The Tar Baby Myth
Morrison published her novel the Tar Baby in 1981. The novel is a deceptively unadorned piece of work that examines the complexities of the conflicts related to neo- colonialism, colonialism, post- colonialism, assimilation, nationalism, identity, global economics and essentialism. Deriving its ideas from the TAR BABY metaphor, the book probes about critical questions such as class, race, migration and relationships. The interactions the key characters, Son and Jadine, have provided the foundation for working out such complexities and conflicts. Jadine is a perfect representation of the colonized individual who longs for authenticity and is marred with self- doubt and insecurity about her worth and character. On the other hand, Son represents the other extreme. He is some kind of a modern Caliban, a man who is naturally ensnared in folk wisdom and culture. The main question of the novel, therefore, becomes whether these two can coexist and have a relationship without impeding or limiting each other’s ability to progress and grow or without destroying each other.
The two characters and their story form the basis upon which the other themes in the novel are build. The novel, therefore, is a narrative that examines and discusses the sacred and as a figurative representation of the experience of the black people. The stories and narratives used in the novel grapple with issues of human fallibility. The themes and narratives Morrison uses are concerned with history, active forgetting of society, tragic and the cultural origin and power of myths. The novel, therefore, provides for a positive valuation of the ancient characteristics of black women (the ability to put and hold things together through generations). In Tar Baby, the author envisions the origins of the Br’er Rabbit southern folk. She examines the wealth of the creative and spiritual heritage if black women, according to the author, the tar baby of the folklore from the south originates from an ancient African myth.
This article proposes that the folklore of the tar baby holds a mythological meaning for black women, and that individuals must uncover the original meanings of the myths to consider probable meanings for the current world. This paper, therefore, will explore a number of meanings of the myth that Morrison postulates to gather what they can mean for the world today.
The author sees herself as dusting of some of these myths. She sorts and puts aside myths to uncover what they mean and to consider their sufficiency for creating African America community and culture. She tries hard to come up with the way stories were narrates in the small town where she grew up. The author explains that in leaving the towns where we were born, a sense of a forgotten family develops. Furthermore, myths start being misunderstood or forgotten ‘… because we are not talking to each other the way I was spoken to when I was growing up in a very small town…’ (Morrison 98- 104). In Tar Baby, Morrison explores what westernized plantation narratives passive of the tar baby, and what meanings it might hold for the tar baby in the ancient, original myth. Morrison suggests another element regarding the sacred qualities of tar. The myth of the tar baby shows the moral wisdom and spiritual power of the black women and their ability to hold things together.
In this case, the myth of the tar baby functions as a metaphor for the womanhood of the black women. The power of the tar to preserve and hold together, that which is sacred like family, life and community is exemplified in black women. Tar that has been made use of by euro- Americans to degrade African American women is envisioned and seen positively in this work. Although white culture has distorted and belittled the meaning of the myth of the tar baby, it has been redefined by Morrison and the meaning she builds for black women. Tar is, therefore, not depicted as negative, but as natural and appropriate in the novel. It preserves life, communities, culture and sacred structures.
In the novel Tar Baby, the leading female character, Jadine, is shown to not fully embody the qualities of tar. The author explains that in the westernized tar baby story, the tar baby myth is created by a white person and in a way Jadine has been constructed almost entirely by western cultures and myths. The author indicates that no black woman should be apologetic for possessing western elements like education or anything else. However, as Morrison points out, there is a danger in ignoring or paying little attention to ancient characteristics that by tradition and nature are possessed by black women. By ancient characteristics, one can guess that the author means such elements as ancient spiritual, sacred qualities that are associated with African American women. In the view of the author, black women like the main character Jadine who neglect or ignore any remembrance or thought of the ancient characteristics of black women is incapable of being connected to the past and is incapable of holding together that which would crumble.
Tar has some fascinating characteristics. It is black, thick, shiny, sticky and powerful in its capability to hold or stick things together. In the novel the Tar Baby, it is used to symbolize the cohesive power of black women. Tar also has an exceedingly earthy characteristic about it. It is ancient, it comes from the earth and it has body. Tar has an elementary characteristic. In the work of Morrison, we find an Afrocentric symbol or metaphor used to refer to a similar view or understanding of the coalescing, collective strength of black women. The author suggests that black women have a quality that makes it possible to hold things like families and cultures together. For the author, looking at the myth of the tar baby reveals culture and history. It finds out and shows the cohesive power or black women in relation to community and family history. One might even postulate that the myth of the tar baby has a metaphorical or a symbolic meaning. It points further than itself to some truth about how black culture and life is scared, and of the power of black women to preserve culture and life. As Morrison employs myth in her novel, it is seen to have the ability to preserve essential events in history and cultural values in a prophetic manner. Like metaphors or symbols, myths have a quality that is transcendent. They take part in the sacred and culture to which they envision or point. The author explains that story and tale is the best way to learn numerous subjects.
Morrison employs myth to show the sacred power and ability of tar in history and show and tell of the importance of Afrocentric explanations and understandings of community sacredness for the present. In the novel, Son wants and expects Jadine to live in the Eloe town, which only consists of black people, where women hang sheets and clothes on the line to dry. On the other hand, Jadine wants and expects Son to seek economic and educational success. Son remembers society responsibility but is not willing to apply the traditional propertied of black culture and traditions to his present situation. Neither Jadine nor Son realizes it is possible to both have economic and educational success and a responsible daughter or son who remembers his or her ancient characteristics.
Morrison remythologizes and demythologizes the myth of the tar baby in this novel. Tar Baby, as seen and reviewed in the myth points out that a tar baby shaped and created by Eurocentric values does not have the ability to bear true culture for the African American people. Just the same, it uncovers a truth that is more profound regarding the sacred properties of tar in relation to the ancestral heritage of black women. To image and see oneself through the westernized myths of black women is to submit and to agree to a fake and false, fragmented self- image. To be a true bearer of culture and builder of community, a black woman must remember and hold fast her ancestors’ moral wisdom. One such unforgettable ancestor is the mythical tar woman. The rymythologization by the author of the tar baby shows the cohesive power and moral wisdom of black women.
The powers to hold things together and to nurture things are sacred characteristics of black women not just mothers, however, in the novel, Jadine is seen resisting the expectations of her aunt that she parent and take care of her elders. She does not comprehend her night visions and dreams of black women, contemporary and ancestral, who show their breasts as a symbol of the ancient characteristics to bear and nurture culture. Ondine, Jadine’s aunt, Son, and nature challenge her to remember her ancient characteristics. When she falls into a pit full of tar and clings to a tree nearby to get herself out of the tar, the ‘swamp women’ watching her above her in the trees, who also represent the mythical ancestors, realize that she does not want to identify with ‘their sacred properties’ and the power to hold things together’ (Morrison 182- 83).
The tar baby myth holds numerous meanings to the black women. One of the most essential meanings is that black women and men, as well, can use this myth to transform theory present existence by remembering actively and practicing the sacred, ancient wisdom of the ancestors.
Morrison, Toni. Tar Baby. New York: NAL, 1981. Print.