Thursday, October 06, 2005

Bre'r Buhman and the Tar Baby

That wretched rumor of Racism has reared its ugly head again along the Texas Gulf Coast, but it’s not quite what you might think. Or at least, not what the local talking heads would have you think...

Seabrook City Councilman and Mayor Pro-Tem John Buhman came under fire this week for supposed racial slurs that were made in a recent city council meeting. Councilwoman Dee Wright led the insurrection of indignation Tuesday night by publicly demanding Buhman’s “immediate resignation, along with any other councilperson that condones this kind of activity.” Even the revered Quanell X, that self-appointed protector of African-American society and bastion of racial tolerance, charged into the fray to protect us from the Great White Oppressor.

The offending term? Tar baby. <gasp> But somehow, somewhere, it seems that someone forgot to check the facts before playing the racial “hate” card.

KHOU (Channel 11) News first aired the story Tuesday night, but even they seemed a little unsure of the facts:
Buhman was allegedly referring to a piece of property that sits at the bottom of the well-traveled Kemah bridge. He says it should be used by businesses that can bring in more tax money and he does not feel should be used for low income.

We’re truly putting up a tar baby. It’s not going to work. Do you really want your legacy to be a bunch of ... boats parked out on that green grass when you come over the bridge? I don’t want that to be my legacy. I don’t want that to happen. Unfortunately, it seems like it may happen. We’re trying to put up a tar baby,” he appears to say on the tape.

Now I am first a little confused by the “allegedly” wording used in the report. From the quote and the context (backed up by the video linked to by the report), it is pretty obvious that Buhman is referring to exactly that: a piece of property.

Secondly, I have heard the term “tar baby” all my life, but have never known it to be used as a racial slur. So it came as quite a surprise when I heard Mr. X’s explanation of the origin of the term:
“In 1935, a black female named Mamie Johnson, in the city of Arkansas, was lynched, using tar and feathers. She was nine months pregnant,” says Quannel (sic) X. He said her baby was also tarred and feathered, and that’s where the phrase came from.

What?!? I have to say, I had never before heard this tale. But beyond that, it was completely different from what I had always thought the term “tar baby” to mean. So I did what I was taught to always do before jumping to conclusions... I looked it up. Sure enough, it’s right there in the dictionary:
tar baby, n.
A situation or problem from which it is virtually impossible to disentangle oneself. [From The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition; Copyright © 2000 Houghton Mifflin Company]

I remember when I was still pretty small, curling up in Big-Grammy’s lap and listening to her tell stories about Uncle Remus. Of course, in today’s politically correct society, the very mention of Uncle Remus is anathema. But in Big-Grammy’s world, “the bes’ way to teach a chile is through stories. And then smack ‘em good if they don’ lissen an’ learn.” (That, of course, always said with a wink and a smile.) Big-Grammy never learned to read, but she knew more stories than Aesop and the Grimms put together, and only half of them were from the Bible. And if you didn’t learn something from her stories, there was always the very real possibility you just might get smacked. So I listened, and (usually) I learned.

And one of the things I learned was about the Tar Baby (or view here or here if the dialect offends you). You see, Bre’r Rabbit was always one step ahead of Bre’r Fox, but that hare had a little problem with patience. So Bre’r Fox one day decided to make a figure of tar and turpentine, and set it in the road to wait. Bre’r Rabbit came upon it, said hello, then got upset when the newcomer didn’t answer. So he smacked him. Splursh! One hand stuck in the tar baby. So he tried again ... splurch. Both hands stuck! Pretty soon, Bre’r Rabbit was hopelessly mired in the trap, the tar baby, with little chance of extricating himself from the problem.

And that’s the story of the tar baby. Let’s see... nope, no mention of Miss Mamie Johnson, her baby, or any racial discrimination. Just a “situation or problem from which it is virtually impossible to disentangle oneself,” just like the word book said. And what do you know, the first printed edition of Uncle Remus’ folk tales (including the tar baby tale) was published way back in 1881, long before the 1935 incident put forward by Mr. X.

So back to the present and Seabrook. The result of this tempest? Bre’r Buhman, for now, will keep his job. But as KPRC (Channel 2) News reports, the councilman is chastised:
“I apologize to anyone who took offense to what I said, and you can rest assured I will use anything but that term from now on,” Buhman said at the meeting Tuesday night.

And another round is lost to the racially primed realm of political correctness.

The lessons to be learned from this tale?

First, don’t be so quick to attack at the first hint of what might possibly in some abstract way be considered by someone to be a racial term. Stop and think first. The liberal left is so quick to tout the discipline of “tolerance,” but often are the last to exercise that same ideal.

Second – and this is especially important for the members of the media whose job it is to report the TRUTH to the public – check the facts! This story is easily verifiable, but apparently no one from either of the local news teams (see above) did any background. If they did, it certainly did not make it into their reports.

And third, do not assume that Quanell X or any other self-proclaimed “community leader” is actually speaking for the black community. As is so often the case with such people, their main goals are to stir up more trouble than the initial issue warranted and to attract attention to themselves. This is the base of their power, and theirs is a self-promulgating legacy. These so-called “community leaders” do not speak for me or my family, and very rarely benefit the community they claim to represent.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, nice piece here, Songbird! I can't believe the newsies didn't do any better research on the whole "tarbaby" thing. Or maybe they did -- it just wasn't as interesting or headline-worthy as the racially charged story QX was blaring. I don't remember seeing anyone else pick up on this story, probably because it was just a local issue, but I'll go back and see if any followup was ever done and reported. Very interesting!

10/15/2005 3:12 PM  

Blogger Cu'cullen said...

You folks have a wonderful blog and seem to be a wonderful American family as well. I know the wholesome type of folks you are and wish you success (Dan)..
I wish I could be as tactful as you, but then I havn't as much on the line as you do..

12/16/2005 10:56 AM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A wonderful post. I would add one thing. If you're in a situation where uneducated nitwits take offence at a word or phrase because it 'sounds' offensive (usually because it has a reference to a colour), but isn't, and start attacking someone for it, loudly defend the person, and clearly point out the ignorance of the attacker.

If people don't stand up for the language, the vocabulary will shrink, and people will be made into pariahs for no reason other than to assuage the self-righteous anger of the ignorant.

Finally, oversensitive fools will never be satisfied. They will always find something to be offended at.

3/20/2007 4:42 AM  

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