- Blackness and Art in Toni Morrison's Tar Baby
I heard Black for the first time in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, in the wake of the de-colonization and nationalistic struggles. Black was created as a political category in a certain historical moment. It was created as a consequence of certain symbolic and ideological struggles. We said, "You have spent five, six, seven hundred years elaborating the symbolism through which Black is a negative factor. Now I don't want another term. I want that term, that negative one, that's the one I want. I want a piece of that action. I want to take it out of the way in which it has been articulated in religious discourse, in ethnographic discourse, in literary discourse, in visual discourse. I want to pluck it out of its articulation and rearticulate it in a new way."
In that very struggle is a change of consciousness, a change of self-recognition, a new process of identification, the emergence into visibility of a new subject. Asubject that was always there, but emerging, historically.Stuart Hall, "Old and New Identities"
In Tar Baby, Toni Morrison explores blackness to show readers that we are all implicated in the construction of blackness and to propose ways that black art can reveal and transform those constructions. Many critics have discussed Morrison's engagement with concepts of blackness in Tar Baby; most focus on Jadine and Son as representations of beliefs about blackness. For example, [End Page 263] Yogita Goyal associates Son with black nationalist beliefs and Jadine with concepts of cosmopolitanism and the African diaspora. Goyal argues convincingly that Morrison shows the problems with both characters and their beliefs; she argues that "neither can be upheld as a reliable authority on race or gender, as Morrison uses the two to displace the other's certainties and to reveal their limitations" (406). Many critics, including Goyal, conclude that Morrison favors either Son or Jadine and his or her respective manifestation of blackness, but critics have also emphasized the ambiguity of the novel, an ambiguity described as "multiplicity," "double consciousness," and an embrace of "both/and" rather than "either/or" philosophies.1 Madelyn Jablon, in an essay about teaching Tar Baby, writes that students "realize that Morrison does not ask the audience to choose between assimilationism and nationalism [Jablon's definition of Jadine's and Son's respective positions]. She illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of each and recommends neither" (74). Jablon concludes that the novel "hold[s] up a mirror in which readers can see their own beliefs" (76). Michael Wood similarly argues that readers' interpretations of Morrison's novels often reveal more about the readers' beliefs than Morrison's. Wood argues that through the shifting and indeterminate narrative perspectives in Paradise, "when a character articulates what we think, or think we think, or would like to think, this version seems to override all others, to belong to a removed realm of truth, and probably to be the author's own view" (117). While the "paradise" of a "removed realm of truth" is not available to any of the novel's characters, nor to Morrison or the reader, Wood argues that "the temptation itself is part of Morrison's art." In Tar Baby, Morrison reveals the temptation of a singular and correct definition of blackness, as well as the high stakes people see in their own beliefs. Son and Jadine embody concepts of blackness, and they also exemplify the investments people have in [End Page 264] their own definitions of blackness; when each struggles to "rescue" the other, Morrison writes, "Each was pulling the other away from the maw of hell—its very ridge top. Each knew the world as it was meant or ought to be" (269). In Tar Baby, as in Paradise, Morrison provokes readers to grapple with both the desire to know and the dangers of knowing "the world as it was meant or ought to be." Morrison immerses readers in competing concepts of blackness to show the pitfalls in constructing meanings of blackness, while at the same time asserting the urgent need to engage with those meanings.