May 1, 1997
The Inauthentic Tar Baby
"Tar Baby is also a name, like "nigger," that
white people call black children, black girls,
as I recall…. At one time, a tar pit was a holy
place, at least an important place, because tar
was used to build things…. It held together
things like Moses' little boat and the pyramids.
For me, the tar baby came to mean the black
woman who can hold things together."
Toni Morrison's Tar Baby (1982), is a novel about contentions and conflicts based on learned biases and prejudices. These biases exist on a race level, gender level, and a class level. The central conflict, however, is the conflict within the main character, Jadine. This conflict, as Andrew W. A. LaVallee has suggested, is the conflict of the "race traitor."2 It is the conflict of a woman who has discarded her heritage and culture and adopted another trying to reconcile herself to the "night women" who want to bring back "the prodigal daughter."
The first of the contentions is that of race. As New York Times Book Review correspondent John Irving aptly puts it: "Miss Morrison uncovers all the stereotypical racial fears felt by whites and blacks alike." Prejudice exists between the white and black people in the house; between the black people of the house; the black people and the local populace. Sydney and Ondine Childs, the Cook and Butler in the house of Valerian Street, feel superior to the local black populace. Sydney remarks twice on how he is "A genuine Philadelphia Negro mentioned in the book of that name" (284). Part of this feeling of superiority might be class-related. The Childs' are very proud of their positions in the Street house-they are industrious and hardworking. The Dominique blacks are to them "swamp women" or "horsemen"--depersonalized figures. This is most apparent in their ignorance of their help's names--they dub Gideon, Thérèse, and Alma Estée "Yardman" and "the Marys." At Christmas dinner Valerian adds epithets calling them "Thérèse the Thief and Gideon the Get Away Man." (201). But as Judylyn Ryan points out, "Both the superordinate and the subordinate exercise this prerogative of naming" (606). Gideon and Thérèse have 'christened' Ondine "Machete hair" and Sydney as "Bow-tie"-Thérèse contemptuously calls Jadine "Fast ass" whereas Gideon denotes her as "the yalla." Ondine and Sydney think "Mary" does not listen to them out of inattentiveness, whereas in reality Thérèse intentionally refuses to speak to them and "never even to acknowledge the presence of the white Americans" (111). A contention also exists between Ondine and the white lady of the house, Margaret, whom Ondine has dubbed "Principal Beauty of Maine." Margaret, in return, has dubbed Sydney and Ondine "Kingfish and Beulah." Son adds to the "name-game" by calling Valerian "Tarzan." "Son," itself, is a nickname for Willie.
The white people of the house feel superior, and later threatened by, the blacks. Margaret is a prejudiced white woman, a veritable stereotype. She has argued that "Ondine (if not all colored people) was just as good as they were," but "she didn't believe it" (59). When Son is discovered in her bedroom closet she goes into near hysterics. Margaret feels no compunction at calling or thinking of Son as a "nigger in the woodpile", a "gorilla", or a "boy." Because he was a black man in her closet she thinks he intended to rape her, has masturbated on her clothes and shoes, and goes as far as thinking: "now this nigger he lets in this real live dope addict ape" (87). Thus the character of Margaret has spewed out every racist cliché in the book.
It is not surprising (and that says much about the society) that the white lady of the house should feel prejudice toward a black man found in her closet. What is fascinating, however, is Morrison's depiction of how Sydney and Ondine react to the man, revealing their own prejudices. Sydney is ready to shoot Son where he stands, suspecting him of being a thief, killer, or a "wife-raper" (99). Ondine, who at various times calls Son "that thieving Negro" (89), "the jailbird" (190), "a swamp nigger" (191) and "no-count Negro" (193), feels that the "man upstairs wasn't a Negro-meaning one of them. He was a stranger" (102). Thus when she calls him "nigger" she does not mean the term in a familiar, inclusive way.
Jadine's reaction to Son is the most revealing-she is the "racial traitor." Andrew W. A. LaVallee writes: "Central to the race traitor idea is the disassociation from and racist perspective on the traitor's race of ethnic group." At the sight of his "Wild, aggressive, vicious hair" (113) she immediately classifies him as a criminal. In her room she assumes that Son wants to rape her:
"You rape me and they'll feed you to the alligators. Count on it, nigger. You good as dead right now." |
"Rape? Why you little white girls always think somebody's trying to rape you?"
"White?" She was startled out of fury. "I'm not … you know I'm not white!"
"No? Then why don't you settle down and stop acting like it."
"Oh, God," she moaned. "Oh, good God, I think you better throw me out of the
window because as soon as you let me loose I am going to kill you. For that alone.
Just for that. For pulling that black-woman-white-woman shit on me. Never mind
the rest. What you said before, that was nasty and mean, but if you think you can
get away with telling me what a black woman is or ought to be…"
"I can tell you." (121)
Here is the main contention of the novel. Jadine has rejected her heritage and culture. She knows herself to be "inauthentic" and hollow when she sees the woman in yellow with the tar-colored skin--" that woman's woman-that mother/sister/she; that unphotographable beauty" (46). The woman recognizes Jadine's inauthenticity and spits at her in spite. Jadine, who alternately calls herself Jade, appreciates Picasso over Itumba masks, "Ave Maria" over gospel music. As Karin Luisa Badt says: "Jadine has so willingly embraced white culture that she has become, literally, its cover model."
Gideon warns son against the possibility that Jadine might be "out of reach":
"Your first yalla?" he asked. "Look out. It's hard for them not to be white people. |
Hard, I'm telling you. Most never make it. Some try, but most don't make it."
"She's not a yalla," said Son. "Just a little light." He didn't want any discussion
about shades of black folk.
