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Tar Baby

Herman Beavers

Herman Beavers is a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was formerly director of the African American Studies Program. His special interest in jazz studies has led him to focus on Morrison, as well as Ernest Gaines and James Baldwin. A poet as well as a scholar, his books include Wrestling Angels into Song: The Fictions of James Alan McPherson and Ernest J. Gaines.

Novel Discussion

Dr. Herman Beavers: My job is to talk about Tar Baby. Let me give you a sense of how things are going to proceed. I am actually going to draw from an essay entitled “Theorizing Paradise: Toni Morrison and the Politics of Exigency” that I have been working on about Paradise and Tar Baby.

Carolyn Denard has said that we often view Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise as a novelistic trilogy. I don't necessarily disagree with that, but I've been trying to think about a case for Tar Baby as a part of the sequence—the Jurecic and Rampersad essay Teaching Tar Babymakes mention of this. I'll try to make a connection between these four novels that have a narrative and thematic trajectory.

It's important to me to figure out how Tar Baby fits into this equation, because Tar Baby is Morrison's fourth novel. It was published in 1980. I remember well when it was published, because she appeared on the cover of Newsweek, which had to be a first for an African American writer. The title of the essay was "Black Magic." This novel by an African American writer was so conspicuous that it merited front-cover status in a major magazine. That says something. In part, it's because Morrison's Tar Baby followed Song of Solomon, which had won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In many ways people were waiting for this book. I was, because I loved Song of Solomon. That was the first Toni Morrison novel that I had read. I couldn't put it down. I read it when I was a sophomore in college.

Tar Baby was awaited and heralded by critics before the ink on the pages had dried. As Jurecic and Rampersad point out, it's the least written about and, for them, the most problematic of Morrison’s novels. More importantly perhaps, the novel gives us, according to Jurecic and Rampersad, two irreconcilable endings; that is to say, Jadine is on her way back to Paris and Son ends up in the hills among the blind horsemen.

This makes Tar Baby a transitional text following her first three novels, which are set in neighborhood locations. They are recognizable neighborhood locations. Morrison is drawing from her background as someone who grew up in Lorain,Ohio. In Tar Baby, we move outside small-town borders, outside U.S. borders. In many ways, Tar Baby is a radical departure from what goes on in Song of Solomon. I want to argue—and please do argue with me—that we need to think about a Morrison quartet, as opposed to a Morrison trilogy. There are some streams of thoughts in Tar Baby that we will see in other novels. Therefore, we need to think about this book as on par with the other seven books. But she also decided to do something radically different from Song of Solomon and got back on track when she wrote Beloved. That was my initial thought. When I heard Morrison read from Beloved, I thought 124 Bluestone Road, that could be me. I'm just now figuring out what she was doing by setting the bulk of Tar Baby in L'Arbe de la Croix.

It's clear she set a very different path for herself, but I don't think we should be in a hurry to dismiss it as an exercise in identity. I think it's reductive to view Tar Baby as a book about what it means to be black: Jadine is therefore the villain in the book as she goes back to Europe. I have some problems with that. I want to spend the next few minutes arguing that Tar Baby works out elements that are found in the later works, though it does so by prefiguring the concerns about selfhood, racial allegiance, and community taken up in the later novels. I'll explain what I mean by that. Tar Baby is set on an island in the Caribbean. Whereas Song of Solomon is about Milkman's quest to achieve a state of wholeness by unearthing his genealogical roots, Tar Baby gives us Son and Jadine—two characters marked by their rootlessness. Jadine is described at various parts in the novel as an orphan or as someone lacking the ancient properties, while Son is, in Morrison's terms, an undocumented man, a man who carries his original dime, a man who was born and bred among the folk in Eloe, Florida.

Jadine is cosmopolitan. In Tar Baby we see a collision between a cosmopolitan sensibility and a provincial sensibility. In the contemporary sense of that word "cosmopolitan," Jadine invokes in my mind more about the magazine of that same name than the true sense of the term, because cosmopolitanism is actually the ability to be comfortable in a variety of cultural settings. The contemporary use has more to do with a bourgeois facility with consumption.

In many ways, Jadine is just as provincial as Son. She's not really cosmopolitan. According to Eleanor Traylor’s essay "The Fabulous World of Toni Morrison: Tar Baby," in Critical Essays on Toni Morrison, Jadine functions under false consciousness. So does Son. Although they're both purveyors of village values, they're located in different phases of capitalism endeavor. Son is still rooted in a barter economy. Jadine is in the realm of consumer capitalism. These are two radically different phases of capitalism. They're irreconcilable.

