[Ads-l] Antedatings of "tar baby" (1839, earliest)

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Thu Feb 25 08:31:46 EST 2021


Great work, Bonnie.

JL

On Thu, Feb 25, 2021 at 7:52 AM Bonnie Taylor-Blake <b.taylorblake at gmail.com>
wrote:

> Meanings of "tar baby" have come up on the list before, most notably in an
> August 2011 discussion started by Laurence Horn. (See
> http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2011-August/111152.html
> and
> replies.)
>
> OED has for "tar baby" ...
>
> -------------------------------------
>
> tar-baby  n.  (a) the doll smeared with tar, set to catch Brer Rabbit (see
> quot. 1881); hence transferred, spec. an object of censure; a sticky
> problem, or one which is only aggravated by attempts to solve it
> (colloquial);  (b) a derog. term for a black person (U.S.) or a Maori (New
> Zealand).
>
> 1881   J. C. Harris Uncle Remus ii. 20   Brer Fox..got 'im some tar, en mix
> it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun what he call a Tar-Baby.
> 1893   Richmond (Va.) Dispatch 26 Jan. 4/1   Hezekiah Brown, a little negro
> much resembling a tar-baby.
> a1910   ‘M. Twain’ Autobiography (1925) II. 18   For two years the Courant
> had been making a ‘tar baby’ of Mr. Blaine, and adding tar every day—and
> now it was called upon to praise him.
>
> ---------------------------------------
>
> During the 2011 discussion Bill Mullins (
> http://listserv.linguistlist.org/pipermail/ads-l/2011-August/111277.html)
> did a great job antedating various meanings, pushing "tar baby" back to
> 1867. In the decade since his search, however, more 19th-c sources have
> been digitized and now still-earlier usages are apparent.
>
> This trickster-tale form (Tale Type 175/Motif K741) is international and
> very old, so I suspect that the African-American (slave) narrative
> involving the Tar Baby circulated orally in the States well before the 1839
> epithet form appeared in print. (By the way, I had gathered much of this
> before stumbling on Bryan Wagner's _The Tar Baby: A Global History_
> [Princeton University Press; 2017] and there he reports the 1839 usage,
> though in stripped-down form, but I thought it might be worthwhile to send
> out the rest of this anyway. And with apologies for descriptions of Blacks
> that follow.)
>
> The upshot of all this, though, is that "tar baby" even as an epithet has a
> long history.
>
> -- Bonnie
>
> --------------------------------------------------
>
> (1839, as an epithet.)
>
> Yesterday, while passing by a building on which several negroes were at
> work, our attention was arrested by hearing two of the darkies in a
> dialogue of high words. One of them was on the scaffolding, and the other
> standing on the ground, near a pile of bricks.
>
> [...]
>
> "Look heaw, Pomp, you tar-baby, I feels de greates comtenterfreation for
> you and all innuwenders, I does; de fac is I looks down on you wid parfec
> contemp -- you's all togedder below me."
>
> (From "A Quarrel," The Weekly Picayune [New Orleans], 30 September 1839, p.
> 3.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1844, as an epithet.)
>
> Just below me was a large dish of gravy, with a piece of meat about four
> inches square in the middle. The gravy was for an accompaniment to rice, a
> favorite dish in the diggins. Immediately before it sat a pale faced
> genius, who from his complexion and his vocation is termed euphoniously a
> "Tar baby" and who had appeared to be considerably corned; he seemed to
> gaze with a most singular expression of phiz on the dish, looking around
> and seeing no meat; he gazed again on the dish with one eye bent in that
> peculiar way that raftsmen close one optic in "drawing a bead," and the
> single expression "edzactly" escaped him. Drawing off his vest, for he had
> no coat, he unbuttoned his pantaloons and he would have been a "sans
> culotte," had not the Landlord interfered with "Bill what the Devil are you
> at?" "Jackey" said the Tar baby, "now (hiccup) Dont, dont, be mad (hiccup)
> nor, nothin so, you (hiccup) see I couldnt (hiccup) get no meat, no how, so
> I (hiccup) thought, I would jist--swim (hiccup) though that are gravy and
> (hiccup) get that little piece." Sufficient to say he was well provided for
> in a moment.
>
> (From A.B. ["a North Carolina Lawyer"], "A Trip to County Court," Spirit of
> the Times, 5 October 1844, p. 379.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1859, unclear usage. The other items in this piece seem to refer to songs
> and readings given by children, so it's possible that this was a telling of
> the "Brer Rabbit" story.)
>
> We have been furnished by one of the officers of the Universalist Sunday
> School, with the following programme of the exhibition to-morrow evening,
> which will give a better idea of the exercises on the interesting occasion,
> than any description we could give:
>
> [...]
>
> 7. Tar Baby.
>
> (From The Reading [PA] Daily Times, 23 November 1859, p. 2.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1860, novel usage.)
>
