By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Sticking to Romney

The Wikipedia may have some credibility problems. But its anonymous contributors have certainly kept the online encyclopedia up to date on the controversial term “tar baby”: Gov. Mitt Romney’s weekend faux pas has already been memorialized.

Is “tar baby” a racist term? Certainly some people think so, although there seems to be enough haziness that Romney deserves the benefit of the doubt. The Globe plays down the reaction to Romney’s remarks, relegating it to the lower-right-hand corner of the City & Region front. The Herald goes nuts, blowing out page one with a huge headline that reads, “THAT’S OFFENSIVE.”

Yet the definition of “tar baby” provided by the American Heritage Dictionary suggests no racial overtones, simply calling it “A situation or problem from which it is virtually impossible to disentangle oneself” — which is the connotation Romney was trying to convey in referring to the Big Dig.

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes a tar baby as a:

sticky tar doll, the central figure in black American folktales popularized in written literature by the American author Joel Chandler Harris. Harris’ “Tar-Baby” (1879), one of the animal tales told by the character Uncle Remus, is but one example of numerous African-derived tales featuring the use of a wax, gum, or rubber figure to trap a rascal.

We’re getting closer here, but the offensiveness has still not been established.

Perhaps the best explanation is that the term has taken on an offensive glow over time. The Wikipedia, for instance, says, “The term may also carry a negative connotation. It has been used as a derogatory term for dark skinned people (such as African Americans in the United States or Maoris in New Zealand). It can also refer to an especially dark skinned black person.”

Toni Morrison, who wrote a novel called “Tar Baby,” tells the Globe, “How it became a racial epithet, I don’t know. It was my attempt to rescue the phrase from its low meaning. I wanted to annihilate the connotation and return the meaning to its origins. Apparently, I haven’t succeeded.”

No, she hasn’t.

I don’t know whether Romney was speaking off the cuff, but if he was reading prepared remarks, well, shame on his staff. It was only a couple of months ago that White House press secretary Tony Snow took some heat for using the phrase “tar baby.” So it’s not as if this was a complete unknown.

Still, I’m inclined to give Romney a pass. Unless he says it again.

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27 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    The guy’s policies have a huge negative impact on social and economic justice for ethnic minorities. This is a guy who goes pandering for national wingnut attention in places like Bob Jones “University,” and wants the Massachusetts State Police to arrest illegal immigrants.Then, he says “tar baby,” a literary reference not traditioanlly associated with bigotry, and people pay attention.

  2. Stella

    Tar baby, or tarbaby, has no racial connotations whatever. Brer Rabbit was known for his entanglements with the tarbaby in the Uncle Remus tales. No doubt some fools assume or use the term inappropriately, but that doesn’t alter the facts. (Which, of course, Ronald Reagan always hated.)

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Stella — I disagree. Words can take on new meanings and shades of meaning over time. I just looked up “tar baby” in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the second meaning is “a derog. term for a Black (U.S.) or a Maori (N.Z.).” Are you going to argue with the OED? Or call its editors fools?

  4. boyinthebands

    I’ll call them misguided or misinformed. I’m a native of Georgia — lived many years close to where Joel Chandler Harris wrote — and I’ve never heard tar baby to mean anything other than the Brer Rabbit character, or by extension, an avoidably troublesome situation. I’ve never heard it used in a racial context (but have heard plenty of other words that are.) I’d as soon give Romney as pass, too, though he has plenty to answer for generally and it is an odd term for a resident of Massachusetts or native Utahn to use.

  5. Stella

    Always defer to the OED. However, the Revised Tenth Edition points to the J.C. Harris Uncle Remus stories as the origin of the word. There is no other definition. So, I elect to stand with Toni Morrison. Without hesitation I will call those who bastardize this word as a racial slur, “fools.”

  6. Eoin

    Dan, If Mitt had actually directed the term at a black American or a Maori, then we could rightly call him on it. But he didn’t. He used it in the first sense.There are a lot of words that can have racist overtones in some contexts, but in other contexts are quite harmless. Do we really want to spend all our time exposing these chinks in our linguistic armor? Do we want to scrub our vocabularies until they are spic and span? The resulting lexicon would be quite niggardly indeed, and then we’d all be in a paddy.

  7. Dan Kennedy

    Eoin — But then you’d be gypping us out of the right to score cheap political points.

  8. Anonymous

    To me, this is one shade removed from the “niggardly” scandal.I don’t care for Mitt Romney for, basically, the same reasons I don’t like vanilla soft-serve ice cream or own any Andy Williams records. But his use of “tar baby” in this sense is only dumb politics and nothing more. Let’s face it, fellow liberals: When Mel Gibson+a few beers=Josef Goebbels, or when Dick Armey blurts out “Barney Fag,” we’re really not offended – we’re gratified that they’ve finally been “outed.” If the Uncle Remus stories are blotted out of our national literature, it will be a shame. While Harris’ overblown dialect makes them damn near unreadable, the stories themselves are wonderful. My children have boh watched a Japanese-subtitled version of “Song of the South,” with a few prefatory remarks.Bob in Peabody

  9. Anonymous

    Dan, from today’s Globe article we find the following later on:“I don’t believe he was making a disparaging remark, and if he was, I’d be the first person to call him,” said Don Muhammad, minister of the Nation of Islam in Boston, who said he had not heard the expression in 50 years. “I suppose one ought to be allowed to clarify his remarks. I have no problem with it.”Would I describe the Big Dig problem as a sticky situation? I sure would. I know that Tom Reilly, once the summer is over, will very much relate to that analogy (he has been the AG for 8 years, you know).This brouhaha seems to be a little bit like the Chickens**t move back in ’02 to label Romney as a nonresident since he was in Utah overseeing the Salt Lake Olympics. Whatever you have to do sell newspapers, I guess.Michael WyattNorwell, MA

  10. Dan Kennedy

    Michael — Well, I’ve already said I don’t think it was that big a deal. And the Globe would seem to agree with you. The Herald had its one day of fun, and probably won’t return to the subject.