As the Lepow essay "Paradise Lost and Found: Dualism and Edenic Myth in Toni Morrison's Tar Baby" points out, what makes Tar Baby such an interesting project—and I found that essay very persuasive—is that it demonstrates Morrison's critique of dualism. In her fiction, Morrison rarely treats dualism as anything but the fount of reductive thinking. What keeps us from reaching the conclusion that this is actually what's going on is that Tar Baby is often read as solely racial commentary. When this novel was written, in 1980, there was a lot going on. In the transition of American writing, we had reached the end of the Black Arts Movement, which I mark with the speech that Ntozake Shange gave at Howard University in 1976. Ntozake Shange is a novelist and playwright who is most famous for her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. She came on the scene during the late 1960s and early 1970s. For Colored Girls is an example of black-art cultural politics in that it started off as a play that was performed in bars. It was a grassroots endeavor. It went from there to Broadway. In many ways, that was the end of the Black Arts Movement, because it was a moment when the anti-Establishment had gotten to Broadway. It has more or less sanctioned certain kinds of African American cultural expressions.

Tar Baby is Morrison's attempt to riff on two things that in 1980 were in need of critique. I want to argue that Tar Baby critiques the Black Arts and Black Power Movements, not only in terms of their often less-than-critical approach to racial difference. One of the things that comes to mind from that period is the Black Nationalist poet Haki Mahdhabuti asking for the state of Montana as a route to racial harmony. Those movements contested that what gave political action or artistic endeavor its value was that it was produced in black minds. On some level, it came down to if a black person said it, it must have value, which led to some uncritical thinking on the part of African Americanists in what was then called black studies.

The other thing is that Morrison's novel critiques—if only implicitly—the Feminist Movement, particularly in terms of what we've known as second-wave feminism. She does this in at least two ways. First, in the relationship between Jadine and Margaret, we see two very different strains of feminism at work. There's Jadine's notion of being a self-created woman—one who is beholden to no one but herself. In this sense, Jadine invokes the last words in For Colored Girls where the Woman in Red states, "I have found God in myself, and I love her fiercely." Jadine’s ideas about self-creation and self-concern can be contrasted to Margaret's brand of protofeminist behavior, where she supplants Valerian by the end of the novel as the organizing force of this house, the Street household. She's done this by infantilizing him: going through his closets and discarding his clothes, controlling him to the point of tying his shoes and having him fed by Sydney. In other words, this is the vulgar feminism that my students talk about when I ask them if they're feminists. They say, "No, I'm not a feminist. I don't hate men. I'm not a lesbian. I don't want men to think that I'm all about women being better than men." Then you ask them what they want to do, and they say, "I can do anything I want." "I can be a physicist if I want to." By the twenty-first century, the way that feminism has been presented to young people, they often have a skewed sense of what it is. Margaret, rather than doing what Jadine has done, which is to make herself, has taken over as patriarch. She's standing in for Valerian, which means she hasn't done anything with herself at all.

At the time that this book was published, Morrison's place in American literature was both secure and tenuous. It was secure in the sense that the literary establishment had lauded her with awards. She was a senior editor at Random House. She really was a part of the establishment. On the other hand, it was also tenuous, because from the late 1970s onward, when we started to see a higher level of visibility on the part of women writers, black men came to view black female literary production as oppression, as a threat.

When For Colored Girls came out, not having seen the play—because part of the Black Arts and Black Power manifesto was you didn't need to have seen it to have an opinion about it—I just knew that For Colored Girls was an attack on my manhood as a black man. Therefore, it needed to be condemned. There's a real politics at work there. There's this notion of keeping it in the family. That very language, in my view, invokes a patriarchal authority that has everything to do with silencing women when they dissent from the party line.

The Black Arts and Black Power movements have been heavily dominated by men—even though women are very involved in those movements. From the very beginning, the people who were the spokespersons were men, most notably Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, who edited the watershed anthology Black Fire. Morrison's Tar Baby wants us to ruminate on how we got to this place. How did we come to the point where men get a chance to say what they want to say, and it's immediately co-signed?

I want to argue in the strongest terms that I don't think this book should be isolated from the rest of Morrison's canon. I think it's dangerous to do so because it leads us to the conclusion that this was a frivolous exercise. I want to argue that it's anything but that. If it's not part of a quartet of novels, it's at least a companion text and a template for what will happen later. Certainly, it sutures together Morrison's first phase, where she's working out village values, and Morrison's latter phase, where she's working in terms of the revisionist ruminations on acts of self-recovery. In this latter phase she begins to look internally at those aspects of black experience that can be traced to our experiences as people who were once property. Those three books—Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise—really do ruminate strongly on what it means to be a people who were once property.

