Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Thoughts on "Tar Baby"

On November 20, 1931 Bessie Smith recorded "I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl" for Columbia Records. The song was written by C. Williams, J. Byrne and D. Small.

The lyrics:
Tired of bein' lonely, tired of bein' blue,
I wished I had some good man, to tell my troubles to
Seem like the whole world's wrong, since my man's been gone

I need a little sugar in my bowl,
I need a little hot dog, on my roll
I can stand a bit of lovin', oh so bad,
I feel so funny, I feel so sad
I need a little steam-heat, on my floor,
Maybe I can fix things up, so they'll go
What's the matter, hard papa, come on and save you mama's soul
'Cause I need a little sugar, in my bowl, doggone it,
I need a little sugar in my bowl

I need a little sugar, in my bowl,
I need a little hot dog, between my rolls
You gettin' different, I've been told,
move your finger, drop something in my bowl
I need a little steam-heat on my floor,
Maybe I can fix things up, so they'll go

(spoken: Get off your knees, I can't see what you're drivin' at!
It's dark down there!
Looks like a snake! C'mon here and drop somethin' here in my bowl,
stop your foolin', and drop somethin', in my bowl)

I once asked local pianist Bob Bennetta how black artists like Bessie Smith and Jellyroll Morton seemed to get away with so many racy songs decades before the Smothers Brothers would be kicked off the air for saying "damn." In retrospect the Smothers Brothers were not the best example for a lot of reasons, but Bob skipped to the underlying point with his answer. Black artists didn't get as much flack for explicit lyrics because such songs help propagate the image of black people as wild sex-crazed vulgar animals. It probably also should be considered that the blues didn't have the kind of commercial following that jazz did, nor with its three-chord rhythm did it show the kind of eloquent structural sophistication that made black jazz artists like Armstrong and Ellington so intimidating to white people. Still both the blues and jazz were considered "devil music" in their early years by both white and black people.

Was Bessie Smith trying to propagate the image of black people as primal beasts of id? Of coarse not! The beauty of Bessie to me has always been her image of glory through defeat. She portrayed the battered woman, the broken hearted woman that knew her man wasn't treating her right but couldn't find the strength to leave him. Her power was in her ability to portray the weak and wounded condition of many woman through her own troubles. She was Janis Joplin before Janis was even born, riding that midnight train to Georgia when Gladys Knight was hardly old enough to buy a ticket. When many popular black artists were living up to stereotypes of the "yes massah" happy worker that were expected of them, she was just pure Bessie, wanting some doggone sugar in her bowl.

Still, perhaps we shouldn't sing such songs now. Perhaps we shouldn't even use slang terms like "jellyroll" and "sugar bowl" now. We should be appalled that Bob Dylan gave the lewd song a nod with his recent work "Spirit on the Water." Clearly it is derogative... right?

That's kind of the logical dilemma I'm finding with the use of "tar baby" (or "tarbaby" as it is sometimes written). I hardly had a toe in the waters when Tony Snow was roasted for his use of the term. Though looking back at his words now, I'm wondering if I've missed some key peace of context.

"Tar Baby" comes from The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story, the second tale in the first of the Uncle Remus books. These stories were adapted by Joel Chandler Harris from African American folk tales. Harris invented a black dialog which is now considered derogatory. Considering his defense of slavery, and stereotypical portrayal of the old black narrator, it would certainly be difficult to argue that Harris was not a racist. However, let us not overlook that his authorship is in this case limited to the adaptation and presentation of The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story and the many other stories in his collection. If there has been serious academic accusation to the authenticity of these stories as African American folk tales, I am certainly not aware of it. With that in mind let us consider the basic story of tar baby and its raw images.

The tar baby is in fact made of tar and other sticky substances and is dressed with clothes to appear as a person. When Brier Rabbit passes him on the street, he is insulted that the Tar baby does not address him. You shouldn't need to have studied the Harlem Renaissance to recognize this confrontation. It was common at the time for black people to have to step out of the way and politely greet any white person walking down the street. When the inert tar baby does not respond to the Brier Rabbit, he furiously strikes him. Being made of tar, the rabbit's paw sticks to it. The more the rabbit strikes the tar baby, the more he is stuck to him. To me, that's a wonderful image in itself. Talk about you rubber and glue defiance!

Let's take a step further back to look at the context of this confrontation. The Tar Baby was made by Brier Fox and Brier Bear to trap Brier Rabbit, the significance of this is certainly disputable, though it reminds me of the themes later expressed in Dylan's "Only A Pawn In The Game" where those in power keep a leash on poor ignorant whites by exploiting their racism. (I admit it's certainly a stretch, but I can imagine that Mr. Zimmerman would be pleased by a biblical interpretation of the brier patch that provides the rabbit's escape from his captives.)

Considering the actual story, I fail to understand what is racially derogatory about the term "Tar Baby." The term is not a descriptive title like "uncle" or "boy" nor does it refer to black people in a negative light like the term "Ni**er rigged" does. It is a simply a reference to an African American folk tale. Sure, it was presented by a racist, but until someone can prove that he created the tar baby, I fail to see the relevance of that. And even if he did write the story, it is nonetheless a classic where despite its racial tones there is nothing clearly racist about the actual tar baby. My textbook for Survey of American Literature featured several Uncle Remus stories, when there apparently wasn't enough room for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. To use the phrase and know what it means simply shows that one has read it. Where are the legions of people outraged at the popularity of Lovecraftian imagery that has coiled its tendrils around virtually every medium of entertainment since the 1980s? After all, his work from the 1920s was at times repulsively racist (read part 3 of Herbert West: Reanimator).

I admit it has been a while since I read the story. Maybe I'm not looking at some bigger picture. These are my thoughts as I stand, and I really do want to understand this if I'm worng. It is simply not in my nature to sit quietly when I'm told not to say something. I need a reason; I've got to ask why. My favorite area of literature is books that have been banned because I'm always interested in both the power of words and the fear of them. If you think I'm wrong then please, let's discuss it. I sincerely don't understand the opposing argument. It wouldn't matter if I were completely unacquainted with Jackson Landers or if it were a Republican like Tony Snow; I'd still be asking what makes this a racial slur.

3 Comments:

Anonymous anna said...

testing . . .

9:12 PM  
Anonymous anna said...

score!

9:12 PM  
Blogger Cory Capron said...

Oh good.

I've been having trouble with blogger since last night. Loading pages and posting mostly, glad the comments board seems to be working at least.

Thanks hon!

11:05 PM  

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