Walt Disney's adaptation of Joel Chandler Harris' tales of Uncle Remus, Br'er Rabbitt, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Bear hasn't been seen in full in the U.S. since its 1986 theatrical re-release, never on home video and none is planned (it's available in other countries, and, as a result, you can find it on youtube -- see link, though I don't know how long that'll last).
Just watched it; I'd seen it as a 10 year old back in 1980, and, on a technical level, it holds up marvelously -- the animation is wonderful, and the cinematography (by the great Gregg Toland) of the live-action scenes is exquisite. And even the story -- a Magical Negro teaches life lessons to a wealthy but lonely white boy who lives in the big house (this is post-Reconstruction Georgia) -- is ultimately quite affecting.
Yes, its portrayal of black folk deferring to the whites and living -- happily, it seems -- in abject poverty is uncomfortable. But the characters are honorable and positive, and mostly unlike the unpleasant stereotypes portrayed in Gone with the Wind. I suppose it gets more controversy because its racism is in a film aimed at children.
I still think Disney should release it on DVD/Blu-Ray, with a documentary/commentary from historians and African-American scholars discussing the film. It's certainly worth a look for a comparison of James Baskett's Uncle Remus and Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen in Django Unchained.
Only a racist would watch this. Even Roger Ebert said, it should be, not only banned, but all copies destroyed.
No, r1, he did not say that. What he said was that he thought Disney should withhold the film from commercial availability but should make it available to film schools so students of cinema can see it.
"I am against censorship and believe that no films or books should be burned or banned, but film school study is one thing and a general release is another," Ebert wrote in his Movie Answer Man column for the Chicago Sun-Times (www.suntimes.coindeebert.html). "Any new Disney film immediately becomes part of the consciousness of almost every child in America, and I would not want to be a black child going to school in the weeks after 'Song of the South' was first seen by my classmates."
THAT MOVIE IS RACIST THATS WHY IT WAS BAN. EVERY PRINT OF THE PIECE OF SHIT SHOULD BE BURNED AND ALL THE PEOPLE WHO ARE STILL ALIVE WHO HAD ANY INVOLVEMENT IN THAT FILM SHOULD BE IMPRISIONED. I DON'T GIVE A FUCK HOW OLD THEY ARE I WAS FORCED TO WATCH THAT PILE OF RACIST SHIT IN SIX GRADE ON A SCHOOL FEILD TRIP IN 1970 I THREW UP AND WALKED OUT ON IT ANYONE WHO OWNS A COPY OF THE MOVIE SHOULD BE PUT IN JAIL.IT WAS BAN AND MADE ILLEGAL FOR A FUCKIN REASON. IT IS HATE FILLED AND THE MOST RACIST MOVIE EVER.ANYBODY WHO LIKES THAT MOVIE IS HUMAN SHIT AND A BIG FAT MOTHER FUCKIN RACIST WHO DESERVE TO BE IN PRISON. THAT MOVIE HAD TO OF BEEN FINANCED BY THE FUCKIN KKK. JUST THINKIN ABOOUT THAT MOVIE PISSES ME THE FUCK OFF.
HATE THAT FUCKIN MOVIE
Terrible racist movie. I do not believe in censorshipvery often but this movie is hatespeech and should be destroyed. I thank God that my children never had to sit through that wicked, evil movie.
Want "wicked and evil"? See D.W. Griffiths' "Birth of a Nation", which is as historically important as it is evil.
It's generally considered to be the first real feature film ever made, the first full-length movie with a coherent, emotionally compelling storyline. But it's a rah-rah film for the KKK, and sparked a massive real-world rebirth of the Klan. How many thousands of people were murdered, because of that movie?
That's the film that ought to be surpressed, or burned outright.
The most objectionable parts of this film are the syrupy, wooden performances of Bobby Driscoll & Luana Patton.
Dat moobie shud be ban, you say, ara-3? I know dat right!
I saw it when I was a kid, my aunt owned a copy on film.
Great movie, I went to school with all kinds of people but even at 6 knew this was historical fiction.
r3 should be ban from posting here for not learning English in the school that forced him to watch Uncle Remus.
