I was never assigned Toni Morrison's "Tar Baby" in school...ever. But because Morrison's work has always left me both emotionally and intellectually spinning, I decided a month or so ago to read what I had missed. In doing so, I've stumbled on what has been for me, her most compelling piece.
Unlike "Beloved" or "The Bluest Eye," "Tar Baby" is distinctly subtle. The images that Morrison uses to tell this story are violent in a different way...they depict a internal, intimate violence that lies deeper and more pervasive in the (Black) human psyche - and then again, perhaps within us all. As a Black women, the novel hit a particularly contemplative note with its dealing with the relationship between the two central characters and then, their relationships to the novel's other actors and their representations.
However, most striking were the images of the night women that Jadine (our protagonist #1) conjures up in opposition to her own identity - a collective representation of women or feminine identity that challenges her own constructed sense of self.
Jadine is a model and learned woman of the world who has been educated abroad and who is, at the outset of the novel, relishing the new seal skin coat given to her by her White lover. She is the orphan daughter of poor Black parents and the niece of Black domestic servants who have loved her enough to convinced their employer to become her patron (and now to whom they are seemingly indebted), but her self-identity is wrapped up in who wants to relate herself to, not to who she is actually related to (via blood or history).
The night women represent all that Jadine opposes; they represent the backward, the rural, the uneducated, the laboring, the hairless, the toothless of women that Jadine views as her adversaries. She imagines that the night women are judging her, her lifestyle, her decisions, and her sexuality as incongruent with the collective history of Black women and perhaps she is right. In living her life and in constructing her identity, she has forgotten the sweat, blood and tears shed by the Black women that came before her. She has forgotten to incorporate their pain and has thus, has created a polarity that need not and should not exist.
The novel ends with an old local Black Caribbean women telling Jadine's lover (our protagonist #2, who is in search of her) to forget her, because she has forgotten her 'ancient properties' - she has forgotten her essence. Without too many plot details, the lover mentioned represents Blackness or the essence of Black identity. He is the tar baby set to snare Jadine and pull her back into...[complexity still to be determined].
In my mind, this last paragraph the novel begs both a question and a position. The question: Have we as modern, educated, middle class Black women forgotten our ancient properties? Are we fighting our own night women that we should be embracing? The position: I (because I can only speak for myself) will not forget the night women, I will embrace them and remember my ancient properties.
But who are our night women? They are the baby's momma's in the welfare offices. The video vixens on BET. The homeless Black woman begging for change on the sidewalk. They are those women that society deems undesirable or even generally unassimilated into dominant culture. Those women that remain too close to the historical realities of Black womanhood (albeit not the only reality) for most Black women. In the quest to show ourselves worthy recipients of our degrees, our positions, our material gains, and in general, our status as "respectable Black folk," are we willing to throw other Black women under the bus - creating ghostly night women of our own?
It is a theme, is it not? Black women are notorious for their hostility and vicious competition with each other. My offering is that Toni Morrision has a lot to teach us in 'Tar Baby' about the complexity of the Black feminine identity, both in relation to other Black women and in relation to Black men. Like tar, her message is thick and her prose laded with the intense truth of our denials/betrayals of our own. I am learning. I am remembering (think of rememory). I am acknowledging the night women as an inextricable part of myself - my identity as a Black woman in tangled up in theirs/ours...