Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre has been subjected to a barrage of demands that he apologize for having used the term “tar baby” in the House of Commons. This man faces a ridiculous trumped-up charge of racism, not because of what he said, but because he is a Conservative MP.
When the opposition deliberately misconstrues an innocently used term like “tar baby” and cries racism, it cheapens the very nature of true racism—not at all a socially responsible thing to do and hardly fair to those who suffer true racism.
The term “tar baby” comes from the old Br’er Rabbit (Brother Rabbit) stories of the Southern United States by Joel Chandler Harris—a part of the Uncle Remus folklore collection. Similar stories were told to me in Jamaica by an African-Jamaican nanny. In Jamaica, the central character, Br’er Rabbit, is often “Anansi,” the legendary trickster of Jamaican folklore.
At no time is there even a hint that—in the Tar Baby story—the Tar Baby term refers to an African-American or black Jamaican. Here’s a version of the old folktale.
One of Br’er Rabbit’s main adversaries, Br’er Fox, makes up a lump of tar and puts clothing on it. When Br’er Rabbit comes along he addresses what he thinks is a “tar baby” amiably, but receives no response. Br’er Rabbit becomes offended by what he perceives as Tar Baby’s lack of manners, punches it, and becomes stuck.
Now that Br’er Rabbit is stuck, Fox ponders how to dispose of him.
The helpless, but cunning, Br’er Rabbit pleads, “Please don't throw me in the briar patch,” prompting Fox to do exactly that. As rabbits are at home in thickets, the resourceful Br’er Rabbit escapes.
In Jamaican versions, wherever “Br’er Rabbit” is mentioned, substitute “Anansi.”
A simple, beautiful fable with a moral, folks. That’s all.
Only with the most powerful of microscopes and with a mind full of wishful thinking and malevolency is anyone likely to find a racist theme in these Br’er Rabbit or Anansi stories.
This is more mean-spiritedness from opposition benches than this country deserves.
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© 2009 Russell G. Campbell
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