child.

Even the chronicler of the stories, Joel Chandler Harris, who was writing in 1880 and can be accused of being an apologist for some puatively redeeming aspects of slavery, sees the allegory: ’The story of the Rabbit and the Fox, as told by the Southern negroes, is artistically dramatic in this: it progresses in an orderly way from a beginning to a well-defined conclusion, and is full of striking episodes that suggest the culmination. It seems to me to be to a certain extent allegorical, albeit such an in interpretation may be unreasonable. At least it is a fable thoroughly characteristic of the Negro; and it needs no scientific investigation to show why he selects as his hero the weakest and most harmless of all animals, and brings him out victorious in contests with the bear, the wolf, and the fox. It is not virtue that triumphs, but helplessness; it is not malice, but mischievousness’ (Harris, Joel Chandler, _Uncle Remus: His Songs and Sayings_. N. Y.: D. Appleton & Co., 1880; new & revised ed., N.Y.: Grosset and Dunlap, 1908, p. xiv). Harris tells us that strikingly similar stories were told by the American and the Amazonian Indians and were also chronicled in Upper Egypt and elsewhere in Africa. There is something fundamental about responses to power and inequality being celebrated in these tales. Oppressed creatures find a way of holding onto their dignity and of surviving.

 

Here is THE WONDERFUL TAR-BABY STORY

 

"DIDN'T the fox never catch the rabbit, Uncle Remus?" asked the little boy the next evening.

"He come mighty nigh it, honey, sho's you born— Brer Fox did. One day atter Brer Rabbit fool 'im wid dat calamus root, Brer Fox went ter wuk en got 'im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun wat he call a Tar-Baby, en he tuck dish yer Tar-Baby en he sot 'er in de big road, en den he lay off in de bushes fer to see what de news wuz gwineter be. En he didn't hatter wait long, nudder, kaze bimeby here come Brer Rabbit pacin' down de road—lippity-clippity, clippity-lippity— dez ez sassy ez a jay-bird. Brer Fox, he lay low. Brer Rabbit come prancin’ ’long twel he spy de Tar-Baby, en den he fotch up on his behime legs like he wus 'stonished. De Tar-Baby, she sot dar, she did, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

"’Mawnin'!' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee—'nice wedder dis mawnin',' sezee.

"Tar-Baby ain't sayin' nothin', en Brer Fox, he lay low.

"'How duz yo' sym'tums seem ter segashuate?' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.

"Brer Fox, he wink his eye slow, en lay low, en de Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nothin'.

"‘How you come on, den? Is you deaf? sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Kaze if you is, I kin holler louder,’ sezee.

"Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

"’Youer stuck up, dat's w'at you is, Says Brer Rabbit, sezee, 'en I'm gwineter kyore you, dat's what I’m a gwinter do,’ sezee

"Brer Fox, he sorter chuckle in his stummick. he did, but Tar-Baby ain't sayin nothin’.

I’m gwinter larn you how to talk ter ‘spectubblke fokes ef hit’s de las’ ack’, sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. ‘Ef you don’t take off dat hat en tell me howdy. I’m gwinter bus’ you wide open,’ sezee.

"Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

"Brer Rabbit keep on axin’ ‘im, en de Tar-Baby, she keep on sayin’ nothin’, twel present’y Brer Rabbit draw back wid his fis’, he did, en blip he tuck’er side er de head. Right dar’s whar he broks his merlasses jug. His fis’ stuck, en he can’t pull loose. De Tar-Baby hilt ‘im. But Tar-Baby, she stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low.

"'Ef you don't lemme loose, Ill knock you agin, sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, en wid dat he fotch 'er a wipe wid de udder han', en dat stuck. Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nothin', en Brer Fox, he lay low.

"‘Tu'n me loose, fo' I kick de natal stuffin' outen you,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, but de Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nothin'. She des hilt on, en den Brer Rab bit lose de use er his feet in de same way. Brer Fox, he lay low. Den Brer Rabbit squall out dat ef de Tar-Baby don't tu'n 'im loose he butt 'er cranksided. En den he butted, en his head got stuck. Den Brer Fox, he sa'ntered fort', lookin' des ez innercent ez one er yo' mammy's mockin'-birds.

"'Howdy, Brer Rabbit,' sez Brer Fox, sezee. 'You look sorter stuck up dis mawnin',' sezee, en den he rolled on de groun', en laughed en laughed twel he couldn't laugh no mo'. 'I speck you’ll take dinner wid me dis time, Brer Rabbit. I done laid in some calamus root, en I ain't gwineter take no skuse,' sez Brer Fox, sezee."

Here Uncle Remus paused, and drew a two-pound yam out of the ashes.

"Did the fox eat the rabbit?" asked the little boy to whom the story had been told.

"Dat's all de fur de tale goes," replied the old man. 'He mout, en den again he moutent. Some say Jedge B’ar come long en loosed 'im— some say he didn't. I hear Miss Sally callin'. You better run 'long."

 

My question is whether or not a projective identification was in place between Brer Rabbit and the Tar-Baby, and my answer is yes. We can see it in two contexts. Brer Rabbit greets the Tar-Baby in a friendly manner. There is no response. He increasingly finds the Tar-Baby insufferably rude and finally loses the use of each of his limbs one by one and his head, as well. This occurs as a result of his growing indignation and his determination to teach his insolent and silent interlocutor a lesson. The Tar-Baby has only not replied and then becomes adhesive as a result of the intrinsic qualities of his somatic features, modified by Brer Fox’s turpentine.

I have no difficulty at all in noting that the Tar-Baby did not have to be changed in her internal world or to do anything in order for the interaction to build up to violence. She omitted to greet a passing fellow creature and, in particular, would not tip her hat. Rude and insolent. Insulting. Outrageous.

So, the Object does not have to be affected and there does not have to be any behaviour elicited for there to be a projective identification in place.

The broader context, of course, is the position of the creature feeling potentially snubbed and insisting on civility. Moreover, Brer Fox has placed the Tar-Baby there just so it would wind up Brer Rabbit - so that he would take umbrage and be captured by the consequences of his own easily affronted sense of dignity. These aspects of the broader context are supremely relevant to many situations where there is a rapid build-up to a virulent projective identification. My Pakistani dentist told me such story this very morning. His wife‘s handbag brushed against a black man as they passed by one another on the pavement, and the man immediately berated her and then her husband for jostling him, being disrespectful, and I don’t know what all.

Looking further, the relationship can be with an inanimate object which in no way resembles a person. My car sometimes offends me in this way. At the moment the automatic lighter on the cooker is doing so every time I try to light the gas ring. This is one reason that Harold Searles wrote his magnificent but under-appreciated The Nonhuman Environment in Normal Development and In Schizophrenia (Madison, Conn.: IUP, 1960).

1562 words

The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


The Human Nature Review
Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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