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President Obama, Doug Lamborn, and Dealing with the Wonderful Tar-Baby Story


Written on August 3, 2011 at 4:54 pm, by Sue

This week Brer Rabbit seemed to take President Barack Obama by storm.

First, Representative Doug Lamborn (R-CO) likened the president to a “tar baby.” Then, Pat Buchanan said “don’t throw me in that briar patch” shortly before referring to the President as “boy.”

The terms stem from “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story” and “How Mr. Rabbit Was Too Sharp For Mr. Fox” recorded by Joel Chandler Harris. In case you’re rusty, here are both stories told together (as they usually are) by Akbar Imhotep:

The phrase Akbar uses in the story and the phrase we heard from Rep. Lanborn are different.

The tar baby of Akbar’s story didn’t carry a derogatory connotation when it was told over the course of generations between enslaved Africans. Nor did it carry that connotation when Harris first heard the story while working on a plantation, nor when he wrote the story down at the Atlanta Constitution.

“Tar baby,” however, has evolved into a derogatory term when used in an insulting way. In fact, its connotation reaches so far and so far afield of its original definition that it’s difficult to say in conversation without whispering.

Just so we’re clear — I think Rep. Lamborn’s comment was offensive and intended to be offensive. Enough politicians have used the term (Mitt Romney & John McCain, for instance) that Lamborn knew the whirlwind of criticism and publicity he was entering. It’s shameless to insult President Obama through racist epithets and unfortunate to further hold America’s greatest folklore hostage with political rhetoric. (I’m less sure about Buchanan’s bumbling.)

Most media outlets that I know about have covered either the “tar baby” story or the “briar patch” one. Miss Nannie saw the story on The View, and then 50 Cent let loose on his twitter account.

While I’m thrilled that Brer Rabbit is getting a lot of attention, I’ve gotta say it’s near impossible to combat so much negative misinformation. If you run into 50 Cent, politely refresh his memory on Brer Rabbit.

You can imagine the “tar baby” is a bizarre problem to have for a small house museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of Joel Chandler Harris and the heritage of African American folklore Everyone knows it’s bad, but few are clear on its origins.

We’ve come up with two strategies at the Wren’s Nest to set the record straight about this particular Brer Rabbit story and the 190 Brer Rabbit folk tales that Harris collected —

(1) Tell our entire story. Be it through storytelling performances or research like Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong, we won’t shy away from the controversy or the awesomeness of Brer Rabbit

(2) Change the story that’s being told by bringing the legacy of Joel Chandler Harris to the 21st century. This means instituting the KIPP Scribes Program, which pairs professional writers with the 5th graders to record an important family story. It also means collaborating with the Atlanta Opera to develop their first ever commissioned work and uplift African American folklore in new ways. Or partnering with StoryCorps to record the stories of our neighbors.

Other, less publicized strategies include “drinking beers at key moments,” “sighing quite a bit,” and remembering that sometimes controversy can be a good thing.

Otherwise, I can only describe this particular situation as “a difficult problem that is only aggravated by attempts to solve it.”

What else can we do? What else should we do? What would you do?

8 Comments to President Obama, Doug Lamborn, and Dealing with the Wonderful Tar-Baby Story

  1. Marcia says:

    Anyone familiar with Joel Chandler Harris and his Uncle Remus characters know that Uncle Remus was portrayed as a VERY wise and gentle man, that his stories recorded the oral traditions of the slaves who brought them from Africa. Everyone needs an Uncle Remus in his or her life! Perhaps the one analogy to Uncle Remus Stories that can be made is the difficult to read dialect in which Harris wrote as compared to the difficult to read rhetoric of Congress!

  2. Missy Whitmire says:

    Unfortunately, the term “Tarbaby” will always have double connotations, especially when used by politicians. I take it as an opportunity to explain the origin, a “sticky situation that you have to think your way out of, like Brer Rabbit.” I think Katie Couric made an attempt to explain the origin on The View, and B. Walters actually backed her up, explaining the definition of Tarbaby in the dictionary as “an intractible situation”. I think most folks, most southerners anyway, know it’s not a racist term, since it is based on African folklore. But people will hear what they want to hear, no matter how you explain it.

  3. Jodi says:

    If you run into 50 cent you might also want to politely refresh his memory that “witch” is not correct either.

  4. Paul says:

    Well said Lain! Our southern history is a complex one filled with hardships and treasures, of which one of the shining jewels is Joel Chandler Harris and his work. Human nature pulls one’s mind to always simplify and from this much is lost, but as we know there are riches that lay ahead for those who wish to find them through literature and history. I thank the Wren’s Nest and yourself for your continuous proactive efforts at showing the way to those interested in learning. Keep up the great work!

  5. Veronica says:

    I look forward to the day when the tales of Uncle Remus are held in such high esteem that everyone can read/hear these African stories in context. Perhaps then the reading public will know who Uncle Remus truly is; not the stereotype in Disney’s “Song of the South” movie. I believe the 2 strategies above will will go a long way to setting the record straight.

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