Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Sticky Situations

I have used the expression “tar baby” in a couple of posts here over the years.

A tar baby is a wonderful old metaphor for a sticky situation, and particularly a sticky situation that never needed to happen. But its age and origin make it an obscure figure of speech — so obscure I later discovered even my own mother had never heard of it.

Well, that’s a situation that cannot go uncorrected!

The Wonderful Tar Baby Story

I have been familiar with what was originally called “The Wonderful Tar Baby Story” since childhood, which means that either my mother or father probably bought the book in which I first read it. I’m pretty sure the version lodged in my addled and inadequate memory bank came out of an anthology of children’s tales and was not the original, which first appeared almost a century and a half ago in Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings by Joel Chandler Harris. Harris’s book is long in the public domain, as are the brilliant illustrations from Frederick S. Church and James H. Moser, one of which you can find above. Walt Disney popularized the Remus stories to great financial profit in 1946’s Song of the South.

But that is a long time ago in another generation. Herein lies a tale.

In the early nineties, pretty much everything written by Harris came under a cloud of suspicion stirred up by the social justice crowd. Uncle Remus has since been declared a racist stereotype, Harris is accused of trying to romanticize plantation life and of appropriating African American culture, Song of the South has quietly disappeared from Disney’s back catalog, and even the term “tar baby” is considered by some to be a racist slur. It matters not that Harris portrays Remus as warm, loving and wise, or that his stories are full of great life lessons that resonate with children of all ages.

Tar Babies and Bathwater

Now, I don’t throw out babies with bath water, and I don’t buy into our modern penchant for consigning the art, literature and music of previous generations to the garbage dump and declaring every new morning Day One. For one thing, such an attitude presumes the average person today, possessed of nothing more than common sense (as currently and very fleetingly defined), knows better than his ancestors and is equipped to stand in judgment on them.

Considering our own “enlightened” era is characterized by the breakdown of the nuclear family, baby murder on an unprecedented scale, sexual incontinence, the promotion of all things gay and trans, financial and political incompetence, ubiquitous antidepressant use and legalized drug addiction, I’m not sure we could persuade a disinterested third party that we are holding the moral high ground. If any society in living memory is on the “wrong side of history” — whatever that means — we are definitely vying for entry into the all-time Top Five.

Tainted at the Source?

We should also consider the matter of whether everything that comes from a questionable source is thereby tainted. I would argue that is not necessarily the case.

When a sinner quotes scripture, he certainly judges himself and shows himself ignorant of the lesson he is trying to teach, but the thing he says becomes no less true because a sinful man happens to be the one saying it. For that matter, the apostle Paul repeatedly quotes the wisdom of Greek philosophers (Epimenides, Menander, Aratus and possibly Euripedes) whose ethos was that pederasty is “the principal cultural model for free relationships between citizens”. Notwithstanding the debauchery of their culture in one particular area, their pithy truisms were useful in Paul’s presentation of the gospel and its implications to people who thought like they did. The things these philosophers and comics believed concerning one sphere of human experience are not invalidated by the wretched excesses in which they may have indulged in others. (And of course Paul doesn’t quote them as authorities on how to mentor young boys.) Likewise, the wisdom of an Uncle Remus transcends its source material and historical background.

Moreover, Cancel Culture also presumes that what a thing meant in the day it was written or created is precisely what it means today. That too is simply untrue. To the pure, all things are pure. If you don’t have the moral baggage and guilty conscience of previous generations, you may not have sufficient awareness to participate in their sins. Some things it is better not to know. So pedants will tell you that “rock ’n roll” was a term for the sex act coined in the African American community (which was then simply referred to as “black”, and will undoubtedly be called something else shortly). And maybe it was, but that’s not what it means today in the mouth of a fifteen year old over six decades later. For him, it is simply a genre of music he likes. Telling him about the phrase’s dodgy origin serves no useful purpose.

Good Stories are Good Stories

I take the same tack with Uncle Remus. Good stories are good stories wherever they come from. Uncle Remus never predisposed me to any particular view of blacks or plantation life; my own view of blacks came from living among them and interacting with them every day. I am not about to modify my vocabulary to accommodate our misguided nannies.

The following retelling of the story is nicked from abelard.org, where it has been conveniently translated into modern English:

One day Br’er Fox went to work and got some tar. He mixed it with some turpentine, and fixed up a contraption that he called a Tar Baby. He put a straw hat on the Tar Baby and sat her in the middle of the road, then hid in the bushes to see what would happen.