From Dorcas to Jadine

I also want to make some other connections. Dorcas in Jazz, is, in my view, the prefigurement of what will become Jadine. (This is chronologically speaking in terms of setting [much of Jazz takes place in the 1920s; most of Tar Baby takes place in the 1970s], not in terms of publication dates of the novels.) This passage on page 190 in Jazz leapt out at me. This is Dorcas talking:

"When we got off the streetcar, me and Acton and Felice, I thought he [Joe Trace] was there in the doorway next to the candy store, but it wasn't him. Not yet. I think I see him everywhere. I know he's looking and now I know he's coming.

“He didn't even care what I looked like. I could be anything, do anything—and it pleased him. Something about that made me mad. I don't know.

“Acton, now, he tells me when he doesn't like the way I fix my hair. Then I do it how he likes it. I never wear glasses when he is with me and I changed my laugh for him to one he likes better. I think he does. I know he didn't like it before. And I play with my food now. Joe liked for me to eat it all up and want more. Acton gives me a quiet look when I ask for seconds. He worries about me that way. Joe never did. Joe didn't care what kind of woman I was. He should have. I cared. I wanted to have a personality and with Acton I'm getting one. I have a look now."

One of the things that makes me say that that's a prefigurement of Jadine is what she does. She's becoming a model. In the 1920s when a widespread advertising culture and the flapper girl emerged, one of the things that happened was a magazine culture enveloped the country. We got the idea of a "look." That means a couple of things. On the one hand, there are some issues with style, but also women became the object of spectacle. That spectatorship becomes a serious part of what it means to be visible as a woman. Jadine is also a revision of Sula, which is to say that she is a woman who has an affinity for the paints and clay that Sula lacks. Whereas Sula's artistic sensibility turns on itself and becomes dangerous, to use Morrison's words, Jadine's imagination can find space in either academia or the arts, either as a photographer or a model. I'm not necessarily sanctioning this idea of being a model, but it's important to trace these strands to the other books. Morrison could not, I argue, have written Tar Baby without having written those first three books. We can't understand what happens in Tar Baby unless we read the next three books. The evidence of that is Tar Baby happens in what was the present. What makes it a book different from all the other books is that it does not invoke the past. It happens in a contemporary present. Why is that important? I'll say something about that in just a bit.

Radical Autonomy

Morrison does not endorse either of these postures as be-all end-all settings where Jadine can achieve a measure of safety and security. We'd be really foolish to dismiss these settings because Jadine is, like Sula, a figure of radical autonomy. That's the term I want to hammer away at, this idea of radical autonomy. In Beloved, radical autonomy is a dangerous proposition, largely because slavery, having destroyed the communal impulse, makes such a posture alienating and self emanating. (Note: By radical autonomy I refer to instances where individuals like Sethe or Sula act out of their investment in satisfying their own interests, apart from the needs or concerns of the larger community, which indicates their hubris and largesse.) In Jadine, on the other hand, radical autonomy can be asserted against the way that patriarchy and sexism demand that woman's legitimacy be intimately linked to male endeavor. One of the things that I want to say in conjunction with the Lepow essay is we should not dismiss Jadine's desire to be a person of her own design. When we read Tar Baby only as a kind of racial melodrama, in many ways the first thing that's going to be lost is that impulse that actually holds up as admirable: Jadine's desire to be a whole person of her own making. It can't have been easy to leave Philadelphia and go to Paris—even though they tell me Philadelphia is the Paris of the West. The only difference is we eat salad after dinner instead of before.

Son takes every opportunity to challenge Jadine and accuse her of not being from anywhere. Jadine's achievement is that she represents the courage that articulates what seem to be, on their face, heretical positions. For example, when she asserts Picasso over the makers of an African mask, insisting that the former embodies art while the latter embodies superstition, if we read the comment through the Black Arts Movement, then we conclude that she's out of touch with reality. An Afrocentric perspective would say the mask is higher than Picasso. In Flash of the Spirit, Robert Farris Thompson says, "Don't none of you all need to be talking about African masks, because the bottom line is there is no such thing as an African mask. Far from being an image understood in continental terms, African masks can only be understood within the context of the cosmological perspective of a particular place on the continent, a particular group of people." We have to understand the rituals that animate the masks. Part of what Jadine identifies for us is that the process by which Picasso copies the mask is different from the process that led to the making of the mask.

It's clear where her affinities lie. She is Euro-centric. We can critique her for that. But maybe you don't like Picasso. I just don't want to dismiss out of hand Jadine’s perspective here. On some level it is—in the hands of Rick Powell at Duke and Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw at Harvard—a viable way of thinking about what black people do in the Atlantic world.

