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