Language and the use of stories related to now long past cultures is always problematic. This was brought home again yesterday by the brouhaha that erupted over Governor Mitt Romney’s (R-Mass.) reference to the “Big Dig” construction project in Boston as a proverbial “tar baby.” No sooner was the statement made, at a fundraiser in Iowa where Romney appears to be pursuing a presidential bid in 2008, than he faced severe criticism for making a racist reference.

The context for Romney’s statement was a speech in which he was acknowledging that he took a large political risk in his state by getting involved in a project that was obviously failing. He argued that inaction would have been worse than getting involved in a mess. His point was to demonstrate that he was willing to tackle this project that had no upside politically. Here is the offensive sentence: “The best thing politically would be to stay as far away from that tar baby as I can.”

Black leaders were outraged at Romney’s use of the term “tar baby,” seeing it as clear evidence of racism on Romney’s part. Larry Jones, a black Republican and a civil rights advocate said, “Tar baby is a totally inappropriate phrase in the 21st century.” Jones even suggested that Romney’s comment showed his “arrogance.” Romney’s spokesman said the governor was using the phrase to simply describe a “sticky situation.” Ironically, Tony Snow, the current White House press secretary, used the same term in May when describing the problems of government surveillance. And back in 2002, following the events of 9/11 in a Newsweek column, George Will referred to the President touching a “tar baby” in dealing with the United Nations.

So what are we to make of this type of language and the response to it? Is Romney really a racist? I would imagine many white people would say no and probably add, “Get over it.” They would most likely appeal to the cultural use and context of terms like “tar baby” that are not inherently racist in their modern usage. Such terms were established in the popular use of language by a previous era in times that have now changed. Blacks would argue that this is precisely the problem since the term “tar baby” became a racial epithet for all southern African-Americans. We should stop using racially charged language, they argue with a great deal of real concern, that is connected to the specific memories of inferred black inferiority and servitude as pictured in the folklore stories in which the term “tar baby” first occurred. In a real sense it is not the original use of the term that is at stake here but the cultural baggage it picked up after the famous tales of Uncle Remus.

Uncle Remus was a fictional character and narrator of a collection of African-American folktales adapted and compiled by Joel Chandler Harris and published in 1881. Harris produced seven Uncle Remus books in all. One might call these books the Aesop’s fables of the old south. The work was widely praised when it was published for faithfully capturing the dialect and stories of the plantation era. But, critics rightly suggest even the title “uncle” was a racist title used by whites for elderly black men in the South. These stories are really animal stories and are arguably not racist in their telling. But by the Civil Rights era of the 1960s both the dialect and the Uncle Remus character were seen as stereotypes that demeaned blacks and fostered the patronizing attitudes of the slave culture.

Joel Harris actually wanted his stories to supplement Harriet Beecher Stowe’s more famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was a major contribution to the literature that supported the cause of abolition. Mark Twain even read these stories to his children. The stories are known to us because of film adaptations, especially the Disney’s Song of the South classic that I grew up watching.

Personally, I think Governor Romney would be wise to consider a different term to describe a sticky situation politically. But is Romney a racist? I seriously doubt it. He is the governor of Massachusetts, not a place known for white racist bigots in statewide leadership. What is particularly distressing here is that we cannot seem to have a healthy discussion of these issues without the charges and countercharges of racism and reverse racism. I, for one, do not think I am a racist, at least not consciously so. I have made mistakes in speech and thus I must keep working to learn how to avoid offense in this regard. In fact, I have used the term “tar baby” in exactly the way Romney did as recently as a few weeks ago. It is a term that I grew up with through exposure to children’s literature. I am more than willing to stop using the term “tar baby” but I would love to see a more solid discussion of the problem by culture critics and linguists, both black and white, who are not simply reacting to modern social constraints and so-called “political correctness.” I certainly plan to be careful in the future about using this expression but I would love to better understand why a term clearly rooted in the literature of the 19th century, and thus used in a different time and cultural context, is necessarily offensive when it is now used as a simple everyday metaphor for something quite different in our day. It seems to me that our dictionary is filled with terms that come from the literature of an earlier era that demonstrate how values, and thus terms, are changing from one age to another. How can we avoid history at this point? And would it not be better to teach this literature, learn what the phrase meant at the time, and also come to some understanding about how such terms can, or can not, be properly used today? I welcome helpful input and say, “Let a legitimate and respectful discussion begin.” We surely need to challenge racism, implied or otherwise.