> Witness went up there in accordance with the agreement and found torches,
> which he called "tar babies," put up to illuminate the square.
>
> (From "Investigation of the City Passenger Railway Changes," The Baltimore
> Sun, 15 February 1860, p. 1.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1864, figurative usage.)
>
> This was speedily accomplished, when, amidst a total silence, the clear
> voice of Lieutenant Colonel Harris, 24th North Carolina, commanding brigade
> rang out, "Battalions, forward march!" No sooner had the words left his
> mouth than, with a real rebel yell, Ransom's tar babies dashed forward.
>
> (From a letter to the editor dated 22 August 1864, in The Richmond
> Enquirer, 31 August 1864, p. 2. Ransom here refers to Ransom's Brigade,
> which included the 24th North Carolina and three other North Carolina
> infantry units. Here, "tar babies" not only seems to be a play on "Tar
> Heels," an antebellum epithet embraced by North Carolina troops during the
> War, but also suggests the charitable, contemporaneous belief that North
> Carolina soldiers stuck to their battle positions, no matter what.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1867, the character from African-American folklore.)
>
> "Miss Fanny, did you eber hear der story of der Tar Baby; B'r Rabbit an'
> Br' Wolf?"
>
> "No?"
>
> "Well, I can tell it ter yer, just like Uncle Pomp did tell it to we
> childurns in de big kitchen chimbly-corner."
>
> [And then the tale is told, with several mentions of "Tar Baby" over pp.
> 662-663.]
>
> (In "Bushy and Jack," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, April 1867, pp.
> 660-663. Harper's website says this was written by Mary Hose. A piece
> appearing in The Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 11 April 1886, reports that a
> version of the Tar Baby tale "from the pen of a South Carolina lady"
> appeared in the April 1865 issue of The Southern Cultivator, but I've been
> unable to find that.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1868, the character from African-American folklore.)
>
> So Br. Wolf went and dig a well for hisself; and after he been done dig dis
> well, every mornin' when he go down to fetch the water, he meet Br. Rabbit
> tracks dere; and after he find Br. Rabbit keep on comin', he put de tar
> baby down dere, and Br. Rabbit come wid a pail one moonshine night, and as
> he get about a hundred yard from de well, he meet de tar baby, and he hail
> de little girl, and de little girl give him no answer, so he leave the pail
> and keep on goin' up, and he hail de little girl again, and de little girl
> give him no answer.
>
> (From "Negro Fables," The Riverside Magazine for Young People, An
> Illustrated Monthly, November 1868, p. 505.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1869, as an epithet. Bill Mullins found a condensed form of this from
> 1867, but this longer form makes clear that "one of the Virginia
> conventionists, who wears a white choker is ... a tar baby in a cream pot"
> is clearly used about a Black member of congress.)
>
> A Richmond (Va.,) correspondent of the New York *World* writes: "It seems
> to be a sure thing that we are to have a negro member of Congress from
> Virginia. Already three gentlemen of color have presented themselves for
> our suffrages, and at least two of them stand a chance of election.
> 'Doctor' Thomas Bayne opposes himself to the regular carpet-bag nominee in
> the Norfolk District. He is as black a negro as the Almighty ever made, and
> bears all the characteristics of a genuine African. His eyes are large,
> with a superfluity of white; his nose is as flat as a pancake; his lips
> present the appearance of a very large tomato mashed in two by a cart
> wheel; and his teeth, in contrast with his very black complexion, are white
> as the purest ivory. He wears a milk white choker and neckerchief, which
> once led somebody to describe him as a 'tar baby peeping out of a cream
> pot.'
>
> (From "Scraps and Facts," The Yorkville [SC] Enquirer, 27 May 1869, p. 2.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1870, in the sense of "having sticky fingers." benefitting from
> association.)
>
> GEN. HOWARD, the great "moral agriculurist," (vide "Capt. [illegible]") of
> that loyal paraphernalia stuffed with cant and [mousy?]-making
> philanthropy, the Freedmen's Bureau, is to be taken out of some of
> "[illegible] to jump into," in which he has been drawing a variety of
> salaries and snapping up "unconsidered trifles" in the way of perquisites.
> No wonder he wanted the "buro" continued. It was a fat thing for Brother
> Howard. He personates that great tar baby to which everything stuck, so
> famous in the annals of the negro "quarters."
>
> (From "Personal Gossip," The Courier Journal [Louisville, KY], 11 April
> 1870, p. 3. General Oliver Otis Howard had an important role in
> Reconstruction and served as Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1870, the character from African-American folklore.)
>
> After long consideration, and knowing the curiosity of wild animals, as
