Tar Baby

N. A difficult problem that is only aggravated by attempts to solve it. (Oxford American Dictionary)

I  accept that plantation reasonably conjures up images of slavery.  I am dismayed but accepting that a word like niggardly, which has no racial connotations, might be better avoided.  I am thoroughly dismayed, however, that a word like tar baby, one which celebrates the African American culture, is somehow deemed racist.

Tar baby is most often recognized from Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, but it dates back much further than that.  Historian Lawrence W. Levine, in his book Black Culture and Black Consciousness, discussed its roll as a cautionary tale for young blacks during slavery.  In the dangerous world that  slaves were raised in, caution and cleverness were key skills for them to learn, far more important than brute force and defiance.  The Br’er Rabbit tales served to teach young slave children those skills.  Br’er Rabbit always found ways to outfox his enemies, who surrounded him on all sides.

The Tar Baby was a sticky doll created by Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear.  When Rabbit meets the Tar Baby, and gets no response, he kicks it for rudeness and finds himself ensnared.  All of his best attempts to free himself only trap him the worse.  It is only when the other forest animals came to kill him that Br’er Rabbit was able to trick them into thinking the worst punishment would be to throw him in the thicket where he can escape home.

Somewhere along the line, however, tar baby has also come to have negative connotations toward blacks, despite the completely ass-backward nature of the insult (far worse than the turnaround of Stowe’s poor Uncle Tom).  Even though the story quite possibly stems from black roots, black leaders have attacked politicians for using the reference as it was intended to be used in the story.  Mitt Romney in 2006 said of the Big Dig disaster, “The best thing politically would be to stay as far away from that tar baby as I can.”  Civil Rights activist Larry Jones was one of many who criticized him, saying “Tar baby is a totally inappropriate phrase in the 21st century.” Do your homework, Mr. Jones! A white man was paying homage to black folklore! Even CBS News, my source for the details,  gets it wrong on the website, attributing the story to Harris, as if he invented it himself.

Virginia Republican Tom Davis found himself in the same hot water over this word two years later.  Here is one site criticizing him for that choice of words.

Is this just a way for Democrats to paint Republicans as racist? As a staunch Democrat, I think the party can do better than that.

In a society that does not give nearly enough credit to the contributions of black culture, it is very sad to me one such contribution would be rejected by the community itself.  It is also sad to me that in a society that has so many clear examples of discrimination and racism against blacks, that leaders feel the need to invent slights out of words with deeper meaning.

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3 Responses to Tar Baby

  1. coffined says:

    We were not allowed in my house to use “tar baby” because some light-skinned blacks would use the term in a negative way against darker-skinned blacks.

    I don’t agree with those who see the words as negative in all context. Before disapproving, we should consider the context.

    • Tench Ringgold says:

      Thanks for the comment, Coffined. The clarification helps. It is a shame that a word that represents the wealth of black history could be used by to tear it down.

  2. Urspo says:

    thank you for stopping by today.
    I found your thoughts intriguing. When I was growing up it was never thought of as a racist or derogatory term. it was a ‘don’t touch that’ statement.

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