If we want to destroy all offensive literature and art, let's start with the bible. Burn every copy of that bit of shit and then we can talk about Remus.
Perfect placement R4 Bravo.
I don't believe in censorship either but Disney doesn't need to profit on it either. You can get a good bootleg off the 80's LaserDisc if you need it. Disney doesn't stop it.
My heart goes out to R3 for being forced to see "Song of the South" yet prevented from any interaction with an English teacher beyond 3rd grade.
I haven't seen it in years, but I agree with OP. I don't believe in keeping art that is deemed offensive undercover--bring it into the open and have a dialogue about it.
Interesting comment from the Youtube link:
Try looking at 1:29:55 to 1:30:05 and see if you can tell what Disney's scriptwriters were trying to say, at a time when the civil rights movement was just a glimmer of light on the horizon, a year before Truman's armed forces integration order put the country on the road to the Brown decision from SCOTUS 7 years later. The movie is about racial harmony, how life lessons are universal whether taught by those who look like us or those who don't.
I heard they´re planning a remake in 3D. The part of uncle Remus will be played by Mel Gibson in blackface
It was the first movie I ever saw. I think I was about 3 or 4 years old. I did not grow up to be a racist.
It is what it is.
Another Youtube commenter:
"Thank you for making this available. What a wonderful movie that I remember as a child. I also took my children to Disney World in 2011 and road on the Splash Mountain ride. Right after I found out that I couldnt but the movie because in the words of a Disney employee "It is racist".But the week before we got there was "Gay week" at Disney. God help us."
It was far less racist than Gone with the Wind, the whole premise of which is to justify the criminal world of white supremacy. But I don't see anyone trying to ban that, and indeed I believe they still screen the avowedly racist Birth of a Nation.
[quote]The all-caps lock is the least of your concerns
I agree. It's really funny when a 6th grader goes on a rant at DL.
[quote]Only a racist would watch this. Even Roger Ebert said, it should be, not only banned, but all copies destroyed.
You can't ban art or destroy it just because it offends political sympathies.
I saw it as a kid at my neighborhood movie theater and loved it. I did not turn out to be a racist.
[quote]as a result, you can find it on youtube -- see link, though I don't know how long that'll last).
It's been on YouTube forever, and that's so odd considering how zealous Disney is about guarding their copyrights and property. It can't be there without their knowledge, so I assume they're unofficially making it available to anyone who is interested and at the same time denying that they'll ever do it.
I don't find it any more racist or offensive than 100 other films from the same era, and compared to Django it's not even worth talking about.
This whole thread could be a trick by Disney's lawyers to make money off us by getting us to click on that link.
I own a DVD. Certainly the whole Uncle Remus thing seems more than mildly racist today, but the syrupy style and content of this Disney adaptation is what mainly leaves me cold. It comes from an era when Disney Studios were awash with sentimentality.
I agree that it should not be released commercially. It's deeply offensive. But yeah, film students should be allowed to look at it.
Well, you know, by way of comparison, I find movies like "The Gay Decievers," "The Sergeant," "Cruising" and "Braveheart" deeply and thoroughly offensive because of their homophobic bigotry, but I don't think they should be banned.
Is it lost on everyone that the movie itself contains a plea for racial tolerance? Johnny, the white boy, is confused and upset that his best friend, the black boy, is not allowed to come to his fancy birthday party. His mother is an overt racist and we see the harm it does to the children. We are meant to sympathize with them as the victims of intolerance.
Uncle Remus is the white boy's most beloved role model. In the end, the racist mother who banishes Uncle Remus is made to see the old man's importance to her son, and pleads for his return. Racism is portrayed as villainous behavior in this film.
Of course, there is no getting past the frequent use of the racist term "tar baby" in one animated sequence. But you have to remember, this movie was made at a time when black penny candies called "n***** babies" were sold openly, everywhere. Offensive as parts of the movie are, it was not made by people who intended to degrade and demean blacks. Walt Disney was honestly and earnestly dedicated to promoting the talent of James Baskett. For his work as Uncle Remus, Baskett received an honorary Oscar, the first ever received by a black actor.
OP also thinks "Amos 'N Andy" was racist. The cast didn't think so. The series included doctors and lawyers, not just buffoons George and Andy.