We also have to draw important links between Son and Sethe, both of whom engage in acts of violence, meant to establish their sense of integrity—at least in the psychological sense. Son kills his wife by driving his car through his house. Sethe kills her baby to prevent her from being taken back into slavery. When you look at Beloved, Sethe's act is intimately tied to the collapse of the community mechanism that would have kept her from killing her baby. It all goes back to that feast. Folks get mad at the feast. They see Schoolteacher coming to town with slave catchers and yet they don't go to 124 and warn Sethe. She takes matters into her own hands with what she thinks of as her resources. On the other hand, Son's act is very similar, and it leads to very similar results. Again, it's this radical autonomy that I'm talking about.

Like Lutie in Ann Petry's novel The Street (1946), who kills a man who tried to rape her and then, in a fit of despair, abandons her son, Sethe's act occurs because she loses the ability to take stock of her resources. She and Son are remarkable because they suggest the ways that one might interpret Morrison's dedication at the start of Beloved. Many people read it as an articulation of a known passage, but I read it radically differently. I think that she's saying, "My contentions are that ‘60 million and more’ is not simply an articulation of how many people died in the Middle Passage. It's an articulation in my view that the body count is rising." She insists that, in the addition to those lost in the journey across the Atlantic, there are other casualties. When you look at the way that Beloved plays out, part of what she's working out is that black-on-black violence is what we fail to talk about in Son's and Sethe's particular instances. Black-on-black violence is driven by our alienation from the things that make us human. We should not discount that. What Morrison suggests in each instance is that, rather than turning violence on ourselves, we need to understand the ways that white supremacy, sexism, patriarchy, and capitalism all represent forces that so effectively delimit black autonomy that the systems that might prevent bloodshed are nullified.

How are we to understand the end of the book? The trilogy is meant to help us understand the dilemma of African American selfhood. I don't dispute that. Here's a question: Valerie Smith, who teaches at Princeton, has written a book called Not Just Race, Not Just Gender: Black Feminist Readings. In that book she argues that in terms of cinematic representation, there are a number of representations of the folk. Smith argues that those representations can be troubling because they suggest—very uncritically—that “folk sense” is the way that black people structure the world and the way that they should understand the world.  My favorite example of this is the movie Soul Food, which made me so angry that when I saw it on TV, I threw something at the TV set, which led my wife to forbid me to wear my shoes into the family room. What made me so upset was that the Vanessa Williams character, who is the lawyer in the family, is giving everybody money. They just come and take her money, but she gets cast as the villain in the movie by these folks who are “down,” or (supposedly) more authentically black. It made me so upset I almost busted a vein in my neck.

Smith cautions us that to insist on the “way of the folk,” we have to mute or silence arrangements of power in the black community. Which is to say that by demonizing the black middle class, we are prone to ignore or justify the kinds of the abuses of power that occur among the folk. This whole notion of "keep it in the family," which many people would view as a folk articulation that masks over decades of domestic violence in the black community, has had disastrous effects, not only on women, but on children. Moreover, the idea that somehow education moves you away from the folk also underestimates black people's ability to create hybrid identity. Just because I went to college doesn't mean that I didn't take with me some of the values and use those values to make sense of what was going on at the time.

Literary critic Deborah Barnes is a good friend of mine, and she argues that Jadine represents cultural rootlessness. But regarding making her the villain, I'm dissatisfied with the ending in Tar Baby, because Jadine and Son don't figure out how to make it work. Also dissatisfying to me is the notion that Jadine is going back to Paris to be with white folk. It isn't that simple. Somebody just said to me the reason why I wore this yellow shirt this morning is because I was advocating for the woman in yellow. You could not have made a more prescient comment. Here's what I think: Jadine is going back to Paris to figure out how she can incorporate that sensibility into who she is. We need to laud her, because whereas that first encounter runs her out of Paris and she goes to the Street estate on Isle des Chevaliers, she does go back. She goes back, I submit, to figure out how she can incorporate some of those elements. She may not ever have that encounter [with the African woman in yellow] again, but the first encounter is unsettling enough. She needs to figure out how to work through that. Morrison herself in an interview with Nellie McKay (Conversations with Toni Morrison.Danille Taylor-Guthrie, ed. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 1994, [p.147]) has said Jadine worked out what she needed to work out, and she found the answers in Paris. We should not discount that. In other words, maybe she's on her way to becoming truly cosmopolitan.

At the end of Beloved, Paul D. realizes that the thing that he has to do is to put his story next to Sethe's. Early in Beloved, Morrison describes 124 Bluestone Road as a “house of two stories.”If we think about that literally, that’s true, but it’s truly the house of many people’s stories. That's literally what Tar Baby works out for us. On some level, whatever thoughts and experiences that led Paul D. to that radical, profeminist conclusion in the late 1800s are forgotten by the time we get to Jadine and Son in the 1970s. Part of what Morrison wants us to deal with is how did we get in that dilemma, given some of the stuff that we once figured out—people like Stamp Paid and Paul D. at the end of Beloved. How did we lose our way? We should also say that no one wants to discount the brutality of slavery or the damage that segregation did to black folk.