He didn’t have to wait long either, because Br’er Rabbit soon came pacing down the road — lippity-clippity, clippity-lippity — as saucy as a jay-bird. Br’er Fox, he lay low.

Br’er Rabbit come prancing along until he spotted the Tar Baby. Then he fetched up on his hind legs as if he was astonished. The Tar Baby, she sat there and Br’er Fox lay low.

“Good morning,” said Br’er Rabbit, “Nice weather we’re having.”

The Tar Baby said nothing. Br’er Fox laid low and grinned an evil grin.

Br’er Rabbit tried again. “And how are you feeling this fine day?”

Br’er Fox winked his eye slowly and laid low in the bushes, and the Tar Baby, well, she said nothing.

“How are you then? Are you deaf?” said Br’er Rabbit. “If you are, I can shout louder.”

Tar Baby stayed still, and Br’er Fox, he lay low.

“You’re stuck up, that’s what you are,” said Br’er Rabbit, “I’ll cure you, that’s what I’ll do.”

Br’er Fox, he gave a belly-laugh, but Tar Baby said nothing.

“I’m going to teach you how to talk to respectable people, if it’s my last act,” said Br’er Rabbit. “If you don’t take off that hat, I’m going to beat you up.”

Tar Baby stayed still, and Br’er Fox, he lay low.

Br’er Rabbit keep on asking, and the Tar Baby kept on saying nothing.

Presently, Br’er Rabbit drew back his fist and — BLIP — he hit the Tar Baby on the side of the head. And that’s when he lost his cool. His fist stuck and he couldn’t get loose. The tar held him. But Tar Baby, she stayed still, and Br’er Fox, he lay low.

“If you don’t let me go, I’ll hit you again,” said Br’er Rabbit, and with that he swiped again with the other hand, and that stuck. Tar Baby said nothing and Br’er Fox, he lay low.

“Let me go, or I’ll knock the stuffing out of you,” said Br’er Rabbit, but Tar Baby said nothing. She just hung on, and Br’er Rabbit lost the use of his feet in the same way. Br’er Fox, he lay low.

Then Br’er Rabbit yelled out that if the Tar Baby didn’t turn him loose he’d head butt her side-on. So he butted, and his head got stuck. Then Br’er Fox sauntered out, looking as innocent as one of your mummy’s mocking-birds.

“Hiya, Br’er Rabbit,” said Br’er Fox. “You look sort of stuck up this morning,” and then he rolled on the ground, and laughed and laughed until he could laugh no more. “You’ll have to have dinner with me this time, Br’er Rabbit. I’ve got some calamus root, and I won’t take any excuses.”

A Little Masterpiece

As far as I’m concerned, this is a little masterpiece of children’s writing. The repetition of “the Tar Baby said nothing” and “Br’er Fox, he lay low” give it a nice rhythm and enable kids who know the story to chime in at the right moment. The central image is so memorable that though I had forgotten the narrative fifty-plus years later (muddling it with Peter Rabbit’s ill-fated detour into Mr. McGregor’s garden), I never forgot the image of the poor bunny struggling to free himself and getting further and further in with every move. Later, it became to me a metaphor for all kinds of things, from the fatally-flawed Neocon aspiration to inflict democracy on the Middle East to nosy neighbors getting all up in your grill.

The lesson is right out of scripture itself: Don’t meddle, or, as they used to say in my day, “Mind your own beeswax.” If Br’er Rabbit hadn’t stuck his nose into other people’s business and presumed himself an accurate judge of motive, he wouldn’t have risked becoming Br’er Fox’s dinner.

I can find the apostle Peter saying much the same thing: “Let none of you suffer as a meddler.” Or Paul, for that matter: “Mind your own affairs.” Solomon voiced the same principle 1,000 years earlier: “The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out” and “Every fool will be quarreling.”

I learned this lesson as a child from Uncle Remus, and relearned it as an enthusiastic young Christian who erroneously thought every new discovery I made in scripture about how we should behave as believers needed to be instantly imposed on my fellow Christians, and that I was just the one to straighten them out. Need I add that didn’t go well? Every time I’ve ever set out to “teach somebody a lesson” in this life, I’ve found I learned one or two in the bargain.

That’s a bit of wisdom our hectoring would-be moral instructors could use today, regardless of its dubious origins.

P.S. Br’er Rabbit escaped his fate, but that’s another story. Read it if you dare.

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