"Don't fool yourself. You should have seen her two months ago. What you see is
tanning from the sun. Yallas don't come to being black natural-like. They have to
choose it and most don't choose it." (155)
Heedless of the warning and desperately in love, Son wants to "rescue" Jadine from the white world and bring her back to Eloe and the history it stands for. He attempts "to breathe into her the smell of tar and its shiny consistency" (102). Jadine starts on the path toward being "unorphaned" in her relationship with Son.
Jadine, on the other hand, wants to rescue Son from what she perceives to be his "white-folks-black-folks primitivism" (275). She attempts to "culture" and to educate him and wants to ask Valerian for money to pay for a store for the two of them, or for Son's education. Son refuses to be in debt to "one of the killers of the world" (204). A trip to Eloe where Aunt Rosa calls her "daughter" and where the night-women visit her, proves too much for Jadine:
But most of the hurt was dread. The night women were not merely against her (and |
her alone-not him), not merely looking superior over their sagging breasts and
folded stomachs, they seemed somehow in agreement with each other about her,
and were all out to get her, tie her, bind her. Grab the person she had worked hard to
become and choke it off with their soft loose tits. (262)
Badt, I think, explains this perfectly: |
She fears being cast as a representative of her race and joining its "fraternity." She
rejects the "ancient properties" of African people that Son, the African woman, and
the night women who visit her in a dream embody…. Given the atrocities in Afro-
American history, to return to one's "roots" has the psychic resonance of returning
to a subjugated position.
During a final confrontation Jadine feels she is fighting not Son but the night women who had seduced him. The argument is over Valerian and education. Son tells Jadine Valerian owed her the education, considering that he had "shit all over your uncle and aunt " (263). Still refusing to see the truth, Jadine defends Valerian. Son finally sees Jadine for who she really is. He renounces Jadine's Eurocentric, or EuroAmerican education:
"The truth is that whatever you learned in those colleges that didn't include me |
ain't shit…. If they didn't teach you that, then they didn't teach you nothing,
because until you know about me, you don't know nothing about yourself. And
you don't know anything, anything at all about your children and anything at all
about your mama and your papa."
Son renounces Jadine's previous plans to marry a white man, saying: "People don't mix races; they abandon them or pick them" (270). He tells Jadine the truth about who put her through school, and about Ondine's feet. He speaks of Jadine's responsibility and how appalled he was when Jadine deserted them after the Christmas Eve fight. Son sees Jadine, her rejection of her native culture as well as of her family, and is filled by a desperate rage. He rapes her while telling her the story of the Tar Baby. He is shamed afterwards by Jadine who gives him "his original dime." He leaves and upon his return finds the apartment empty.
Jadine escapes to Isle des Chevaliers where she rejects her family and culture one final time. Ondine tells her that "A daughter is a woman that cares about where she come from and takes care of them that took care of her" (242). Jadine replies that she does not want to become like Ondine-a grave insult to the woman who gave her all to this ungrateful girl. This story is not just about preserving one's cultural heritage, but also about maturity. As Ondine says to Jadine:
"A girl has got to be a daughter first… and if she never learns how |
to be a daughter, she can't never learn how to be a woman… good
enough even for the respect of other women…. You don't need
your own natural mother to be a daughter. All you need is to feel
a certain way, a certain careful way about people older than you are." (242)
As Jadine leaves with her black baby-seal "killer" coat, Ondine and Sydney doubt that she will even bury them. Jadine proves how little she has learned when she considers the new help "the mulatto with a leer" (225) and calls Alma Estée "Mary." She is truly the Race-Traitor.
Thérèse knows that Jadine is lost. A descendant of the "blind race" she also knows how to detach Brer Rabbit (Son) from Jadine, the "Tar Baby." She leaves Son on the far side of Isle des Chevaliers where he has a choice... where he can be free. "Lickety-Split" the sound both of the rabbit and of the horsemen signifies Son's freedom in the end. Though one is lost to history, the other can carry the heritage.
Through her fiction, Toni Morrison intends |
to present problems, not their answers.
Toni Morrison is a complex writer who weaves deftly together difficult motifs. Her books rarely have a "neat" conclusion. As Barbara Christian writes:
[It is] a simple story becoming increasingly complex, |
mythic, beyond solution, yet teaching me a lesson I
needed to know.
1. Badt, Karin Luisa. "The Roots of the Body in Toni Morrison: A Matter of "Ancient Properties."
African American Review, Winter 1995 v.29 n.4 p.567(11). Online. Encarta Online. Internet. 1 May, 1997. Available: http://www.encarta.cognito.com/cgi-bin/cgi_appl.cgi/2/1/28712/4?xrn_17
2. Christian, Barbara. "Toni Morrison: Our Saving Grace." Online. Internet. 1 May, 1997.
3. LaVallee, Andrew W. A. "'Faces as Black as His But Smug'-The Race Traitor in Morrison's Tar Baby."
Online Internet. 1 May, 1997. Available: http://ocaxp1.cc.oberlin.edu/~alavalle/morrison.html
4. Moon, Yonghee. "Rootedness." Paraphrase. Online. Internet. 1 May. 1997.
5. Morrison, Toni. "An Interview with Toni Morrison." With Tom LeClair.
Anything Can Happen: Interviews with Contemporary American Novelists.
Ed. Tom LeClair and Larry McCaffery. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1983. 252-61.
6. Ryan, Judylyn S. "Contested Visions/Double-Vision in Tar Baby."
Modern Fiction Studies Volume 39. N3&4. Fall/Winter 1993. 597-621.
7. "Toni Morrison," Contemporary Authors, Gale Research, 1993. Online.
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