> well as the tenacity of tar, the old man concluded to make a "tar baby" or
> image, and set it where the rabbit was in the habit of crossing the branch.
> The rabbit, after feeding plentifully on the old man's peas through the
> night, was returning to his nest across the branch about daybreak one
> morning, and to his surprise saw a black baby standing bolt upright before
> him. ... Losing all discretion in his rage, he gave the baby a vigorous
> butt in the face, when his head stuck, and he was irrevocably held fast --
> that cunning old rabbit -- and outwitted by a *tar baby*!
>
> (From Thaddeus Norris, "Negro Superstitions," Lippincott's Magazine of
> Literature, Science and Education, July 1870, p. 90.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1871, as an epithet. I assume that "tar babies" here refers to newly
> enfranchised Blacks.)
>
> We brought out our independent candidates, and with one united effort of
> the Democracy of the country achieved one of the most brilliant victories
> ever accomplished, the majority being larger over the Radical nominees than
> ever was given in their favor; notwithstanding the Radicals went out into
> the highways and hedges, and brought in the entire eligible portion of the
> Fifteenth Amendment, and voted them amid cheers and shouts of "Roll up your
> tar babies."
>
> (From a letter to the editor dated 6 May 1871, in The Cincinnati Daily
> Enquirer, 12 May 1871, p. 2.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1874, figurative use.)
>
> If Chamberlain was to sit upon the various advisory boards like a dumb
> tar-baby, why in the deuce was he placed upon them.
>
> (From "Questions for the Union-Herald," The Fairfield Herald [Winnsboro,
> SC], 30 September 1874, p. 2.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1875, as an epithet.)
>
> A black boy, giving his name as Marcellus Walker, was arrested for
> disorderly conduct. The complainant was another black boy who testified
> that Marcellus pitched on him, beat him and cuffed him, and shoved him into
> a store, from which the policeman took the aggressor. From the testimony,
> it seems that this was an old grudge, for the complainant says that
> Marcellus stole peaches from him last summer, while the defendant says that
> this boy is all the time calling him "tar-baby," and otherwise aggravating
> his feelings. As the attack was clearly shown, Mayor Hurtel fined the
> "tar-baby" ten dollars.
>
> (From "Quarrelsome," The Mobile [AL] Daily Tribune, 28 March 1875, p. 3.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1876, as in "very dark.")
>
> That soap was hard, that was a fact, and the water must be very limey
> indeed; anyway that water soon got as black as a tar baby, and thinking the
> handkerchief was rather dirty, he proceeded to fill up, and soaping well
> started afresh.
>
> (From "Washing a Pocket Handkerchief," The Bismarck [ND] Tribune, 5 January
> 1876, p. 2.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1878, as in "very dark.")
>
> A full blooded negro said to his children who were playing on the avenue
> the other day, "Go into the house and get something on your heads. You'll
> be as black as 'tar-babies.'"
>
> (From The Daily Journal [Vineland, NJ], 3 June 1878, p. 3.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1882, figurative use.)
>
> WE FRANKLY ADMIT the *News* has given the GAZETTE a "point" in describing
> the composition of the old "City Ring." It was made of tar, sure enough,
> boiled down to such a pitchy consistency that every one touching it was
> defiled. Finally the people became tired of such a disgusting, defiling
> mess of political corruption and kicked it out of existence. It took three
> years of patient nursing to restore the *News'* "tar-baby" to life again,
> but the people stand ready, with a heavy foot lifted, to give it another
> paralyzing kick.
>
> (From "Why We are Proud, The Daily Gazette [Wilmington, DE], 11 May 1882,
> p. 2. Asterisks indicate italicized text.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1882, figurative usage.)
>
> It is interesting to read in the Funder papers their discussion of the
> question, what shall be done with Parson Massey. The Lynchburg *Advance*
> says it is for him for Congress at large if he is in earnest and means
> business. The *Virginian* cannot make up its mind, and quite a number of
> others are in a quandary [sic]. They grabbed quickly at that tar baby, and
> the said baby sticks to their fingers.
>
> (From The Bristol [TN] News, 6 June 1882, p. 2. Asterisks indicate
> italicized text.)
>
> ----------------
>
> (1884, name of a baseball team.)
>
> The Red Stockings of Sumter, Adam Brown Captain, will play with the Tar
> Babies of Herriott's X Roads next Friday evening, at the Depot. A hot time
> is expected if the mercury remains at its present altitude.
>
> (From The Watchman and Southron [Sumter, SC], 2 September 1884, p. 4.)
>
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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>


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