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Tar Baby

Toni Morrison

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Plot Overview

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. As a child, Morrison was an avid reader and excellent student. She studied English and classics at Howard University and completed a master’s program in literature at Cornell University. When several of her classmates at Howard had difficulty pronouncing her first name, Morrison changed it to Toni (a derivative of her middle name). At Cornell, Morrison studied the work of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, and their experimental, stream-of-consciousness narratives, told from multiple perspectives, would have a great effect on her fiction. In 1958, Morrison married Harold Morrison, an architect from Jamaica. The couple had two sons but divorced in 1964. Morrison held a series of teaching jobs at universities around the United States, but she eventually moved to New York City. There she would wake up early in the morning to write, before heading to work as an editor at Random House, where she specialized in acquiring and editing black fiction.

In 1970, Morrison published her first novel, The Bluest Eye. She followed this work with Sula (1974), which received a nomination for a National Book Award, and Song of Solomon (1977), which won a National Books Critics Circle Award. After Morrison published Tar Baby in 1981, she began working on Beloved, the novel that would not only earn her a Pulitzer Price in 1988 but would also ensure Morrison a place in the pantheon of American literature. Jonathan Demme directed a movie version of Beloved in 1998, starring Oprah Winfrey. Morrison’s recent work includes the novels Jazz (1992), Paradise (1998), and Love (2003); Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992), a collection of lectures she gave at Harvard University; and a series of children’s books written with her son Slade based on Aesop’s Fables. In 1993, she became the first African American to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Today Morrison is the Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University.

In the foreword to Tar Baby, Morrison recalls the importance of storytelling in her childhood. She grew up listening to the adults in her family entertain one another with tales, and early on she developed the desire to spin yarns as well. Morrison ultimately dedicated Tar Baby to the many women at whose feet she first learned both to listen and to tell stories, including her mother and grandmothers. The novel itself reinterprets a folktale that probably originated in Ghana but which became uniquely American through retellings on Southern plantations: Br’er Fox attempts to trick his arch enemy, Br’er Rabbit, by placing a sticky doll made from tar in its path (the Tar Baby). After Br’er Rabbit gets stuck to the doll, he tricks Br’er Fox into helping him escape. Some critics have argued that Br’er Rabbit represents a black slave who tricks or outwits his white master.

Like Morrison’s other novels, Tar Baby deals with aspects of a distinctly African American experience. Part of Morrison’s overarching goal, as both an editor at Random House and as a writer, has been to put into print voices that have historically been left out of the literary canon—namely, the voices of women and minorities. She writes in the black vernacular, borrowing phrases and figures of speech unique to the community in which she was raised. In talking about her novels, Morrison has said, “When I write, I don't translate for white readers. . . . If I’m specific, and I don’t overexplain, then anyone can overhear me.” Her work takes themes and cadences from the blues, jazz, gospel, and spirituals to explore such issues as the legacy of slavery, attempts to create an African American culture separate from white culture, and the ongoing struggle to gain equality.

The civil rights and black power movements influenced Morrison’s work. In the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement sought to end segregation and the systemized violence against African Americans as well as increase their economic opportunities. Some people found the movement’s nonviolent tactics too passive, and others argued that the civil rights movement emphasized integration and assimilation at the expense of a distinct black identity. Around 1966, these critics began to coalesce into the black power movement, which emphasized racial pride, developed such slogans as “Black Is Beautiful,” and argued that blacks had to meet violence with violence. Tar Baby touches on the movements’ differing agendas through its two main characters. With the help of patron Valerian Street, Jadine Childs has assimilated into the white world as an educated fashion model. Son, in contrast, was raised in an all-black community in rural Florida. Much of the novel’s dramatic tension stems from the power struggles between these two vastly different characters.

Morrison’s interest in popular culture and politics is evident in her creation of an active workshop at Princeton University, the Princeton Atelier, which fosters collaborations across the arts, and her involvement with Oprah’s Book Club. Her diverse accomplishments have secured her an enduring place in literary history.

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