The Tar-Baby Problem


ONCE UPON A TIME, BEFORE minorities realized they were being patronized by pop-cultural stereotypes, there was a literary MacGuffin known as a “tar-baby.” This item featured highly in the Joel Chandler Harris story “Br’er Rabbit and the Tar-Baby,” where one of the funny animals makes a baby out of tar to trick his enemy into arguing with it, striking it, and finally being englobed by it. A fine family tale enjoyed by generations.

Here’s where history trumps metaphor. And why I need your help.

Since the “tar-baby” was made from tar to counterfeit a Black child, the term has been derisively used by enough stupid White people to make Black people not want to hear it any more. But the metaphor itself — something that consumes you the more you try to attack it — is still useful and needful, perhaps now more than ever. As the title of this blog implies, I am not one to easily let go of a good metaphor — but neither am I stupid enough to suggest that Black people “get over it.” (Here’s who should “get over it” — everyone arguing against “political correctness” in order to mouth their favorite bigotry.) I am, however, naive enough to suggest we dress it in other clothes.

We need a new metaphor, and one that doesn’t hurt people’s feelings. (I have already submitted for your approval “Don’t Poke The Squid,” but that’s not quite the same thing.) We at The Metaphorager ask you to put on your thinking caps and join the Metaphoric Nation in figuring this one out. Add your submission to this post in the form of a comment (clicking the post title will invoke a commentable page), or email it to scoop at sonic dot net. (Winners get a year’s free subscription.) The future of our language is in your hands.

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7 Responses to The Tar-Baby Problem

  1. Scott Zentner on 2013.11.28 at 0623

    Neal, just came across this. Interesting dilemma. I like the quicksand metaphor as well but agree that it lacks the tempting element. How about “digging yourself in a hole” instead?

  2. JG Hitzert on 2011.08.17 at 2242

    “Unraveling the double-sided tape” might work. “Flypaper Clusterf@#k” if you want to be more forceful. For lighter work how about “taffy pull.”

    • Neal Ross Attinson on 2011.08.18 at 0629

      Welcome to The Metaphorager! Three more winners. The flypaper metaphor has the advantage of sounding hilarious, the taffy pull captures the attractive nuisance. And I think we’ve all been there with the tape.

  3. Patricia Ann Clark on 2011.08.09 at 1027

    I have felt that way — being drawn deeper and deeper into something I couldn’t get out of — while trimming blackberry bushes, because of the stickers. So, “Don’t trim the blackberry vines” might suffice as your metaphor.

    • Neal Ross Attinson on 2011.08.09 at 1028

      DINGDINGDING Another winner! Blackberries are definitely a tempting target … at least to me …

  4. Kat Koch on 2011.08.08 at 0836

    How about “Don’t walk into quicksand”

    • Neal Ross Attinson on 2011.08.08 at 0948

      We have a winner! This expresses the “unseen danger” and “entangling struggle” aspects, but I do think it needs a smidgen of “tempting target.” Well done. (Next?)

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