It seems that the phrase “tar baby” has become something of a tar baby for me as well. Yesterday I waded into the debate over CongressmanLamborn’s use of “tar baby.” Peter Boyles read the piece and invited me on to his radio show to discuss the matter tomorrow at 7 am. So, in preparation, I’ll do some more poking around (despite my busy schedule).
It seems like I should be spending my time addressing our nation’s crushing debt, the high unemployment rate, Lamborn’s ties with the hard anti-abortion right, or any other real issue. Lamborn’s use of the phrase “tar baby” is an issue only because of the pathological codependency between the left’s outrage mongers and their lap dogs in the sensationalist media. In a sane world, in which the left focused on issues instead of character assassination, and the media devoted its resources to reporting real news, Lamborn’s comment never would have raised a blip.
Yet I poke another limb into the “tar baby” tar baby here. In doing so, I draw inspiration from an oriental tale in the ancient tar-baby or stickfast motif about Prince Five-weapons. The story is recounted by Joseph Campbell on pages 86-88 of his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this story the tar baby is an ogre. After failing to smite the ogre with arrows and other weapons, the prince “struck the ogre with his right hand. His hand stuck right to the ogre’s hair.” The prince proceeded to stick each of his limbs into the ogre, then finally the prince landed a blow with his head, getting that stuck as well.
The ogre is impressed by the prince’s bravery, thinking him “some man of noble birth… [f]or although he has been caught by an ogre like me, he appears neither to tremble nor to quake!” The ogre asks the youth why he is not afraid.
The prince answers:
Ogre, why should I be afraid? for in one life one death is absolutely certain. What’s more, I have in my belly a thunderbolt for weapon. If you eat me, you will not be able to digest that weapon. It will tear your insides into tatters and fragments and will kill you. In that case we’ll both perish. That’s why I’m not afraid!”
The ogre releases the prince. So let’s see if we might find a thunderbolt or two.
David Sirota’s position is that “tar baby” is “an obviously racist term.” (He uses this term writing this for the publication Salon, which has also featured an article with left-leaning commentator David Corn using the term “tar baby.”) But, according to Sirota, Lamborn’s use of the term is especially bad “because he explicitly used the term to describe a black person.”
Is Sirota’s claim true? No. It is obvious from context that Lamborn is referring to the “problem” of the debt-ceiling controversy. He is definitely not saying that Obama is a “tar baby” because he is black, and to pretend otherwise is to libel Lamborn. In his original comment, Lamborn used the word “stuck,” clearly invoking the historically correct (as opposed to the racist) usage of the term “tar baby.”
Let us pause to note how the left is helping to destroy the very democratic openness it claims to champion by employing the tactics of smear, slander, and character assassination. If we want our elected officials and candidates to speak openly with their constituents, then we can’t try to crucify them for innocently using an innocuous phrase.
As I’ve reviewed, the cultural origins of the tar-baby motif are very old, very widespread, and very diverse. Back in the ’40s Aurelio Espinosa found the oldest examples to come from India.
Obviously “tar baby” as an English phrase originated in the English-speaking world, and it was the term first used by African slaves to describe a legend from old African folklore. The “tar baby” story originated in Africa, and it was brought to the United States by slaves. So the notion that invoking African folklore inherently reveals racism against African Americans is frankly absurd. One might as well claim that wearing African-style scarves is racist.
Here’s how Peter Addo describes the origins:
Most of the Stories referred to as Brer Rabbit are actually Anasne Stories brought to the Americas by the African American Slaves introduced here Centuries ago. In an attempt to keep their Culture alive in this Strange and forbidden place they found themselves, they tried against all odds to keep alive the few songs and stories about the homeland they would never see again. It was something they could remember and so they held on to the Ananse the Wise Trickster figure they were all familiar with from the Land of their birth.
Here the act of Story Telling was a very important part of their Lives since it was by this Oral Tradition that History was kept alive and transmitted from one generation to another. Secondly all the Ananse Stories ended with Specific Messages, Morals or Advice, Proverbs or a Very Wise Saying. What they had then was an Instrument of transmitting Knowledge, Morals, Ethical Values, and an Instrument of sharing but also Preserving their Common Values in a new Land. Thus the very close similarity between the Ananse Stories of Africa and the Brer Rabbit Stories.
A review in USA Today — another paper now lashing Lamborn — refers to “the tar baby in Afro-American folklore.”
In his autobiography, President Theodore Roosevelt writes that his uncle Robert Roosevelt wrote of the “Br’er Rabbit” story before Joel Chandler Harris popularized it with Uncle Remus. I haven’t been able verify Roosevelt’s claim about the publication of the work, but his comments make clear that the stories predated Harris. (I used Wikipedia to help run down some of these links.)
