Talking about race while watching our words

by DG Martin

The tar baby I wrote about recently will not me let loose.

Instead of a useful term to describe a sticky situation, “tar baby” has become a symbol of our country’s lingering racial divide. It is a hot button that can launch missiles full of poisoned feelings.

“So what do we do about the tar baby?” I asked UNC-Chapel Hill professor Randall Kenan, author of Walking on Water, an exploration of what it means to be black in America.

“We have to use it as an opportunity to talk,” Kenan told me. Joel Chandler Harris, creator of Uncle Remus and the tar baby story, lived in racist times. Although he may have been a racist, you have to remember that the stories he related were African American in origin. You do not have to throw out good stories because Harris was a racist any more than you ought to toss out Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn since its setting, characters and language reflect the racism of the times.

Kenan gritted his teeth when he talked about DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the early film that portrayed Reconstruction-era blacks as horrible monsters. He recognizes that it was a brilliant and groundbreaking film. You have to watch it, he said, and try to appreciate it for what it is, even though it is not easy for him.

You have to talk and try to understand.

I asked Kenan about the thick Negro dialect that Harris used for Uncle Remus and the Brer Fox and Brer Rabbit characters. Is it demeaning? Is it part of what offends some blacks? Kenan approached the question as a professor and an author. He said simply that it should be a question of whether the dialect enhances the story or takes away from it.

Kenan sent me back to the writing of Charles Chesnutt, the popular African American who shared the turn-of-the-century times with Joel Chandler Harris. Chesnutt wrote about the North Carolina of his youth. He used a Negro dialect for his black characters that is almost as strong as Harris’s. But Chestnutt also put very strong “redneck” dialect in the mouths of some white characters.

Here are a couple of scenes from “The Sheriff’s Children,” a short story set in mythical Branson County.

A white character who is urging a lynching says, “Well, what air yer gwine ter do about it? Ef you fellers air gwine ter set down an’ let a wuthless’  [N******] kill the bes’ white man in Branson, an’ not say nuthin’ ner do nuthin’, I’ll move outen the caounty.”

Then, from the lips of a black man reporting what he heard the lynching plotters say:’  “Shurff, dey gwine ter hand de prn’ner w’ats loc’ up in de jail. Dey’re comin’ dsa a-way now. I wuz layin’ down on a sack er conr down at de sto’ behine a pile er flour-bairls’… I slip’ outen de back do, en run here as fas’ as I could’….”

If’  putting heavy dialect in the mouths of characters is an offense, Chesnutt would be as guilty as Harris.

I also talked to Durham resident Michele Andrea Bowen. She has sold more African-American Christian fiction than any other author.

Bowen suggests that whites could learn by reading fiction about African Americans. Last week, I took her advice and read her latest book, Holy Ghost Corner. She introduced me to a successful woman whose store sells Bibles and church materials on one side and lingerie on the other. She took me inside a vibrant black church and let me in on all the complicated politics and posturing. I met rich and successful business owners and lawyers – some good, some bad. I read some dialect that Joel Chandler Harris and Charles Chesnutt would find familiar.

Bowen’s story amused and inspired me.

I told her that people were going to start calling her the “black Jan Karon.”

She smiled and said a polite thank you.

Then I wondered. Maybe it was not exactly the best thing to say.

But, even if we do not always get it exactly right, we have to follow Randall Kenan’s advice.

Keep talking. Keep trying.