If you look at DVDs of "Amos and Andy" you can see that most of "Sanford and Son" was ripped from A&A - the stories and the characters.
Can you buy it overseas? I think that if people are really that desperate to see it, they should have to pay top dollar for it, and get it in the most inconvenient way possible.
I've seen VHS copies for sale at nostalia conventions.
[quote]Can you buy it overseas? I think that if people are really that desperate to see it, they should have to pay top dollar for it, and get it in the most inconvenient way possible.
Unless it's changed in the last couple years, you can still buy it in the stores at Disney Tokyo and Disney Paris.
Don't forget the music is used throughout the Splash Mountain ride.
R3 probably also wishes that all prints, negatives and other forms of GONE WITH THE WIND would be destroyed as well.
"It was far less racist than Gone with the Wind, the whole premise of which is to justify the criminal world of white supremacy. But I don't see anyone trying to ban that, and indeed I believe they still screen the avowedly racist Birth of a Nation. "
I think that's because "SOTS" is a kiddie film. Adults who are interested in classic historical films like "GWTW" and "BOAN" are presumed to know enough about history to understand what they're seeing, but "SOTS" was made for very young children. Everyone feels free to restrict what little kids can and cannot see.
And R30, the first Oscar given to a black actor was Best Supporting Actress to Hattie McDaniel in 1939. She won it fair and square, no "honorary" awards for her!
[quote]And [R30], the first Oscar given to a black actor was Best Supporting Actress to Hattie McDaniel in 1939.
Actor/Actress - got it?
[quote] the first Oscar given to a black actor was Best Supporting Actress to Hattie McDaniel in 1939. She won it fair and square, no "honorary" awards for her!
Yes, but she still had to sit at a table in the Cocoanut Grove near the kitchen. She wasn't allowed to sit at the table with the rest of the cast.
R38, "actor" is commonly used to denote either sex these days.
It stars Ruth Warrick!!
Didn't the little boy, Bobby Driscoll, die a drug addict?
[quote]"actor" is commonly used to denote either sex these days
Yes, but not when handing out acting Oscars. Women get "Actress" Oscars and men get "Actor" Oscars, pardon me for failing to specify. James Baskett was the first black male actor to receive an Oscar for a performance.
r40, are you a Cuntor or Cuntess?
[quote]here is no getting past the frequent use of the racist term "Tar Baby" in one animated sequence.
Uh, the term "tar baby" originated in the Uncle Remus stories. Complaining about "Tar Baby" in "Song of the South" is like complaining about "Shylock" as an antisemitic term in "Merchant of Venice". In fact, "Tar Baby" should be no worse than "Trojan Horse" as that is a closer example of meaning. The fact that some yutzes over the years have used it as a derogatory term should not be held against the original source material.
This site has it. I bought Love in a Cold Climate from them a couple of years ago.
I've never seen Song of the South, but obviously it touches a nerve for r3. But isn't it more important that this movie be discussed as a reflection of the time in which it was made?
Isn't removing Song of the South kind of like removing a piece of societal history? Isn't that just as important as the message of the film?
I hate artistic censorship, especially for PC reasons. We put movies with gratuitous sex and near pornographic violence (i.e. Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained) on a pedestal, but movies like Song of the South, which can open up dialogue and help people learn about WHY this movie was made and WHY it was acceptable at the time but not anymore, are vilified, hated, and sentenced to be burned like r3 demands.
R3, I understand your anger, but why don't you critically analyze the story and the times it came out and use it as a device for learning American thought processes throughout history?
Or would you rather go see highly bloody revenge porn like Django Unchained that is a total work of fantasy?
Song of the South is also a total work of fantasy too, is it not?
Not really, r48. The Uncle Reamus stories are a collection of oral traditions from slaves, going back to Yoruba tales and even a bit of Native American folklore. Published in book form in 1881, Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt were admirers of the Uncle Reamus stories.