Even those critical of Harris’s work recognize the African origins of the stories. Consider this 2009 commentary by the Associated Press:
[B]lack authors like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker — who was born in Harris’ hometown of Eatonton —- have denounced the author and say he stole the stories unjustly. … For Curtis Richardson, who is one of several regular storytellers who perform at the Wren’s Nest, being black in a museum that celebrates such a controversial body of work can be tough. Richardson said he refused to tell Harris’ version of Tar Baby stories until he researched their roots back to West Africa and the Caribbean. Now he tells the older versions as a way to honor the stories’ heritage and skip the modern associations with racism.
Turning to “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story,” Harris himself supposes that the story originated in Africa. (We may note that in his introduction Harris uses race-loaded language properly off-limits today.)
The premise of the story (in Harris’s account) is that a fox is trying to catch a rabbit. The fox mixes tar and turpentine and fashions it into a “tar baby,” a sort of mannequin. Note that the important characteristic of tar is that it is sticky, not that it is black. The rabbit ambles by and, thinking the tar baby is a real person, wishes it a good morning. Of course the tar baby fails to reply. The rabbit mistakes this as rudeness and grows irritated. Incensed, the rabbit strikes the tar baby, getting entangled with it. Interestingly, the story ends on an ambiguous note; Uncle Remus says the story has no ending. Maybe somebody helped free the rabbit, but maybe not.
So what is the theme of the story? The rabbit makes two basic mistakes. First, he misconceives the nature of what he’s dealing with. As a consequence, he develops totally unrealistic expectations regarding that thing. In misplaced anger, he lashes out, becoming ensnared by the thing.
Interestingly, the story is a perfect metaphor for those calling the tar baby inherently racist. They fundamentally misunderstand what a tar baby is. They lash out in anger over an innocent use of the term. And now they are ensnared in a controversy that makes them look like illiterate partisan hacks.
If we take the story as metaphor for the racist American South, then the most sensibly reading is that the rabbit represents the African American, while the tar baby represents a trick by white oppressors. (Wikipediasuggests this reading.)
How, then, did the term “tar baby” get caught up with racist overtones? Quite simply that comes from ignorant and illiterate racists fundamentally misunderstanding what a “tar baby” is. But surely we ought not let ignorant racists destroy a meaningful story from African folklore!
The basic mistake is to think that “tar baby” refers, not to a sticky and ensnaring problem, but to a black person. Consider, for example, the existence (pathetically, still on the market today) of “tar baby soap.”Bernie Mac, the brilliant comedic actor who sadly died in 2008, wrote of his childhood, “Kids called me ‘tar baby,’ ‘spooky juice.’ I was scary.”
There is nothing inherently racist about the African concept of the tar baby. The racist overtones arise only from sheer ignorance. Again, I decline to let ignorant bafoons ruin a perfectly good cultural symbol.
Of course, none of the background about the tar baby matters to the hysterical left. Participants with the hard-left MoveOn protested at Lamborn’s office. One fellow said Lamborn should be tossed in the briar patch — because apparently it’s racist for Lamborn to invoke African folklore but perfectly acceptable for his critics to do the same.
I wonder why MoveOn declined to protest the Denver Post or Westwordwhen left-leaning writers for those papers used the term “tar baby.” (Seeyesterday’s post for details.)
Unthinking critics have created an unfortunate feedback loop. John Kerry, Mitt Romney, and John McCain have all used the term “tar baby.” The two Republicans apologized for it. But the journalists covering these stories apparently have never bothered to wonder whether they actually had anything to apologize for. But now it’s a tradition: if you’re a Republican and you innocently say “tar baby,” that makes you a racist and you must immediately apologize. And never mind the facts.
Well, I say the true racism is to smother references to important African folklore in an attempt smear political opponents.
Anonymous comments on August 4, 2011 at 7:42 AM:
I appreciate your precise approach to this issue. You have definitely honed your sword. Great research. Joseph Campbell has been played and replayed on PBS. The left must approve of his tar-baby definition.
You have also brilliantly illustrated how the left has us all sidetracked on non-issues.
The left, including Sirota and his ilk, are hyper sensitive. They see racism everywhere, even when it does not exist.I do believe there is a pill for this condition of hyper racial sensitivity and other delusions.
For the good of humanity, maybe Sirota should find a new career rather than pedaling snake-oil? The problem with this type of distracting snake-oil is that it is poisonous.
Anonymous comments September 19, 2011 at 1:37 PM”
funny… for quite a while I’ve been calling out Sirota on a variety of topics for his “snake oil” sales tricks and rhetorical spins. Thought I was the first and only, but evidently not.