Monday, July 31, 2006

The Uncle Remus Defense

David Abel reporting for the Boston Globe:

Governor Mitt Romney yesterday apologized for using the expression "tar baby" -- a phrase some consider a racial epithet -- among comments he made at a political gathering in Iowa over the weekend.

"The governor was describing a sticky situation," said Eric Fehrnstrom, the governor's spokesman. "He was unaware that some people find the term objectionable, and he's sorry if anyone was offended."


The expression "tar baby" has had different meanings over the years.

A definition from Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary traces the expression to the tar baby that trapped Br'er Rabbit in an Uncle Remus story by Joel Chandler Harris, which became popular in the 19th century. The dictionary now defines the expression as "something from which it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself."

But it also has been used as a pejorative term for dark-skinned blacks.

In his first press conference White House spokesman Tony Snow also used "tar baby" then later employed the Uncle Remus defense while being interviewed on the Hugh Hewitt show:

Well, apparently, what's happened is, apparently some people are unfamiliary with the pathways of American culture, and don't realize the old Uncle Remus story where somebody hugs a tar baby.

There are no "different meanings."

The sticky thing that Brer Rabbit gets attached to - the "tar baby" - is a lump of tar with clothing on it that Brer Bear and Brer Fox disguised to look like a baby.

But what color is tar? Or what particular kind of a baby is a "tar baby"?

A black baby.

A "tar baby" is a black baby.

No one ever mentions this. You can't even read about that at Wikipedia.

It always was and it always will be a racialized expression.

If Tony Snow called a lawyer a "shylock" would he employ the Shakespeare Defense and talk about folks' unfamiliary with the pathways of American culture?

Perhaps some old-school Republicans need to wash their mouths out with soap.

Hat tip to commenters on this Crooks & Liars Haloscan thread for the link to the "Black Americana Tar Baby" soap sold at eBay and this clip from Disney's "Song of the South" which hasn't been re-released theatrically in twenty years.

It's never come out on DVD or on video in the US, though there's never been an official Disney explanation why.

There's even an online campaign devoted to convincing Mickey Mouse's owners to re-release it, which claims that over 109,000 people have signed a petition.

Here's what the NAACP had to say about the film upon its release as reported in this New York Times film review from November 28, 1946:

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People expressed regret yesterday over Walt Disney's new production, "Song of the South," on the ground that it is helping to perpetuate the impression of "an idyllic master-slave relationship" in the South.

Walter White, executive secretary, in telegrams to newspapers, stated the association recognized the artistic merit of the picture, but added, "It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the North or South, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, 'Song of the South' unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts."

That said, I'm definitely in favor of releasing the film. As I would be for "The Turner Diaries" or "Birth of a Nation" or Ann Coulter's "Godless."

I'm just not in favor of old white men in power using racially insensitive terms and pretending that they had no idea of the connotations.


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