Getting to a Place

On the other hand, I believe Morrison, who attended a historically black college, would say that black folks banding together in a situation like slavery or segregation led to good things. We would not have jazz if that hadn't happened. Jazz comes out of people moving across those cultural boundaries, transgressing. Jadine is a person who transgresses cultural boundaries. I don't want to dismiss her. Tar Baby asks the question, "What happens when we get to the place that we want to be?" We need to go back to the Tar Baby folk tale. (Dr. Giselle Anatol: At this website, you can also view a film clip from Walt Disney's Song of the South. It should be noted, however, that the Disney film has been found controversial in contemporary times [as has Chandler's overall project, even though he was collecting actual stories from African American communities], since it conveys a sense of nostalgia for the Old South's plantation culture and the notion of the "happy darky.") It ends with Brer Rabbit saying, "The briar patch is where I want to be." On some level, it's ironic. It's a paradox. We need to deal with that question, "What happens when you get to the place where you want to be?" A couple of things could be the case. It could be that we're just talking about a Marxian false consciousness, or we could ask the question, "Is it possible to create a congruence between desire—one of the things that Tar Baby is about is longing—and political consciousness?" Is there a way for us to want something and link that to, not divorce it from, a critical conscious that allows you to make certain kinds of decisions about how you move through the world?

I've come full circle to be here today. At Oberlin College in January 1980, we had to do a winter-term project. My friends and I decided that for our project we would recreate a slave escape. The National Endowment for the Humanities had what they called youth grants. We got an NEH Youth Grant, $9,700 to recreate a slave escape. As we talked about it, we said that if we were going to do that, we'd need to dress up as slaves, eat like slaves, and sleep outside in barns if need be.

I was a twenty-year-old kid who didn't know what he was getting himself into. One of the things that makes coming here so important is that we decided that we would row across the Ohio River, which was one of the stupidest things that I have ever done in my life. None of us had experience rowing a boat. We rowed in circles. We had on life preservers. There was a boat of journalists chronicling us. Someone from the journalists' boat said, "You'd have been caught by now. They would have snatched y’all right back."

I remember the feeling that I had. We crossed over at the foot of the hill of the Josiah Hanson house. We walked up the hill to the Hanson house. I remember looking back across the Ohio River. When I read Beloved for the first time, I understood how Sethe felt. I'm still working through that experience. It was twenty-five years ago, and I'm still working through it. One of the things that's clear is the more we did it, the more we realized we could not come close to creating what people in slavery went through. We had on nice hiking boots and thermal underwear. We were so radically divorced from what they went through that it wound up driving home exactly what black folks in slavery were made of.

It's interesting that I've come full circle and come back to this Cincinnati-Kentucky space. Thinking about that, I decided that one of the things I want you to do is to take a few minutes and work out a timeline—you can go back five or ten years—of significant events that led you to be in this place. One of the things that is clear is that you are all someplace that you want to be. We have entered, as it were, the briar patch. We all want to be here, as difficult, as thorny, as problematic as it may be; we have all entered the briar patch.

On some level, Tar Baby, as it relates to those next three books, is about developing the back story. I think there's a reason why Morrison sets Tar Baby in the present and then goes back. She's trying to figure out what the intervening stuff is—between this moment in the present and when we were property or just getting out of being property. What's the intervening stuff? We can't understand what happened with Jadine and Son unless we understand Paul D. and Sethe in Beloved, Joe Trace and Dorcas in Jazz, and the Eight Rock folks and the Convent women in Paradise.

What questions or comments do you have about Tar Baby?

Participant: The thing that bothers me about this novel is that Jadine's a model. That concept of model translates to me, in a larger sense, as "role model." I just don't buy it. Jadine isn't any kind of model that Toni Morrison is talking about. She sells out. She goes back to Paris. Why is she a model? If she was an art historian or something else, maybe it would be easier for me to deal with. The word "model" has so many implications for me that it really disturbs me and throws the book off.

Participant: The fact that she is a model helps to relay a certain point that we all may look like something on the outside. We all have an outer shell. We all look a certain way. Even though we may be statuesque with wonderful hair on the cover of a magazine, that doesn't mean that our insides match what we look like on the outside. It's important for me that Jadine was a model, because she portrayed to the rest of the world that, "I am beautiful. This is me. This is what I look like on the outside," but she wasn't confident on the inside. She didn't know who she really was. That's why I think Morrison may have portrayed Jadine as a model.

