Governor Mitt Romney yesterday apologized for using the expression ``tar baby" -- a phrase some consider a racial epithet -- among comments he made at a political gathering in Iowa over the weekend.
``The governor was describing a sticky situation," said Eric Fehrnstrom, the governor's spokesman. ``He was unaware that some people find the term objectionable, and he's sorry if anyone was offended."
In his first major political trip out of the state since a ceiling collapse in a Big Dig tunnel killed a Boston woman on July 10, Romney told 200 people at a Republican lunch Saturday about the political risks of his efforts to oversee the project.
``The best thing for me to do politically is stay away from the Big Dig -- just get as far away from that tar baby as I possibly can," he said in answer to a question from the audience.
The expression ``tar baby" has had different meanings over the years.
A definition from Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary traces the expression to the tar baby that trapped Br'er Rabbit in an Uncle Remus story by Joel Chandler Harris, which became popular in the 19th century. The dictionary now defines the expression as ``something from which it is nearly impossible to extricate oneself."
But it also has been used as a pejorative term for dark-skinned blacks.
In 1981, author Toni Morrison published a novel titled ``Tar Baby," and she has compared the expression to other racial epithets. She says it's a term that white people used to refer to black children, especially black girls.
Reached at her home near Princeton University, where she teaches, Morrison called the expression ``antiquated" and one that's ``attractive to some people, when they begin to search for hints of racism."
She described it as a ``forbidden word" that she sought to restore to its original meaning, one that illuminated an old African tale about the connection between a master and slave.
``How it became a racial epithet, I don't know," she said. ``It was my attempt to rescue the phrase from its low meaning. I wanted to annihilate the connotation and return the meaning to its origins. Apparently, I haven't succeeded."
She added: ``I suppose it should be avoided because it could be offensive to some people."
White House press secretary Tony Snow in May caused a similar stir on his first day in the job when he used the term in response to a question about government surveillance. His mention prompted some to call for his firing.
As for Romney's use of the expression, Pastor William E. Dickerson of the Greater Love Tabernacle in Dorchester called it ``a poor choice of words."
``There are some words that we should eradicate from our vocabulary, so we don't use them inappropriately," he said. ``Saying someone is a `tar baby' is like calling them the black sheep of the family. Kids with darker skin were often teased, and they would cringe at hearing it. That's why we should avoid it, especially a public servant."
Others in the area defended the governor and said his choice of words should not be construed as having racial meaning.
``I don't believe he was making a disparaging remark, and if he was, I'd be the first person to call him," said Don Muhammad, minister of the Nation of Islam in Boston, who said he had not heard the expression in 50 years. ``I suppose one ought to be allowed to clarify his remarks. I have no problem with it."
The Rev. Ray Hammond, chairman of the Boston Ten Point Coalition, said that he spoke to Romney yesterday and that the governor was contrite.
``I certainly understand why people are upset about it," he said. ``He was very clear that he knew nothing about the history or the racist overtone of the term. He was mortified and he was very apologetic. I suspect he just didn't understand the origin of the term." He said he wouldn't use the term in the future, based on what he now understands.
The Rev. Eugene Rivers III, whose Ella J. Baker House recently received a state grant Romney steered to him to fight youth violence, said questions raised about the governor's word usage were akin to a tempest in a teapot.
``It's not the language I would use," he said. ``It's too easy to be misunderstood. Someone could incorrectly assume that there is a racial subtext, for which there is no basis in fact. But I think some people read too much in language in a politically overcorrect environment. Frankly, what the governor has done on the public safety stuff would trump any colorful language he used."