  11. Anonymous

    On the other hand, Romney, a mormon, (not necessarily a slur . . .), clearly did NOT live in Massachusetts.

  12. tony schinella

    What’s more controversial? The fact that you can’t get the classic Disney musical “Song of the South” on DVD because some people think “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, Zip-A-Dee-Ay …” and other songs from the film are racist and Disney is scared to release it. They can let Michael Jackson rent Disney World out for a day but they can’t release this classic we all grew up on!

  13. Brigid

    How many people in Romney’s audience even got the reference? Joel Chandler Harris’s popularity has come and gone, and “Song of the South” has never been released on home video in the U.S., so most people, especially those under 40, probably have no clue as to what he meant. He might as well have said “Don’t open that closet, McGee!”And even those of us who know the story, (my father used to tell it when I was a kid) get around enough to know that 1) not everybody has heard of it and 2) it just plain sounds bad. This is just another example of his total cluelessness.

  14. Anonymous

    It may be genetic. Don’t forget his father’s famous “greatest brainwashing” gaffe.I am left wondering what he’s doing in Iowa talking about the great job he’s doing on the Big Dig, when absolutely nothing seems to have been resolved (removal of a Republican hack aside).

  15. Don

    Sticks and stones. . .

  16. Wes

    Where is Pogo when we need him?

  17. Anonymous

    herald has audio of romney’s tar baby comment on line.

  18. Stealth

    Brigid – I’d never heard the phrase until Tony Snow got in trouble for saying it. Now I know a little something more about black (and American) culture, and I consider that a positive thing.

  19. Anonymous

    Stealth,Great argument. I think I’ll revive jigaboo, sambo, and golliwog. All *very* educational.The Web is a truly stupid place.

  20. boyinthebands

    The last anonymous poster is playing fast and loose with the origins of “tar baby” by matching it with three words which are known racial deprecations with oafish, sloven and childish overtones.

  21. Anonymous

    No, stealth made the argument that use of “tar baby” is OK because he learned something. The poster was being sarcastic.

  22. Neil

    Some people, somewhere, might take offense. But we don’t hear from them, only from people who take offense on their behalf. Here’s a handy guideline: let actual offendees speak up and explain the problem. If you aren’t among them, then restrain the sanctimonious urge and keep your cakehole shut.Tarbaby is exactly the right term for something you touch then can’t get unstuck from. I’ve used it before. The tarbaby’s big cousin the quagmire has found work lately in Iraq. The term in the context Romney used it is legit and he’s chickenshit to apologize.What might the problem be, anyway? That some carefully passive-tensed references say that the term “…is also used occasionally as a derogatory term…”, and “..as a result, some people suggest avoiding the use of the term altogether”. Some people suggest? We do not make this suggestion mind you, but “some people” do. We are not prissy members of the language-nanny patrol, but some people are.Here are Harris’s, and de-vernacularized versions of the story.

  23. Charles Foster Kane

    He just should have said “marshmallow fluff baby”. Oh wait–that would have offended and alienated the boys at Hub Politics. Did I just say “boys”? I meant, um, well, some of my best friends are Republicans…..

  24. Anonymous

    No matter how you slice it, what Romney said was DUMB, especially for a person with his reputation for tone deafness with regards to minorities. Dan is exactly right. Unless Romney is reaching out for the cracker vote, his handlers should be spanked.I’m also guessing that if Romney had called Matt Amarello “gay,” Neil would be jumping in to talk about how HE doesn’t find the term offfensive since the modern usage just means stupid…

  25. Neil

    Anonymous that’s a pretty zany example. You’re right though, I don’t find the term “gay” offensive. Do you actually find “tarbaby” offensive? If you do, let us know why. If you don’t, you’re sticking up for others apparently so crushed by the vast cracker conspiracy that they cannot speak up for themselves, alas.You can call me a cracker too and following my guideline, I’ll let those offended by that term speak up.Complaining about Romney’s use of tarbaby to describe the Big Dig is like calling him a homophobe for saying he vacationed at Gay Head. Speaking of tone deaf, here’s a little test:a. “I don’t want to touch that Big Dig tarbaby.”b. “Those damn people, they’re nothing but a bunch of shiftless tarbabies.”Can you detect a difference? If not, maybe it’s not Romney that needs his hearing checked.

  26. Anonymous

    Sorry – been out of town and thus a bit late to this discussion, but: Does anyone remember when Saturday Night Live was funny? Think 1975 – Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor squaring off in a job interview, playing word association and trading racial nasties:White? Black. Negro? Whitey. Colored? Redneck. Tar baby? Peckerwood. Spearchucker? White trash. Junglebunny? Honky. Nigger? Dead honky.There it is, “tar baby,” 31 years ago, on national TV, as a racial epithet. Big deal at the time. Can’t believe no one recalls now, but since then (and that was after my Remus-reading days), I’ve avoided use of the term … but then, Mitt was probably tucked in his jammies that late on Saturday nights.

  27. Mark Gisleson

    Tar baby, as an Uncle Remus thing is an incredibly useful literary device, but anyone who thinks it’s not a racial slur is probably just too young to remember when it was in common usage.I still use it (sparingly), but I’m always careful to couch it in terms of Uncle Remus first so as to provide context. And, just to be supersafe, I doubt I’d ever use it in connection with any Africans or African Americans.

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