Joel Chandler Harris, the real Uncle Reamus, was a white southern journalist. He was born illegitimately, and was quite literally, the red headed step child and often looked down upon by Atlanta society. He worked on a plantation himself and quickly befriended the slaves and would hang out with them in their slave quarters. He considered himself an outcast of society, just like the slaves, although obviously there was a major difference between freedom and enslavement. That's where he heard these oral traditions that eventually became the Uncle Reamus stories. He said he wrote the stories to "preserve in permanent shape those curious mementoes of a period that will no doubt be sadly misrepresented by historians of the future."
However, he also interpreted Uncle Tom's Cabin as a defense of slavery, and he did romanticize the concept. For that, he is deadly wrong. But in Atlanta in the latter half of the 19th century, he was a product of time and place.
You really can not and must not look back at American history with your 2013 eyes without trying at least to comprehend why people wrote, acted, thought and spoke the way they did. It doesn't excuse their actions, but it will help us tomorrow if we understand the past. In 50-100 years our actiouns too will be judged by our successors.
This thread actually inspired me to research a little about the facts of Uncle Reamus. Maybe r3 should do the same and at least try to find an understanding of why Song of the South exists.
R3 must you scream in allcaps? You sound like a fucking unhinged lunatic.
It's interesting that zip de dee doo dah was the only song people remember from it, and nobody ever remembers the title song.
Tar babies were real. My parents didn't live in the South but they played with tar as children. it's what they used to put on roads. Kids actually used to chew it as gum.
[quote]Kids actually used to chew it as gum.
Those kis were 'tard babies.
R49, I am glad that this thread has inspired you to do some research, but the fact is that the "tar baby" entered into American culture through the Uncle Remus stories. "Merchant of Venice" also relies on earlier source material. The "tar baby" has no racial meaning in the stories. The notion that it is a derogatory term is of much later date.
The Tar Baby's most notable feature wasn't its color, it was that it was sticky.
Hard to deny that Song of the South romanticizes slavery. Many good songs of Stephen Foster do the same thing, and have suffered a similar fate. Maybe someday we will be able to see these as artifacts of their time, but, for now, it's really hard.
That's good to know, r54. Thanks for the info. But the tar baby was a term used before Uncle Reamus, and was coined by Robert Roosevelt, a writer for Harper's, and uncle of Teddy Roosevelt. He actually was the first to write Br'er Rabbit stories in Harper's, but the stories weren't very popular until Uncle Reamus, years later, published them.
I'd actually never heard the term "tar baby" before until today.
[quote]It's interesting that zip de dee doo dah was the only song people remember from it, and nobody ever remembers the title song.
Or Hattie's version of "Sooner or Later" while making a pie crust.
[quote]Hard to deny that Song of the South romanticizes slavery. Many good songs of Stephen Foster do the same thing, and have suffered a similar fate.
Foster drew much of his inspiration from African American men working on the docks loading and unloading the riverboats. They sang as they worked. He paid attention to their melodies and their lyrics.
Stephen Foster also wrote music for minstrel shows.
Mention minstrel shows, and 90% of the people envision white people wearing blackface. That was not always the case. There were numerous African American minstrel troups touring cities across the nation with their concerts. Their music wasn't all the "doo-dah-day" type. There were soaring melodies composed for glorious voices in the minstrel performances.
I've seen some of the sheet music from that era at the Library of Congress and wish that Edison had been around to invent his machine a century earlier.
[quote]Mention minstrel shows, and 90% of the people envision white people wearing blackface. That was not always the case. There were numerous African American minstrel troups touring cities across the nation with their concerts. Their music wasn't all the "doo-dah-day" type. There were soaring melodies composed for glorious voices in the minstrel performances.
A lot of the comedy routines were biting satire directed at the wealthy and the politically connected. They got away with murder because they were in blackface.
I agree that the minstrel show deserves more respect than it gets.
[quote]Foster drew much of his inspiration from African American men working on the docks loading and unloading the riverboats. He paid attention to their melodies and their lyrics.
Melody and Lyric were two especially attractive dock workers. They'd bring over their sweaty staffs and run it up Foster's scale.
[quote]He actually was the first to write Br'er Rabbit stories in Harper's, but the stories weren't very popular until Uncle Reamus, years later, published them.
There was no real Uncle Remus. Joel Chandler Harris was the writer best known for re-telling the folk tales attributed to the fictional character. Harris' book, written in "Negro dialect," was published in 1881.
