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The term "tar baby" - a political tar baby

By D. G. Martin
Posted Sunday, September 17, 2006

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Chapel Hill, NC - Say goodbye to the term “tar baby.”

It is one of the richest, most vivid terms in our language, so useful to describe a “sticky situation” in which someone is trapped and finds that every effort to get out compounds the trouble.

The term was popularized by Joel Chandler Harris’s retelling of African American folk tales. His fictional Uncle Remus, an old black man, speaking in heavy dialect, shared his wisdom with a young white boy, telling the story of how a crafty fox captured his rival, a precocious rabbit.

Maybe you remember how the story began. “Brer Fox went ter wuk en got ‘im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun w’at he call a Tar-Baby.”

Brer Fox put the tar baby in road and waited for Brer Rabbit to come by. He didn’t wait long. The story continues, “‘Mawnin!’ sez Brer Rabbit, sezee – ‘nice wedder dis mawnin,’ sezee. ‘Tar-Baby ain’t sayin’ nuthin’, en Brer Fox he lay low.’”

When the tar baby fails to respond to Brer Rabbit’s pleasantries, the rabbit angrily punches him in the face—and is stuck. When the tar baby ignores Brer Rabbit’s demand that he be let loose, the rabbit hits and kicks and butts his head until he is thoroughly trapped in the tar. At this point, according to Chandler’s Uncle Remus, the fox comes out of hiding, “‘Howdy, Brer Rabbit,’ sez Brer Fox, sezee. ‘You look sorter stuck up dis mawnin’,’ sezee, en den he rolled on de groun’, en laft en laft twel he couldn’t laff no mo.’”

Soon after becoming White House press secretary earlier this year, Tony Snow used the imagery of this folk tale to explain why he was not going to try to discuss in detail and try to justify the NSA’s secret telephone monitoring program. “I don't want to hug the tar baby of trying to comment on the program – the alleged program – the existence of which I can neither confirm nor deny.”

A few weeks ago, Massachusett’s Governor and president prospect Mitt Romney explained the dilemma caused by the continuing problems of the “Big Ditch” tunnel construction project in his state. Speaking to a crowd of supporters in Iowa, Romney said, “The best thing politically would be to stay as far away from that tar baby as I can.”

Both Snow and Romney quickly found that the vivid “tar baby” metaphor was not appreciated by everybody.

Critics accused Snow and Romney of racism for using a term that is offensive to many African Americans because “tar baby” has also been used derivsively to refer to blacks.

The complaints themselves brought forth a number of angry responses that pointed out that neither Snow nor Romney had used the term in a racial context. It is the critics, these respondents asserted, who are the “racists.”

Whenever the scabs of our history of racial antagonism are ripped off, we see the deep estrangement that remains from our long history of racial injustice.

I am reluctant to give up the wonderful story, the wisdom of this African American tale, and the powerful image of a “too smart” rabbit stuck in a mess of tar.

Wouldn’t we miss the chance to celebrate African American culture and its powerful teaching if we threw Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit into the trash bin of racial misunderstanding?

In response to a similar point raised by Tony Snow in his own defense, one African American commentator, Margaret Kimberly, says that we miss an important point. She writes, “The words tar baby are a slur, period. They are used to hurt, to anger, and to offend. The fact that they first appeared in the Uncle Remus stories doesn’t let Snow off the hook. The Uncle Remus stories were part of a carefully orchestrated effort to make plantation life appear benevolent instead of horrific.”

She may be wrong about the intent of those of us who use “tar baby” only to describe a “sticky situation.” But unless and until we can put the term and the story on common grounds, we had better be prepared to take the consequences when we say “tar baby” in any context.


D.G. Martin is the author of “Interstate Eateries” a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina’s interstate highways—available through Our State Magazine. He is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week’s (September and ) guest is William Leuchtenburg, leading historian of the Presidency and author of “The White House Looks South” about the southern connections and policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Upcoming NC Bookwatch programs on UNC-TV (Fridays at 9:30 p.m. and Sundays at 5:00 p.m.) at 5pm, Sundays:

September 22nd 9:30pm, encore September 23rd 5:00pm
William Leuchtenburg
The White House Looks South

September 29th 9:30pm, encore September 30th 5:00pm**
Dot Jackson

October 6th 9:30pm, encore October 8th 5:00pm
Art Chansky
Blue Blood

October 13th 9:30pm, encore October 15th 5:00pm
Mark Ethridge

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The term "tar baby" - a political tar baby

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