restricted access Contested Visions/Double-Vision in Tar Baby
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Contested Visions/Double-Vision in Tar Baby1

In her incisive critique of "The Race for Theory," Barbara Christian deplores the "academic hegemony" of "Western philosophers from the old literary elite" (53, 51). Beyond the intense solipsism of this "new" critical discourse, the "takeover" constitutes as well an ideological hegemony since it imposes an interpretive framework that is both Eurocentric and androcentric on literature by "black, women, [and] third world" writers (52). Among the many consequences Christian discusses is the development of an "alien" critical language and its tendency to obscure the political concerns and transformative intentions of the text. Toni Morrison has echoed this critique in Playing in the Dark with the observation that "Criticism as a form of knowledge is capable of robbing literature not only of its own implicit and explicit ideology but of its ideas as well" (9). Christian attempts to foil this robbery/displacement and, instead, to resituate the (Black woman) literary artist as conscious and primary theorist, for, she notes, "My folk . . . have always been a race for theory" (52). What distinguishes this tradition, Christian concludes, is that "our theorizing (and I intentionally use the verb rather than the noun) is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, since dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking" (52). Consequently, this [End Page 597] discussion of Tar Baby pays particular attention to the "theorizing" within the text in order to explore several interpretive possibilities. First, to illuminate the ways in which the novel rejects the limiting prescription for a unidimensional discussion of gender conflicts, even as it confronts and responds to it as a significant constituent within a multidimensional and complex matrix. Second, to examine the ways in which the novel critiques a European materialist vision without renting the clichéd words, images and plots that are conventionally employed for any analysis of capitalist exploitation and class hierarchies. Third, to evaluate the depiction of individuals who are not permanently quagmired in the seeming immutability of their cultural/class "predicament"—with all its ramifications—but who, along with the readers, are assisted in imagining some form of resolution. And, finally, to suggest some of the ways in which the novel participates in and extends that conscious intertextuality—call-and-response poetics—among Black women literary artists.

Toni Morrison's fiction displays an extensive concern with the erasure of African2 cultural consciousness and cultural history, and the persisting cultural illness which this erasure precipitates.3 The cultivated lack of cultural historical consciousness, and the displacement of "peoplehood" which it engenders, is a central theme in several of Morrison's novels. In Song of Solomon (1977), for example, Milkman's inadvertent and increasingly captivating quest to literally piece together—to re-collect —the story of his ancestors facilitates the reinscription of his own cultural and historical consciousness. Milkman's acknowledgement and reevaluation of his abuse of Hagar and of his disrespect of Pilate, Ruth Foster, and his sisters following his recovery of the past is noteworthy. Since the erasure of cultural self-consciousness expresses itself in a range of self-destructive attitudes, Morrison rightly views these factors as central to understanding and, perhaps, resolving the particular tensions that exist between Black women and Black men. Coming after the transformation in Milkman's treatment of women—his relationship with Sweet, for example—which the recovery of his past inspires and facilitates, one might see Tar Baby (1981), with its compilation of antagonistic relationships, as the continuing elaboration of a cultural trauma which the earlier novel uncovers. In a 1982 interview with Nellie McKay, Morrison observed that "there is a serious question about black male and black female relationships in the twentieth century. I just think that the argument has always turned on something it should not turn on: gender. I think that the conflict of genders is a cultural illness" ("An Interview" 421). Of her several novels, Tar Baby is specifically crafted to explore this "serious question" of relationships [End Page 598] between African men and African women in the twentieth century. Significantly, the "contentions" between Black women and Black men...


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