Tony Snow and the tar baby

No, there’s nothing wrong with saying “tar baby.” But it sounds funny coming from an advocate of the “War on Terror.”

The Random House Dictionary Usage Panel be damned. There’s nothing wrong with saying “tar baby.”

It is indeed a “wonderful” story, as the title claims, and a fairly obvious allegory of the disastrous effect of slavery on the white South. Whatever your stance on Joel Chandler Harris’s methods as a folklorist, the magnificent tradition of African-American storytelling he helped to preseve is among the greatest treasures of our nation, and of our language.

Dialect humor is always funnier and less offensive live than on paper, and the modern convention that requires that it be delivered by a member of the approprite cultural community has merit. Transcribing dialect can seem condescending. On the otherhand, the juxtaposition of demotic speech with great wisdom has its own subversive quality. There’s a direct line from Harris’s Uncle Remus to Richard Pryor’s Mudbone.

That said, a BushCo spokesman can’t say “tar baby” and expect the rest of us not to think about the War on Terror.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

15 thoughts on “Tony Snow and the tar baby”

  1. When I hear "tar baby" my thoughts don't leap to the War on Terror, I only think of the racial slur. I'd never heard this other usage until this incident. If well-educated, well-read people with extensive vocabularies have to go to a dictionary to see if what sounds like a slur is in fact a slur, then it's probably best to retire that definition as archaic. Our language is rich enough without ethnic slurs doing double-duty.

  2. Wow. I'd never, ever heard "tar baby" as a racial slur, and I'm a professional in language usage. (I admit that I once before heard somebody say that somebody's uncle's best friend thought of it as a slur, but I filed it, like "niggardly," as a term to be used only when I have the energy to help anybody who misunderstands.)
    Can anybody cite a reference of "tar baby" being used that way?

  3. So far, one commentor who thinks of "tar baby" as 100% racial slur, and two (including me) who have never heard it used that way or considered that it might be used that way.
    This is the kind of thing that leads to failures to communicate. It reminds me of how small people prefer to be called "dwarfs", or possibly "midgets". I can never remember which one is good and which one is offensive. As far as I've ever known, they're 100% synonymous, but I remember reading recently that a small person will be offended by one of these words but not the other.

  4. This is like those who think "to call a spade a spade" is a racist expression, when in fact it comes from an ancient Greek expression. Maybe at some point they'll succeed in ruining "tarbaby" but as this is the first I've ever heard that some object to it, that day should be far away.

  5. I did not know that tar baby was a racial slur. I know it's the title of a book by Toni Morrison so it might have occurred to me that it was a "southernism" but I know nothing of its origins. And I do have a tape of some of the Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit stories (my kids loved them, my husband (white southern) knew them from his childhood. They are subversive, sly and incredibly funny. But I am drawing a blank on tar baby.

  6. Maybe it's an age thing; I'm only 24. Also, I'm black, so perhaps I'm a bit more familiar with certain racial slurs, and less familiar with archaic turns of phrase.

  7. The tar baby and Sambo reveal the power of pictures. As has been widely noted, Sambo is the hero of the story and defeats a tiger by wit, but the illustrations in the book as I recall were the most repulsive racist caricatures, all lips and bugeyes. The tar baby isn't even a person, and it's black because it's made of tar, but I recall illustrations in some editions, maybe in the Disney movie, in which it was drawn as a Golliwog in the same style, a graphic that quite understandably triggers offense. If you see that image in your head when someone says "tar baby," especially if you're black, a dispassionate literary reaction is probably a lot to expect, especially as the whole Uncle Remus corpus is rendered in a patois commonly and widely used to ridicule blacks.

  8. Ok, Greg, but I'm still looking for a citation. When have you heard it used as a slur, and how? Do people say, "No daughter of mine is going to be dating no tar baby," or what?

  9. I'm a white male thirtysomething, and my perspective on racism is therefore neccesarily limited. I grew up among kids who used the n-word freely and, when asked to perform some task or other by a peer, might roll back a sleeve, point to their exposed forearm, and angrily reply "what color is my skin?"
    That is, I've never known the sting of racism, but I've seen it up close. A lot of it. I learned about "white flight" when it was proudly explained to me be a white who'd fled. I knew kids who claimed to be klansmen. I've heard an awful lot of vicious shit.
    But I've never heard any use of "tar-baby" other than the innocent reference to the difficult-to-escape trap. If it's a racist term, it wasn't in popular usage among lower-middle-class white bigots in Indiana in the '70s and '80s.

  10. I immediately felt it was a slur. But then, I have people chiding me all the time when I don't find the fact that DC and most Washington residents cheer for a team named the Redskins an honor to my heritage. (Do a Technorati search and see how many Lefties use the term without question from their readers.)

  11. I find it a bit bizarre that on the one hand you have people (literate people) who not only are familiar with the term's origin but have never heard of it being used as a racial slur, and on the other hand you have people who claim never to have heard it as ANYTHING BUT a racial slur. Frankly, I find the literate people more believable, particularly given that no one — here or elsewhere — has been able to come up with even a single example of the term's supposed usage as a racial slur.

  12. ANYthing can be made into a racial slur by racists. TAR BABY originates as an AfricanAmerican folktale. It's intent, like many other folktales from various parts of the word, is nothing more than to entertain a la "pre-television era" in the AFRICAN oral traditions of storytelling. Warped minds, be they racist or cognitively challenged, will always delight in the mentally inept tease and displease industry. . . and THAT won't stop me from continuing in telling this tale. LONG LIVE BRUH RABBIT AND THE TAR BABY! Ha-ha!
    Yo'Mama

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