It is worth noting that Harris is considered a preservationist of black folk culture. He did his best to record the stories as they were told to him by various black story-tellers who lived on or near his family's plantation in his childhood.
Meaning he made them up R62. They don't have the structure of traditional folk tales.
Who knows, R63? Here is an interesting tidbit about Harris from his wikipedia page:
Mark Twain read the Uncle Remus stories to his children, who were awed to meet Harris himself. In his Autobiography Twain describes him thus:
"He was the bashfulest grown person I have ever met. When there were people about he stayed silent, and seemed to suffer until they were gone. But he was lovely, nevertheless; for the sweetness and benignity of the immortal Remus looked out from his eyes, and the graces and sincerities of his character shone in his face."
They don't, r63? The "tar baby" story has been around for centuries:
Variations on the tar baby legend are spread in folklore of more than one culture. In the Journal of American Folklore, Aurelio M. Espinosa examined 267 versions of the tar baby story. The next year, Archer Taylor added a list of tarbaby stories from more sources around the world the next year, citing scholarly claims of its earliest origins in India and Iran. Espinosa later published documentation on tarbaby stories from a variety of language communities around the world. The mythical West African hero Anansi is recorded as once being similarly trapped. In a Spanish language version told in the mountainous parts of Colombia, an unnamed rabbit is trapped by the "Muñeco de Brea" (tar doll). A Buddhist myth tells of Prince Five-weapons (the Future Buddha) who encounters the ogre Sticky Hair in a forest.
The tar baby theme is present in the folklore of various tribes of Meso-America and of South America: it is to be found such stories as the Nahuatl (of Mexico) "Lazy Boy and Little Rabbit" (González Casanova 1946, pp. 55–67), Pipil (of El Salvador) "Rabbit and Little Fox" (Schultes 1977, pp. 113–116), and Palenquero (of Colombia) "Rabbit, Toad, and Tiger" (Patiño Rosselli 1983, pp. 224–229). In Mexico, the tar baby story is also found among Mixtecs Zapotecs, and among the Popoluca. In North America, the tale appears in White Mountain Apache lore as "Coyote Fights a Lump of Pitch". In this story, white men are said to have erected the pitch-man that ensnares Coyote.
According to James Mooney in "Myths of the Cherokee", the tar baby story may have been influenced in America by the Cherokee "Tar Wolf" story, which is unlikely to have been derived from similar African stories: "Some of these animal stories are common to widely separated [Native American] tribes among whom there can be no suspicion of [African] influences. Thus the famous "tar baby" story has variants, not only among the Cherokee, but also in New Mexico, Washington [State], and southern Alaska—wherever, in fact, the pine supplies enough gum to be molded into a ball for [Native American] uses...". In the Tar Wolf story, the animals were thirsty during a dry spell, and agreed to dig a well. The lazy rabbit refused to help dig, and so had no right to drink from the well. But she was thirsty, and stole from the well at night. The other animals fashioned a wolf out of tar and placed it near the well to scare the thief. The rabbit was scared at first, but when the tar wolf did not respond to her questions, she struck it and was held fast. Then she struggled with it and became so ensnared that she couldn't move. The next morning, the animals discovered the rabbit and proposed various ways of killing her, such as cutting her head off, and the rabbit responded to each idea saying that it would not harm her. Then an animal suggested throwing the rabbit into the thicket to die. At this, the rabbit protested vigorously and pleaded for her life. The animals threw the rabbit into the thicket. The rabbit then gave a whoop and bounded away, calling out to the other animals "This is where I live!".
They cannot prove that any of those stories predate Harris. Remember tar is a fairly rare substance in most of the world.
R65, That does not change the fact that the term "Tar Baby" did not enter the American consciousness or the American language until after the Uncle Remus stories. To put it plainly, if not politically correctly, a bunch of brown people jabbering around a camp fire does not have the same cultural impact as a book that sells millions of copies.
[quote]Meaning he made them up R62. They don't have the structure of traditional folk tales.
That's right R63. He must have made them up because he didn't follow the rules of the Official Worldwide Folk Tale School.
Sigh R68. Read "The Golden Bough" in condensed form. Traditional cultures have more in common than you think.
