I Did Not Know the Term “Tar Baby” is Racist

I was surfing through MSNBC today and saw a headline that made me do a double-take:  “McCain uses term ‘tar baby’: Later says he regrets it.” 

Here’s what presidential candidate John McCain said, according to the AP:

Answering questions at a town hall meeting, the Arizona senator was discussing federal involvement in custody cases when he said, “For me to stand here and … say I’m going to declare divorces invalid because of someone who feels they weren’t treated fairly in court, we are getting into a tar baby of enormous proportions and I don’t know how you get out of that.”

I’ve used the expression “tar baby” lots of times.  It is one of the most useful literary metaphors in the American idiom.  What other two-word expression exists to describe a situation where the more you try to fight your way out of a situation, you just get more trapped by it?   

But, according to the AP story on MSNBC, ‘tar baby’ “is considered by some a racial epithet.” 

Really? 

From one perspective, I suppose, everything in “Uncle Remus,” the most recognized source of the “tar baby” story, is racially suspect.  A collection of fables told by an ex-slave, transcribed in a recognizably old-south African-American dialect by a white journalist, Joel Chandler Harris, these were folk tales about the trickster B’rer Rabbit and his battles of wits with B’rer Fox and B’rer Bear.    The stories aren’t racist at all, but the dialect in which they are told is highly stereotypical.  In fact, that dialect might be the source of certain stereotypes that persisted for decades.

The “tar baby” story was the most memorable, giving us not only the one expression, but also, “please don’t throw me in that briar patch!” Which is a way of saying you hope your adversary tries to hurt you by doing something you secretly know will benefit you.  The briar patch was how B’rer Rabbit escaped from the “tar baby” trap. I’ve heard that expression dozens of times in business settings.  It came into wide use in the 1990s.  

The manner in which “Uncle Remus” is offensive is a little bit contradictory.  The tale-teller’s dialect is considered by some to be demeaning and offensive.  But also, according to Wikipedia,

Alice Walker accused Harris of “stealing a good part of my heritage” in a searing essay called “Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine.” Toni Morrison wrote a novel called “Tar Baby” based on the folktale recorded by Harris. In interviews, she has claimed she learned the story from family, and owes no debt to Harris.

So, in one respect, Uncle Remus is a demeaning stereotype.  In another respect, he is a repository of African American culture that was misappropriated by whites and should be returned to its rightful owners.

It’s certainly not a factor one can ignore:  Could an African-American writer have published a book like Uncle Remus in the 1880s?  Definitely not.  

Wikipedia goes on to provide another perspective:

Black folklorist Julius Lester holds a somewhat kinder view of Harris. He sees the Uncle Remus stories as important records of Black Folklore, and has rewritten many of the Harris’ stories in an effort to elevate the subversive elements over the racist ones.

In fact, Harris does appear to have been somewhat of a folklorist himself, albeit one limited by his race, culture and moment in history.  He was born poor and illegimate in Georgia and grew up to become a journalist in Atlanta.  It was in the Atlanta Constitution where the tales first appeared.

In 1999, a Random House word-of-the-day site provided a definition of “tar baby,” first talking about the tar-baby folk tale, Uncle Remus, and so forth, but then adding this:

The expression tar baby is also used occasionally as a derogatory term for black people (in the U.S. it refers to African-Americans; in New Zealand it refers to Maoris), or among blacks as a term for a particularly dark-skinned person. As a result, some people suggest avoiding the use of the term in any context.

I’ve never heard it used that way.  It’s pretty clear from the context that Senator McCain didn’t mean it that way. It would make no sense.

But given all the controversy around the expression, I think the prudent thing is to stop making further references to Uncle Remus as anything but an historical benchmark. This is the position the Walt Disney Company has taken in refusing to release on video the 1946 film, “Song of the South,” based on Uncle Remus.  At a 2006 shareholders’ meeting, Disney CEO Robert Iger explained the decision this way:

“I screened it fairly recently because I hadn’t seen it since I was a child, and I have to tell you after I watched it, even considering the context that it was made, I had some concerns about it because of what it depicted. And though it’s quite possible that people wouldn’t consider it in the context that it was made, and there were some… [long pause] depictions that I mentioned earlier in the film that I think would be bothersome to a lot of people. And so, owing to the sensitivity that exists in our culture, balancing it with the desire to, uh, maybe increase our earnings a bit, but never putting that in front of what we thought were our ethics and our integrity, we made the decision not to re-release it. Not a decision that is made forever, I imagine this is going to continue to come up, but for now we simply don’t have plans to bring it back because of the sensitivities that I mentioned.”

Where I started with this post was a discussion of the American idiom.  John McCain unthinkingly used a term that was nearly universally recognized as part of it, with a meaning that transcends its cultural origins.  It didn’t make him or any of us a racist for using it.  Like I said, it was an extremely useful and humorous short-hand.

But now we’re on notice. Unless and until the folk tale in question finds its way back into the American idiom via a more authentic source, “tar baby” is out.

12 thoughts on “I Did Not Know the Term “Tar Baby” is Racist

  1. Tony Snow got stuck in the same tar baby trap last year. It’s not racist to use the expression; it’s only racist to use it while being a self-identified Republican.

  2. Re: Tony Snow. Yes, I noticed this and considered writing about it that way. But I think that’s more a case of more relaxed vigilance being applied to Democrats than higher standards for Republicans. (See: Gore, Al and “carbon footprint.”) The presence of hypocrisy doesn’t mean the underlying transgression is okay.

  3. Mitt Romney got himself in trouble for the same thing last year, and I missed it.

    Anyway. I disagree that there’s an underlying transgression. The word Zionist is mostly used as an epithet, but that doesn’t make the word inherently antisemitic. And it doesn’t make it impossible to use properly. It’s no good letting the lowest common denominators run around redefining all of our words. And it seems particularly dangerous to let literature from the past become off limits through no particular fault of the author’s. Especially not for the sake of politics.

  4. Pingback: The Wren’s Nest » John McCain: Keeping Me Busy

  5. It’s is only yhe adults that would come up with this interrupuation of the Song of the South. Little kids do not think of this story as racist. Sometimes too much is made of things being racist.

  6. yes, my family name IS remus…so exactly what should my nieces call me??? in my family AND amongst the overhelming percentage of my professional (medical and scientific, black and white) colleagues accept and refer to this as a term of endearment. as an academician, i have used this nickname to not only make a point during lectures (science and medicine CAN become quite boring you know), but to make sure the students are at the least paying attention if they aren’t following the lecture. these are words, just words and making them more than what they are is foolish and if exception is taken, then allow discussion or clarification, for if you just assume, it just makes an ASS out of U and ME.

    • Well, well… THE “Dr” Luis E Remus from Houston! Ol’ lovable Uncle Remus! The learned “academician” shown the door by MD Anderson-oops. The son who never lived up to his fine Citadel dad-ahh.
      You are an example an Uncle Remus who is really is the trickster Br’er Rabbit.
      All of us know about the belongings you took from a newly married couple. Yours is a sad, tragic story of an empty life.

  7. Thanks to Docter Remus we have an example of a humble man, who is above arguing with Brer Wolf behind the bush. If Anonymous wants to call someone an uncle Tom and be believed he should stand up and show hisself.

  8. I grew up in eastern Missouri, and I always heard ‘tar baby’ being used by other whites to refer to black children, in a generally derogatory way. I have never read Uncle Remus, and so I could only take the phrase the way it was obviously meant by phrasing, intonation, and body language, and that was as a slur.

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