Participant: I also think this novel and Paradise parallel because a lot of the questions in both texts deal with sex. Jadine as a model really wanted to be a woman just like the women in Paradise, who were trying to find some role models of women.

Participant: I also appreciate how Morrison makes her resourceful. She's been given this look that she can use for financial gain, but that's not her ultimate goal. She picks up jobs as she wants them, so that she can open a store and do something else. The idea that she's also a photographer is significant because she can capture other people's images. One of the things I question is why Morrison would have her photographs reveal such ugliness. For Son, the epiphany about his home comes when he opens up that brown envelope and we see that she's pulled ugliness out of it. The way that those photographic sessions are written doesn't seem to suggest ugliness. They seem to be an act of affection. When she's kneeling down and taking photographs, it's her way to reach out to these women. All of a sudden, she's in there with them taking pictures that people seem to like. When those pictures are revealed, maybe she would've seen them as beautiful, but Son sees them as, "Oh my god."

Dr. Herman Beavers: As you were talking, I was thinking about a film by a guy who teaches at NYU called Manthia Diawara. The film is called Rouch in Reverse. (UK/USA, 1995. Manthia Diawara, 52 minutes. The first film to look at European anthropology from an African perspective. Malian filmmaker and New York University professor Diawara's film examines the anthropological enterprise through the work of Jean Rouch, perhaps the most distinguished ethnographic filmmaker living today and one who made several early influential documentaries about West Africa.) The film is about a French anthropologist whose last name is Rouch. Part of what Diawara, who is from Mali, is talking about by making the film is what happens when the subject of the film gets on the other side of the camera. When you were talking about Jadine being a photographer, it plays nicely off her being a model, because she's moved to the other side of the camera.

What happens when she gets to that location? What aesthetic shapes how she takes pictures of these people in Eloe?There are some problems with that. On the one hand, part of the reason she's doing this is because she's uncomfortable. She feels like these women in Eloe are judging her, and it's a way to for her to exert power over them and the situation. On the other hand, I also thought about Robert Mapplethorpe and his theories about black men. And here, I’m thinking about Mapplethorpe’s photo exhibit from 1989, where he depicts black men’s penises, as if to suggest that the myth of the huge black phallus is true. There are some problems there in terms of the ways that it becomes easy for the viewer of the photographs to misunderstand Mapplethorpe’s intention; is he trying to be ironic or is he simply portraying the myth, without any irony?

Once again, it's that dualism that interests me. What Morrison allows us to do with this character is to think about her being a photographer, which is an empowering thing. How many black female photographers are there whose work gets exhibited? On the other hand, she's going back to Europe. How much has the European perspective shaped that aesthetic and how she looks at her subjects? Is that ugliness in the photographs the product of Jade’s European perspective on blackness, or is there something else?

Participant: On page 275, in the middle of the page, Jadine has just returned to the islands after leaving Son and has called her aunt Ondine for a ride back to the Street estate. Ondine asks if she is alone, and she thinks: "When haven't I been by myself. She was alone at a table for four, proud of having been so decisive, so expert at the leaving. Of having refused to be broken in the big ugly hands of any man." And later on, there’s the discussion about the soldier ants who are female: “Straight ahead they marched, shamelessly single-minded, for the soldier ants have no time for dreaming. Almost all of them are women and there is so much to do—the work is literally endless” (290). Finally, when Son watches her fill out his college applications, he states that “she was a model of industry and planning" (267). Then we've got the French soldiers riding naked through the mountains and making love to the swamp women.

Dr. Herman Beavers: On the plane out here I was rereading that first scene, and I was struck by that language, "at a table for four," which Morrison repeats in that passage. Jadine is sitting alone at a table for four, which means that she is not trapped in the patriarchal dream of the wife, a husband, and 2.3 kids. She's there by herself. In that sense, as a model of industry, she's a self-created being. American society identifies a solitary woman as a negative thing. But this is why I think the connection to the soldier ants is so important. How does nature feel about female power? There are other instances in nature where the female is the dominant figure in the species. What does it mean that human beings in Western culture on some level have gone against nature? The species does not continue without that queen ant. She's central to things moving forward.

Participant: Is Jadine critical of that? She wonders if that queen ant ever thinks about and dreams about that one time when she has sex—when she enjoyed herself rather than just working hard and doing her duty.

Dr. Herman Beavers: That does raise a question. How do we think about sex? Your point that this book is as much about sex as it is about rape is important. Morrison asks us to think about whether we have fetishized sex. For the soldier ants the sexual act is about perpetuating the species. For human beings, it's about intimacy. Raising that question with the ants allows us to bracket what it means to have intimacy with a like person from your own species. For human beings, it's not just about perpetuating the species. There's something else. There's baggage that goes along with it. When you consider that, the point that becomes clear is that part of the way human beings have negotiated that intimacy is by power struggles like Jadine and Son have just been involved in. Ultimately, it goes sour, because neither can be dominant. They can't reconcile the philosophical systems that allow them to do that. Ultimately, the sex becomes both meaningful, because it's rooted in memory, but also meaningless when you think about those ants, because it was just about copulation.

