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"The Chocolate Eater": Food Traffic and Environmental Justice in Toni Morrison's Tar Baby

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 55, Number 3, Fall 2009
pp. 596-619 | 10.1353/mfs.0.1625

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

In 2008, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its annual food security report, whose authors open with the poignant observation that "world hunger is increasing" ("High Food Prices" 2).1 This food crisis can be understood as an effect of economic globalization—or more precisely, of a food system that consolidates agricultural production and distribution in corporations headquartered chiefly in North America, Europe, and Asia. As the FAO report suggests, communities in the developing world are at risk within this system because they depend increasingly on imported goods for nourishment and because the number of small-scale farmers who provide an alternative food source is shrinking (2–4). The UN tacitly correlates this condition of food insecurity2 to factors ranging from poverty to climate change (4).3 In the contemporary period then, world hunger stands as a pressing environmental crisis that derives from a world economy in which the fully industrialized structure seems neither ecologically sustainable nor socially just.

Written nearly thirty years before the 2008 FAO report, Toni Morrison's fourth novel resonates with this paradigm of hunger by framing the food system in the terms of environmental justice—a social movement that asserts the interdependence of class, ethnicity, and ecology.4 Named for an African American folktale,5Tar Baby imagines the contemporary era through an entwined narrative of hunger, consumerism, and environmental exploitation. Food tropes prove especially crucial to this narrative and elucidate the novel's geographic setting: the fictionalized Caribbean islands of Dominique and Isle des Chevaliers. In the novel Isle des Chevaliers is transformed into a modern vacation community by white US candy executive Valerian Street. The island figures as a palimpsest of unsustainable environmental development and unjust trade practices, a geographic imaginary that embodies the longue durée of Caribbean history.6Tar Baby concretizes this history via the symbols of Street Brothers Candy Company and the "candy giants" (53), which together emblematize the extraction of natural resources from the region in the service of not only profit but also consumer tastes for exoticized foods like sugar and chocolate.7 Attentive to both social and ecological forms of injustice, the novel critiques this food economy while eschewing binaries of land and market or producer and consumer. In Tar Baby, every character is a consumer with appetites that highlight a complex relationship to the Caribbean and to the global marketplace.

Recent accounts of the novel have attended to its geographic contours primarily by framing the story as a meditation on whether black diasporic identity can "offer an alternative to Western oppression" (Goyal 393).8 Critics have not gone far enough, however, in explicating the novel's environmental imagination, partly because they focus on Tar Baby's African American rather than African Caribbean characters and partly because they foreground the love affair of Son and Jadine at the expense of the novel's other plots. Addressing the multiple plots of Tar Baby, I argue that its principle setting of the Francophone Caribbean cannot be understood without Morrison's intricate story of hunger, consumption, and food traffic—a story that speaks directly to the environmental justice movement as well as postcolonial ecocriticism.9 This argument extends the scope of eco-criticism to reveal food as the locus of both Morrison's environmental imagination and the wider imagination of environmental justice.10

Cosmopolitan Tastes and the Specter of Hunger

A synopsis of Tar Baby demonstrates the crucial status of food to Morrison's only pan-American novel. When the story begins, Valerian Street has just sold his company to a multinational candy corporation and is living with his wife Margaret at their estate, L'Arbe de La Croix, along with Sydney and Ondine Childs, a black Philadelphia couple who have worked for the Street family since the 1940s, and the Childses' niece Jadine, who has recently left a thriving modeling career and ill-timed marriage proposal in Paris. In addition to the characters who inhabit the estate, four others play a major role in the plot: Thérèse, Gideon, Michael, and the novel's arguable protagonist Son. Along with Alma Estée, Thérèse, and Gideon are the African Caribbean residents of Dominique...