Authentic Blackness in Toni Morrison’s ‘Tar Baby’

A brief analysis of Morrison’s 1981 novel

Tar Baby is concerned with authenticity in a few ways, linking the notion of authenticity to sanity and to blackness. In this 1981 novel, Morrison navigates a strange exploration of these links in a moody narrative that places competing notions of Black authenticity at the problematic center of her character’s lives. 

While the novel begins with a focus on a White character, the corporate candy magnate Valerian Street, the narrative gradually shifts its interest to a romance between two very different Black characters – Jadine Childs and a man who takes the name Son. 

The differences between Jadine and Son initially form a wedge between them. For a time, they are able to overcome these differences, but eventually the two break. The reasons for their split speak to the novel’s thematic interest in authenticity and integrity as each of these characters is forced to reckon with the fact that in order for them to remain true to their own version of Blackness, they must resist one another. 

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Son has grown up in the American south. When he commits a crime of passion that is miscontrued as a murder attempt, he flees the country and takes a series of jobs as a sailor. Given the chance, he returns home (with Jadine as his companion) and is welcomed back into the close-knit, all-black community of his country town. 

It is this return that forces the reckoning between Jadine and Son. In a semi-magical episode, Jadine becomes haunted by the idea that the people and the culture of Son’s home are going to claim him for their own. She is threatened by a vision of all the women of his town – along with the women from her own past – who bare their breasts, morphing as they do into impossible and obscure gestures. The past here is threatening to erase Jadine’s future. 

For Jadine Childs, the future is much more definitive than the past. Up to now she has lived a life of preparation. Attaining an education and taking on a job as a magazine model that is doomed to end along with her youth, Jadine exists in a state of forward-looking anticipation. In so many ways, her only truth is involved in a future that has not yet come. 

She is harried by another vision as well. A beautiful woman in Paris. They make eye contact one day when Jadine is out shopping. The woman spits on the ground. Jadine is shaken by the encounter and forced to wonder why the moment carries such a meaning for her. 

What is revealed in this moment is the frightening uncertainty that necessarily animates her future orientation. At various points in the novel, Jadine is shown battling to tamp down her self-doubt and to find a way to believe in the best possible outcomes for herself, but this is always also a battle against accepting a definitive status: “It was a silly age, twenty-five; too old for teenaged dreaming, too young for settling down. Every corner was a possibility and a dead end.”

When she is confronted by her aunt with a claim that she still needs to learn to be a true daughter, Jadine retreats into characteristic denial. The aunt Ondine says, “A daughter is a woman that cares about where she come from and takes care of them that took care of her.” Clearly, the principle here is one of memory, but Jadine cannot accept the power of the past and will not allow the past to form or determine the future. Such an allowance would compromise her very identity, removing her from the open and positive potential of what is yet to come. It would diminish her and she is defined strongly by a need to grow. 

When a violent secret about Valerian Street’s wife is revealed at a Christmas dinner, repainting the family history that Jadine has come to some extent to share, Jadine immediately flees. The explosive secret reshapes the Street household, bringing the past and its secrets fully to life. Jadine leaves and refuses to take any part in it. 

In the brief moment where the past has been left behind and the future remains unformed, Jadine and Son are able to form a passionate bond. But soon their differing orientations begin to pull them apart. This leads to the unearthing of the two character’s essential conflict – is a union possible for two people who define themselves as Black but who otherwise define themselves in opposing ways? 

Son accuses Jadine of being a “tar baby,” a tool and a toy, playing along with the expectations of her White benefactor Valerian Street. He says that she has turned her back on what it really means to be Black. She has opted instead to choose the kind of privilege that he says will prove to be unreal. She lives in and for a future that will be empty. 

Jadine in turn accuses Son of denying the obvious need for education, for the kind of self-empowerment that comes from adapting to pervasive cultural realities. Her cosmopolitanism is her strength and she flatly informs Son that he is choosing to be weak by insisting that his country home is the only seat of authentic Blackness available to him and to her. 

It’s a divide that cannot be bridged. Each is certain that the other is making the wrong choice and elevating a false form of “authenticity.” 