Swoon R69. We get it now. Nobody in the history of the world has ever gone outside the specific guidelines that were mandated for folk tales. Thanks so much for the valuable information.
Human nature is not that variable, and folk tales run in similar veins for the same reason that love stories do. Variety is not part of human nature and originality a conceit of literary culture in the last 200 years.
r65 here, and I think we're losing the thread here: I wasn't arguing that "tar baby" is or isn't a racist term -- I'm fully aware that it is one; instead, I was providing evidence of its origin and that the Uncle Remus stories are a part of folklore tradition.
I am curious how many responses on this thread are from African-Americans? I am oread than any real personal insight.Only asking because I work in a very mixed office. I am white. I think there is more white guilt in this thread than I possess and the reactions seem very knee jerk..
I love discussing the "taboo" subjects esp. film and television we have covered it all-black face, GWTW, SotS, the 70s black exploitation films, CABIN IN THE SKY,Moms Mabley,SHOW BOAT
The people in my office range from college educated to barely reading at a middle school level.Across the board I don't find people offended, more often amused. If anything they seem to put race and how it was perceived and exploited in history in perspective.
I saw SotS as a kid. At that age the Civil War and slavery background meant nothing to me . My takeaway? Slave becomes a surrogate father to a kid. Fables told with animals. We can look at these things with 2013 eyes but with historical context By making SotS a locked away object of shame, Disney has created something which future generations cannot judge for themselves.
What I find interesting is Disney released SotS in Europe on videotape and in Japan and Korea on laserdisc but always felt the American market could not handle it.
..and yet they have Splash Mountain at Disney World
Let alone there's a seldom heard Academy Award winning song, a special Oscar award winning performance is "lost" and that is a shame. Baskett is wonderful. Frankly, I like the live/animated sequences ultimately more satisfying than the ones in POPPINS
OK, you lost me with the Splash Mountain reference. What am I not getting?
I've never been on Splash Mountain. I prefer Soarin.
r74, "Song of the South" is the theme for Splash Mountain: Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Bear and Br'er Fox appear as the Rabbit goes searching for his "Laughing Place" (one of the 3 animated sequences in the film); several of the songs from the movie provide the soundtrack for the ride. So, basically, Disney is advertising a movie that they are not allowing Americans to see.
In the original Main Street Parade at Disney World, they had Br'er Bear and Br'er Fox characters though I don't recall Br'er Rabbit. The music as they passed by was Zip- A- Dee-Doo-Dah."
R65/R72, I have never heard "tar baby" used as a racist slur so I looked it up in Wiki. It says,
"Although the term's provenance rests in African folklore (i.e., the gum doll Anansi created to trap Mmoatia, the dwarf), some Americans consider "tar baby" to be a pejorative term for African Americans. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "tar baby" as "a difficult problem which is only aggravated by attempts to solve it",but the subscription-only version adds a second definition: "a derogatory term for a Black (U.S.) or a Maori (N.Z.)".
"Several United States politicians—including presidential candidates John Kerry, John McCain, Michele Bachmann, and Mitt Romney—have been criticized by civil rights leaders, the media, and fellow politicians for using the "tar baby" metaphor. An article in The New Republic argued that people are "unaware that some consider it to have a second meaning as a slur" and it "is an obscure slur, not even known to be so by a substantial proportion of the population." It continued that, "those who feel that tar baby's status as a slur is patently obvious are judging from the fact that it sounds like a racial slur". In other countries, the phrase continues to refer to problems worsened by intervention."
Article by Professor John McWhorter of Columbia (an African-American linguist, and self-described "cranky liberal Democrat") from the left-leaning political magazine THE NEW REPUBLIC arguing that "tar baby" is not a racist term:
McWhorter: ‘Tar Baby’ Isn’t Actually a Racist Slur
It was five years ago now that Mitt Romney and the late White House spokesman Tony Snow both spent time in the hot seat for using the term “tar baby.” Romney was referring to the Big Dig highway project in Boston, and Snow to an abstract debate. But there are those who consider the term, originally referring to something difficult to free oneself from once touched, a racial slur. John McCain nevertheless used it the following year in a discussion of divorce law, and this week it’s Representative Doug Lamborn who is being accused of racism for his comments on a radio show in the wake of the debt ceiling debacle:
[T]hey will hold the President responsible. Now, I don’t even want to be associated with him, it's like touching a, a tar baby and you get it ... you know you’re stuck and you’re part of the problem and you can’t get away. [emphasis added]
Lamborn has apologized, but the word around the blogosphere, most articulately phrased by David Sirota at Salon, is that Lamborn was using coded language: “[T]he comment reveals how various forms of racism are still being mainstreamed by the fringe right,” as Sirota has it. But before making that judgment, we must ascertain: Is tar baby actually a racial slur?