Jadine has to get to that place in her head so that she can move forward and diminish its impact. But look at how she ends the chapter. She struggles not to think about “the man who fought fucked like a star” (292). Morrison’s very good at creating these linkages between natural phenomena and human social interactions that have to do with intimacy that she de-familiarizes.

Participant: Interestingly, it seems like Jadine's self-journey begins when she remembers watching two dogs.

Dr. Herman Beavers: Morrison’s driving home that human beings are—primates are—similar as they experience social situations at the top of the food chain. We need to set those issues of intimacy alongside the fact that it's ultimately about perpetuating the species. She raises the question, How are we evolving? What will happen in the next incarnation of human beings?

Participant: Remember the vision that Jadine has of the women in the swamp. When Son has gone back for the gas and she's being sucked into the swamp—and the swamp is supposed to be female, because that's where the horsemen come to make love to the swamp women—and she literally gets tar on her that she has to wipe off. Does this mean she's not the tar baby anymore, trapping Son, or does it mean that she is the tar baby and these women are controlling her?

Dr. Herman Beavers: Morrison wants to keep the folk tale before us. It's the clearest instance in the book where we see somebody stuck. Symbolically, what does that mean? When you get stuck, how do you extricate yourself? Part of what Morrison wants to suggest is we don't always do the right thing for us to extricate ourselves out of a bad situation. We can go from one bad situation to another. The only way that you learn how to work through that is through experience.

Participant: As you read most of the book, Jadine and Son are in the foreground. I thought Valerian was fantastic too. He thinks he’s so smart, and so in control, but he's guilty of his ignorance. Margaret at the end washes her hair and sits out in the sun, where before, she sat in the shade and was “like a marshmallow warming but not toasting itself” (196). Is the change supposed to be something positive?—I don't think it is. I thought these two characters were incredible. They're also serving their servants at the master table. I kept wondering what's going through their minds.

Dr. Herman Beavers: My grandmother cleaned white people's houses in Pittsburgh and her last employer was one of the richest men in Pittsburg. I'd visit her, and she'd tell me stories about this family. They were in complete disarray. In many ways, her descriptions of the sons in that family sound a lot like Michael in the book. They were trying to find their way. This family would whisk my grandmother off to Martha's Vineyard for five or six weeks in the summer. Sometimes my sisters would go with her and come back with these stories. Ultimately, those kinds of relationships between the wealthy and their servants are extremely intimate in ways that lead people on both sides to become very protective of secrets.

Participant: For me, in some ways Sydney and Ondine provide a contrast in relationships. Their relationship is bound together and they trust and respect each other, whereas Margaret and Valerian are in conflict.

Participant: Jade and Son, too…

Dr. Herman Beavers: There's a moment where Sydney brings Son to meet Valerian. Valerian looks at Sydney and Ondine and has disgust for them because of how they are reacting to Son. You would think that Valerian's ignorance and innocence would not allow him to have the kind of critical eye on Sydney and Ondine as Philadelphia Negroes. Morrison, of course, is referencing W.E.B. DuBois’s study, The Philadelphia Negro, which put forth his findings about the quality of everyday life for black people in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward. So, Sydney referring to himself as the Philadelphia Negro is meant to be ironic because he sees himself as better than the poor people living in the Seventh Ward. It's interesting that Morrison puts the revelation in Valerian's head, because it's working out the issue Frantz Fanon is talking about in Black Skin, White Masks: disalienation. In Black Skin, White Masks Fanon suggests that ultimately black people’s internalized racism is about language. It's not what black people think about white folk. It's what black people think about each other and what arenas exist for us to engage in that kind of thinking and how do we do that.

Participant: In the final analysis of Jadine, Sydney and Ondine are sucking their teeth a little bit. There she goes off to Paris, but would they rather she be with Son, this crazy guy? They don't get her.

Dr. Herman Beavers: They don't get Son either.

Participant: Right. I love that Sydney's last act is taking over their master's role, sitting down next to him, and drinking. Ondine's final act is to thrust the screaming lobster into the boiling water. This red, screaming, flailing figure is like Margaret. She has thrust Margaret right into the boiling water. Margaret's at peace, because she believes that Sydney and Ondine are still in their place. Valerian becomes like a senile old man and Jadine goes into this weird, spacey, in-pain place about the absent Son even though she claims she’s got it all worked out in her mind. But Margaret did not change.

