Tar baby

Posted by Masakim on September 21, 2001

In Reply to: Tar baby posted by ESC on September 21, 2001

: : At a meeting recently, someone used the phrase "tar baby." I am interested in knowing its meaning and origin.

: TAR BABY -- A sticky situation. "Something from which it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself. In Joel Chandler Harris' famous 'Uncle Remus' children's stories ( go to xroads.virginia.edu/ ~UG97/remus/tar-baby.html ), the tar baby is a doll covered with tar. Brer Rabbit comes by and speaks to it, but the tar baby doesn't answer; Brer Rabbit gets angry and hits the tar baby, and sticks to it. The more Brer Rabbit struggles to get free, the tighter he sticks to the tar baby. The term in use, by Richard T. Cooper in the 'Los Angeles Times,' April 21, 1996: 'Far from bestriding the Washington scene like a master or painting Clinton into corners, Dole last week looked a lot like the rabbit who wrestled with the tar baby.'." From "Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Allusions" by Elizabeth Webber and Mike Feinsilber (Merriam-Webster, Springfield, Mass., 1999).

The tar baby is a form of a character widespread in African folklore. In various folktales, gum, wax, or other sticky material is used to trap a person.
The folktale achieved currency in the United States in written form in one of Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories....
This story has led to the figurative use of tar baby in the sense 'an inextricable problem or situation', sometimes with the nuance 'something used to entrap a person'....
The expression tar baby is also used occasionally as a derogatory term for black people (in the U.S. it refers to African-Americans; in New Zealand it refers to Maoris), or among blacks as a term for a particularly dark-skinned person. As a result, some people suggest avoiding the use of the term in any context.
From The Mavens' Word of the Day (12 Feb 1999)
Before Johnson fell for the tar baby of Vietnam, Americans believed their Presidents almost always told them the truth. (Lance Morrow, "Nation: The Whole World Was Watching When the Democrats Last Convened in Chicago," Time, 26 Aug 1996)