Certainly not the way the guys before Lamborn were using it. A notion that they were passing a quiet signal to racists is awkward, given the decidedly non-black topics they were discussing. Need we entertain the possibility that Romney was telegraphing a subtle signal to bigots in a discussion of a highway project? Was John McCain preaching a coded message to a racist base in a comment about divorce procedure?
In those instances, a simpler analysis works. Language is all about metaphor, and it is useful to have one to refer to objects or topics that ensnare one upon contact. It’s why the Bre’r Rabbit story the expression traces to has had such legs—as well as why cultures worldwide, including African ones, have equivalent folklore characters. Thus a reasonable analysis is that people reach for this useful metaphor, within the rapid and subconscious activity that speaking entails, unaware that some consider it to have a second meaning as a slur.
And the “some” that do appear to be in the minority. The Oxford English Dictionary mentions tar baby as a slur online, but not in print. The American Heritage Dictionary, notoriously attuned to everyday usage, does not refer to the slur usage. I, for one, am well aware that there are slurs for black people that are less prominent than the N-word—porch monkey is one that comes up now and then, although I have only heard it referred to, not applied—but only in 2006 did I catch that tar baby was one of them.
If my experience were universal, then no dictionary entry would list it as a slur at all, of course. However, I do not live in a cave, nor do the countless people currently learning for the first time that tar baby is a slur—and I recall assorted media writers equally perplexed when I did interviews on this back in 2006. Tar baby, it seems, is an obscure slur, not even known to be so by a substantial proportion of the population.
When I had a hard time seeing Romney and Snow as racists for using the term in 2006, many purported that tar baby was so obviously a racial slur that I must be dissimulating somehow. I submit, however, that to a large extent, those who feel that tar baby’s status as a slur is patently obvious are judging from the fact that it sounds like a racial slur, because tar is black and baby sounds dismissive. And here’s the crucial point: that, in itself, is a reality that cannot be denied.
Part of the human propensity for metaphor is that we make semantic associations, which drift and reassign over time. As such, it’s not the most graceful thing to refer to a black figure as a tar baby, and it was quite gracious for Lamborn to apologize. However, to assume Lamborn knew the word was a slur and was passing a grimy little signal to his base is unwarranted here. It is the kind of reflexive and recreational abuse we revile when it comes from the other direction (i.e. Obama as a “racist”).
Tar baby is one of those intermediate cases: The basic meaning is the folkloric one, while a derived meaning, known only to a segment of American English speakers (and to many among them, only vaguely) is a dismissive reference to black people.
There will be gaffes with expressions like these, upon which, in a sociologically enlightened society, apologies will be necessary. However, to insist upon the moral backwardness of the apologist is logically incoherent in reference to this particular term, and as such, less sociologically enlightened than it may seem.
[italic]John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.[/italic]
It is worth noting that James Baskett was only 42 when he created the screen version of Uncle Remus. He died a mere two years later of heart failure. It is a shame that his warm and memorable performance in this film is spurned and forgotten.
If you think this is racist you have not seen Shirley Temple in the Littlest Rebel wearing black face.
You racists make me sick. You want all blacks to be on one knee singing to their mammy while they shuffle and eat fried chicken or tap dance on watermelon rinds.
You all think Obama is a real black but would be scared shitless if you had to venture into a neighborhood where real nigra folk (as I'm sure you call them) are forced to live.
Lawyers use the term "tar baby" all the time. It describes problems/clients you can't ever get rid of, which has nothing to do with human ethnicity. It's not a racist term except as used by morons.