Black People

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Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
7. What is the symbolic function of the African woman who spits at Jadine?

Tar Baby Toni Morrison’s novel might for some be a novel of cultural awakening. One also might at their first reading and perhaps also by reading the different studies made on Tar Baby, restricted to an interpretation that sees Jadine, Morrison’s protagonist, as woman who has, consciously or unconsciously, lost her “ancient properties” (305) and internalized the values of a white culture. Jadine has totally disconnected herself from her racial identity and cultural heritage. This reading is supported by the fact that Jadine has got her education in Europe with the financial assistance of Valerian Street (her aunt’s and uncle’s employer). Paraphrasing Marylyn sanders Mobley – the characterization of the protagonist, Jadine, draws attention to a fundamental problem as one that Morrison wants to affirm the self-reliance and freedom of a black woman who makes choices for her own life on her own terms. She also seeks to point out the dangers that can happen to the totally self-reliant if there is no historical connection. While the conflict in Tar Baby is undoubtedly “between assimilation and cultural nationalism represented by the sealskin coat Ryk has given her and the pie table” (Rayson, 94), the limiting categories which Jadine is continually forced into do not come from the white characters but primarily from the black community in which she finds herself because she (Jadine) has embraced white stereotypes along with white culture. While Valerian is portrayed as the traditional master-figure in the novel, it is actually Son, Sydney and Ondine, and the folk past represented by the different women in different places that try to conquer and dominate Jadine, who retain and represent their culture in the very colour of their skin. On the other hand, one could argue that it is as a result of Jadine’s university education in Europe and her career that further draws her away from her culture and identity and therefore (paraphrasing Mobley in Toni Morrison critical perspectives past and present) contributes significantly to the emotional and spiritual uncertainty that plague her as well as the many different roles that are imposed upon her by her aunt and uncle as well as the ‘society’ that caused her to seek upward social mobility.

Sydney and Ondine, Jadine’s uncle and aunt in the novel can be seen as representative of one of the tar pits for Jadine. They do not accept all black people equal in the community in which they live because they employ racial hierarchies. Ondine sees herself as the only woman in the house (209), while Sydney notes more than twice that he is a Philadelphia Negro, “the proudest people in the race” (61). They seem to have a clear vision of what they want for Jadine their niece. As the story progresses, though, it becomes clearer that it is not actually a question of what they want for Jadine but what they want of her or expect her to do. In addition to them wanting Jadine to provide them safety and credit for their race, Ondine admits by the end of the novel, “maybe I just wanted her to feel sorry for us [...] and that’s a lowdown wish if I ever had one” (282).

Jadine understands that Sydney and Ondine “had gotten Valerian to pay her tuition while they sent her the rest” (49) and Ondine keeps reminding that she “would have stood on her feet all day all night to put Jadine through that school” (193). Ondine sees Jadine as her “crown” (282), and she and Sydney are continually “boasting” (49) about Jadine’s success to the point that Margaret calls Ondine “Mother Superior” (84). In return, they seem to want Jadine to offer them safety for the rest of their lives as Ondine claims that “Nothing can happen to us as long as she’s here” (102). They are not comfortable with the idea of Jadine marrying Ryk, who is “white but European which was not as bad as white and American” (48), but they are...
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