These choices and these judgements are indicative of Morrison’s themes in Tar Baby. As Candice M. Jenkins points out in “New Bourgeoisie, Old Bodies,” “Through Jadine, Morrison signifies on precisely the changing contours of black community in the post–civil rights era, as well as on the related expansion of the black middle class” (627). While Jenkins argues that Jadine is used in Tar Baby to demonstrate a bourgeoisie affiliation with Whiteness and an with assimilationist ethos, we might see a way to emphasize the other side of her argument which posits the idea that emphasizes Morrison’s interest in outlining a new and postmodern understanding of Blackness that stands at odds with more “traditional” perspectives. 

Jadine, the motherless child without a bond to the past, is taken up by the White corporate boss, given an education, and placed in a position to live in Europe. She is light skinned and keeps a symbolically freighted black seal skin coat as a prized possession – a coat that is comforting and luxurious and which she can take off whenever she wants. She is cosmopolitan in a variety of ways, both literal and figurative. Yet, critically, there is no path toward integrity and authenticity that is available to her outside of this cosmopolitanism. 

For Jadine and Son, the only way to move forward and to live in the world is to accept their own sense of how to be. They cannot compromise and adopt a hybrid form of Black identity. Jadine cannot go with Son to the South and give up the bourgeois elements of identity that would not fit there. Son cannot move to New York City, go to college and plan to stay there forever. His integrity is rooted in a sensibility that assimilation and upward mobility are one and the same. For both of these characters, accepting the truth of the other would come at the cost of deep ideological compromise. 

This mode of authenticity comes with costs. As Lettitia Moffat identifies in “Finding the Door: Vision/Revision and Stereotype in Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby,” the “self-imposed limitations” (12) linked to “a binary mentality” (23) at the heart of Jadine and Son’s characters function to preclude any opportunity for full self-knowledge. In adopting a strictly limited notion of self-defined Blackness, Jadine and Son will never move past the fear of inauthenticity. They seem to see themselves as always uncomfortably too close to tipping over into someone else’s definitions. 

The two of them come to represent this threat to one another. As much as they cling together in love when they run away from the Isle de Chevaliers, they ultimately find that there is a need to force the other to abandon their essential identity orientation. If they can’t succeed in this, each of them will be straddling a profoundly distressing line, subject to inner chaos and ultimately to dissolution. 

This threat of schism comes to dominate their relationship. Largely rooted in ideas about Black identity and authenticity, this schism is also given a poignant metaphorical expression in the character of Margaret Street. 

Authenticity and Sanity

Margaret Street is initially presented as a broken person. She is not entirely in control of her faculties. In short, she is functionally insane – invested in fantasies, insistent on a preferred near future, and severed from any honest or clear-eyed assessment of her own reality. 

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Mrs. Street proclaims that her adult son is going to come to visit for Christmas. Her husband and the rest of the household know that this is an extreme unlikelihood. Michael Street has been gone for a long time. Margaret simply refuses to accept the break. 

And this is the turning point of the narrative. When Christmas arrives and Michael does not come, the cook Ondine reveals the fact that Michael is not coming and will never come because Margaret had abused him as a child, burning him with cigarettes and tormenting him psychologically. 

This revelation breaks the household apart. Valerian Street becomes like his wife had been – detached, fixated on the question of whether he should have known all along what was going on in his house. Jadine and Son flee to the United States. Ondine and Sydney hunker down and wait to see what will happen, having lost their niece and now potentially their jobs. 

But, importantly, Margaret Street is un-broken by the event. She is healed. With her secret out in the open, she comes back to herself. She is able to live in reality again. 

It is a return to authenticity for Margaret Street. Though it includes a very painful and shameful truth, it is her own truth. And living through it is the only way that she can stand in the world as a whole person. 

Taken as a metaphor for Tar Baby’s larger considerations of authenticity and race, Margaret Street’s story becomes a provocative statement on the necessity of accepting painful historical truths. If Jadine’s identity can allow only for a future-centered Black authenticity and Son’s identity can only allow for a Blackness that maintains an isolation in some version of the past, the figure of Margaret Street presents a third possibility, suggesting that living in the present means letting go of one’s preferences. 

She wanted to keep her past a secret. This led her to invent a fantasy of a future which she occupied entirely on her own. When she is stripped of that preference, she is finally able to live in the present. 

That present is populated by a broken household. It is dominated by pain. But it is authentic. And it is real. 

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Published by eric m martin

A writer, teacher and coffee shop owner living in the southern reaches of the Mojave Desert.

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