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Inauthentic Tar Baby

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Tar Baby is also a name, like "nigger," that

white people call black children, black girls,

as I recall.... At one time, a tar pit was a holy

place, at least an important place, because tar

was used to build things.... It held together

things like Moses' little boat and the pyramids.

For me, the tar baby came to mean the black

woman who can hold things together."

("An Interview" 255)1

The Inauthentic Tar Baby

Toni Morrison's Tar Baby (1982), is a novel about contentions and conflicts based on learned biases and prejudices. These biases exist on a race level, gender level, and a class level. The central conflict, however, is the conflict within the main character, Jadine. This conflict, as Andrew W. A. LaVallee has suggested, is the conflict of the "race traitor."2 It is the conflict of a woman who has discarded her heritage and culture and adopted another trying to reconcile herself to the "night women" who want to bring back "the prodigal daughter."

The first of the contentions is that of race. As New York Times Book Review correspondent John Irving aptly puts it: "Miss Morrison uncovers all the stereotypical racial fears felt by whites and blacks alike." Prejudice exists between the white and black people in the house; between the black people of the house; the black people and the local populace. Sydney and Ondine Childs, the Cook and Butler in the house of Valerian Street, feel superior to the local black populace. Sydney remarks twice on how he is "A genuine Philadelphia Negro mentioned in the book of that name" (284). Part of this feeling of superiority might be class-related. The Childs' are very proud of their positions in the Street house-they are industrious and hardworking. The Dominique blacks are to them "swamp women" or "horsemen"--depersonalized figures. This is most apparent in their ignorance of their help's names--they dub Gideon, Thйrиse, and Alma Estйe "Yardman" and "the Marys." At Christmas dinner Valerian adds epithets calling them "Thйrиse the Thief and Gideon the Get Away Man." (201). But as Judylyn Ryan points out, "Both the superordinate and the subordinate exercise this prerogative of naming" (606). Gideon and Thйrиse have 'christened' Ondine "Machete hair" and Sydney as "Bow-tie"-Thйrиse contemptuously calls Jadine "Fast ass" whereas Gideon denotes her as "the yalla." Ondine and Sydney think "Mary" does not listen to them out of inattentiveness, whereas in reality Thйrиse intentionally refuses to speak to them and "never even to acknowledge the presence of the white Americans" (111). A contention also exists between Ondine and the white lady of the house, Margaret, whom Ondine has dubbed "Principal Beauty of Maine." Margaret, in return, has dubbed Sydney and Ondine "Kingfish and Beulah." Son adds to the "name-game" by calling Valerian "Tarzan." "Son," itself, is a nickname for Willie.

The white people of the house feel superior, and later threatened by, the blacks. Margaret is a prejudiced white woman, a veritable stereotype. She has argued that "Ondine (if not all colored people) was just as good as they were," but "she didn't believe it" (59). When Son is discovered in her bedroom closet she goes into near hysterics. Margaret feels no compunction at calling or thinking of Son as a "nigger in the woodpile", a "gorilla", or a "boy." Because he was a black man in her closet she thinks he intended to rape her, has masturbated on her clothes and shoes, and goes as far as thinking: "now this nigger he lets in this real live dope addict ape" (87). Thus the character of Margaret has spewed out every racist clichй in the book.

It is not surprising (and that says much about the society) that the white lady of the house should feel prejudice toward a black man found in her closet. What is fascinating, however, is Morrison's depiction of how Sydney and Ondine react to the man, revealing their own prejudices. Sydney is ready to shoot Son where he stands, suspecting him of being a thief, killer, or a "wife-raper" (99). Ondine, who at various times calls Son "that thieving Negro" (89), "the jailbird" (190), "a swamp nigger" (191) and "no-count Negro" (193), feels that the "man upstairs wasn't a Negro-meaning one of them. He was a stranger" (102). Thus when she calls him "nigger" she does not mean the term in a familiar, inclusive way.

Jadine's reaction to Son is the most revealing-she is the "racial traitor." Andrew W. A. LaVallee writes: "Central to the race traitor idea is the disassociation from and racist perspective on the traitor's race of ethnic group." At the sight of his "Wild, aggressive, vicious hair" (113) she immediately classifies him as a criminal. In her room she assumes that Son wants to rape her:

"You rape me and they'll feed you to the alligators. Count on it, nigger. You good as dead right now."

"Rape? Why you little white girls always think somebody's trying to rape you?"

"White?" She was startled out of fury. "I'm not ... you know I'm not white!"

"No? Then why don't you settle down and stop acting like it."

"Oh, God," she moaned. "Oh, good God, I think you better throw me out of the

window because as soon as you let me loose I am going to kill you. For that alone.

Just for that. For pulling that black-woman-white-woman shit on me. Never mind

the rest. What you said before, that was nasty and mean, but if you think you can

get away with telling me what a black woman is or ought to be..."

"I can tell you." (121)

Here

...

...

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