Dr. Herman Beavers: I want to stop short of saying that. The lifestyle Valerian Street’s money has provided has cost Margaret something. And it's been a heavy cost.

Participant: I get the feeling that she's relieved that the secret's out, but her general outlook doesn't change.

Participant: There at first appears to be a generational difference between Ondine and Margaret, and an intimate peer relationship between Margaret and Jadine. But actually Margaret’s an older generation than Jade, and she and Ondine—I think they're the same age. Margaret is very interesting, because she is a model too. She's Miss Maine. To Valerian, she's "the principal beauty of Maine." I think he marries her because she's eye candy to him. Then we find out that there's nothing there. Jadine is different. She's improved on the model, because she has an education. She's smart. Rather than being viewed and only objectified, she becomes the viewer. But there's a conflict with what she rejects in order to be her idea of the empowered woman, the active subject instead of the passive object—she refuses to be a daughter. Ondine tells her, “Jadine, a girl has got to be a daughter first” (281). She has to be connected to her mothers, her community.

Dr. Herman Beavers: In African American writing there has been a big push to understand voice. But having a voice has to include the right not to use it. That whole thing of maternity and Jadine electing not to move into that space is part of having a “voice” that she chooses not to speak with in the traditional way women have been allowed to speak—through the act of having children. You can choose to speak another way. Morrison wants us to think that it's both/and; it's not either/or. There has to be space.

One of the things that I've been dealing with in my own work in reading African American literature through the ages is chaos theory, and—I will not bore you with it—the ins and outs of thermal dynamics. One thing we need to think about here is the idea of entropy. Entropy in the thermal dynamic sense is when a system no longer has energy coming in from the outside to maintain itself. It spins down to a kind of randomness. These characters in Tar Baby are all fighting against entropy. Sydney and Ondine understand the world through the lens of being Philadelphia Negroes, but we need to think about what DuBois was doing in the seventh ward in Philadelphia. Part of what he was arguing for was for white folks to recognize black people's value. That's why he wrote the book The Philadelphia Negro. As he progressed in his thinking, he abandoned the motives that led him to write the book. It initially was his attempt in terms of modern sociology to make clear to the white community that the black community was worth their attention.

Son and Jadine are rootless characters. In literary terms, they fall into randomness, namelessness. There's a moment early on in the book in the prologue section when Son has just jumped ship.

After a while he thought it was time to head inland—toward the pier. As he scissored his legs for the turn, a bracelet of water circled them and yanked him into a wide, empty tunnel. He struggled to rise out of it and was turned three times. Just before the urge to breathe water became unmanageable, he was tossed up into the velvet air and laid smoothly down on the surface of the sea. He trod water for several minutes while he regulated his breathing, then he struck out once more for the pier. Again the bracelet tightened around his ankles and the wet throat swallowed him. He went down, down, and found himself not at the bottom of the sea, as he expected, but whirling in a vortex. He thought nothing except, I am going counterclockwise. (4)

One of the things that they love in chaos theory is vortexes and pandemonium. He's going counterclockwise here—backward in time. Chaos theory is also interested in what happens with fluid dynamics. For example, if you use some rocks to dam up a rushing river, the water finds a way to flow around that. What kind of patterns emerge when the water figures out a way to flow around? It's going to find a way. One of the things that this book is about is blockages.

Participant: The swamp is where the river stops. It’s been blocked by the houses and landscaping of human beings. It's a tar baby—trapped and trapping people. That swamp is the tar baby, not the briar patch.

Dr. Herman Beavers: Jadine and Son's relationship fails, because there's a blockage that prevents them from being able to merge their irreconcilable systems of looking at the world.

The "lickety split" at the end of the book is about what kind of pattern emerges from this blockage. Son goes in one direction; Jadine goes another direction. Morrison left out of the book what's going to happen to Jadine when she gets back to Paris, saying that, if you look at these characters dualistically, people make choices. Often choice is driven by a place where you don't have choice. Human beings are problem-solving animals. One door closes, and we go through another door. What happens when we do that? Morrison chastises us for judging people who make choices to go through another door if one door is blocked.

It makes me think of that comment that British cultural critic Stuart Hall makes about identity. He says, "People live in imaginary ways their own existence." For him, when identity is working for you, that's when you need to be scared. If everyone's co-signing, or agreeing perfectly with,who you say you are, you need to step back. But we live in a society where that's exactly the case. Because of the media, you get packaged. Ultimately it becomes very difficult—Hollywood is the perfect example of this—to figure out who you are in the midst of all this stuff. They shouldn't be paying Tom Cruise all that money. You should be getting it. Failed priorities have everything to do with people making choices about what constitutes being a real person. It's often grounded in fantasy.

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