Tar Baby Continued

Last week I directed your attention to an editorial in the Charlotte Observer that discussed the contemporary implications of the phrase “tar baby.” I also pointed out a very specific instance of my idiocy. Thank goodness that’s behind us.

Yesterday the Charlotte Observer published my response, more or less. A truncated cut-and-pasted version is available in the print edition of Sunday’s paper and online. Read it here.

Also online, however, is the full version of my response. Read the full version here.

Pretty cool. To tell you the truth I’m glad folks are arguing about this. And while it’s clear that mine is the most important, informed and eloquent opinion (trust me), it’s refreshing that many people are willing to write in to their local newspaper to weigh in.

Although there are some pretty harsh criticisms, things could be worse. How many people are writing about Lewis Latimer these days? Except for this blog, of course.

I believe at some point, the Charlotte Observer turns from “free” to “free when you sign up.” So for documentation purposes, I’ve included my entire response here…after the jump.

Just so nobody’s confused:

Link to original editorial.
Link to cut-and-paste response.
Link to full response.

“The Wonderful Tar Baby Story” by Joel Chandler Harris is just that–pretty darn wonderful. As you pointed out, versions of the story have crossed oceans and spanned centuries. Brer Rabbit and his critter friends have never gone out of style.

Harris, however, has. Particularly during the Civil Rights movement and in the wake of the 1946 film Song of the South, Harris’ reputation suffered severe blows for the very reasons and from the very people that Mr. Williams has mentioned.

His is a remarkable fall from the public eye. Between 1880 and 1946, Harris was largely considered one of the most popular and respected authors in the United States. Many considered Harris’ literary standing second only to his friend and contemporary Mark Twain.

Today, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who recognizes the name Joel Chandler Harris. Good luck asking anyone under the age of thirty (present writer excluded).

Yet a century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt said that Uncle Remus stories were “the most striking and powerful permanent contributions to literature that have been produced on this side of the ocean.”

In 1922 James Weldon Johnson, esteemed African American writer of the Harlem Renaissance, echoed Roosevelt’s sentiment: “The Uncle Remus stories constitute the greatest body of folk lore that America has produced.”

Literary opinions aside, Johnson and Roosevelt aren’t exactly correct–the stories themselves were not produced in the United States, only told and retold.

And that’s one of the reasons the Brer Rabbit stories are so significant. They are the most famous and comprehensive records of the African American oral tradition that exist today. By recording over 180 such stories Mr. Harris played no small role in their preservation.

So far, so good.

Except some folks think that the stories should be viewed apart from Harris in order to preserve “a rich part of Southern literary culture.” It would be a shame to separate the author from the stories, because to do so would rob Harris of his contribution to the African American oral tradition. Harris recorded the stories when many blacks could not and when many whites would not. His foresight, according to Andrew Carnegie, “won the hearts of all the children, and that’s glory enough for one man.”

As a young man, Joel Chandler Harris spent four years of his life on a plantation, beginning just before the Civil War. Turnwold plantation was the only plantation to produce a newspaper, and Harris worked as an apprentice to learn the trade. By night, however, Harris read voraciously and listened to the stories of the slaves.

His experience on the plantation affected Harris for the remainder of his life, and later as associate editor of the Atlanta Constitution and world-famous author of the Uncle Remus stories, Harris often looked back fondly on his days at the plantation. A keen ear, a great wit, and connections at the newspaper propelled the stories into the national spotlight. As Robert Roosevelt proved, the stories were not an automatic success with a wide (read: white) audience. Only the right storyteller at the right time could make them so.

Here’s where things get sticky.

It is easy for us, one hundred twenty five years later, to sit back and criticize a white southern newspaperman for his nostalgic views of the plantation life.

It’s not so easy, however, when you consider this same man was a vocal proponent of African American suffrage and African American literacy in the years just after the war. During the Atlanta race riots of 1906, Harris even hid his African American friends inside his home.

In Harris’ Atlanta home, now a museum called the Wren’s Nest, visitors can trace this ambiguous legacy. Mr. Harris’ own room has been preserved since 1908 with completely original furnishings. Above the fireplace mantle hang four pictures of black children learning to read and write. Of course, it’s one thing to support African American literacy in the South around the turn of the 20th Century. It’s another thing to wake up every morning and have those pictures be the first thing you see.

Where does this leave us with “tar baby,” then?

The tar baby is indeed a complex image that remains relevant today. Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison have been fascinated with the tar baby–its admonishment of violence, its update on the Narcissus myth, its reflection of unique racial attitudes in the South after the war. All this in a story for children.

Mr. Williams, I think you were originally on the right track. Just because someone somewhere decided to call someone else a “tar baby” does not mean we should revise history so it’s politically correct according to the latest fashion in social mores. If that were the case, we’ll just have to revise history to our liking in another five years.

Instead, let’s let the namecallers do their thing while the rest of us learn about and come to grips with our own history.

The tar baby wasn’t a racial slur in its original context and it isn’t now. Those using it as such should be chastised for having no idea what they’re talking about and not aided in their effort by senselessly criminalizing this rich piece of southern culture.

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