Study Guide

Tar Baby

By Toni Morrison

Tar Baby Introduction

The plot of Tar Baby sounds kind of like a Harlequin Romance, complete with passionate love between smokin' hot people and a beautiful tropical island setting. A hawt young man named Son washes up on an island and gets taken in by a rich man. There is a sexy young woman named Jade staying at the rich man's house. Son and Jade fall in love, even though no one approves of Son (scandal!) and they run off to New York City. Dang. You hear that and you think its cover might look something like this, right?

And you'd maybe think that these two exceedingly good-looking lovers would end up happy, together, and with four or five exceedingly good-looking children. But… nope. That's not how Tar Baby plays out at all. Not even close.

Why, you ask? Well, there are a whole bunch of reasons, but the #1 reason is that racial tensions wreck havoc on what would have otherwise been a sweet romance. Tar Baby is more realistic, more tense, and filled with more nuance than a romance novel And it's so much more interesting.

Published in 1981, Tar Baby is the fourth novel from Toni Morrison, an African-American writer who has won about kajillion prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize. When it came out, though, the reviews of Tar Baby were mixed. The reason? Since it was the first book Morrison ever set in the present day it brought questions about racism and class inequality a little too close to home.

Many people—like probably the initial reviewers of Tar Baby—pick up a book that discusses race and expect to read only about white oppression. Don't get us wrong: the theme of white oppression is totally there in Tar Baby. But Morrison is just as interested in is the tensions that exist between different groups of black people. Son and Jade aren't just two star-crossed lovers that have to get out from under a rich white dude's thumb. They're also two people with very different ideas of what it means to be black, and it's this conflict that destroys happily-ever-after for them.

Newsflash: racial tensions run deep. They're super-complicated, and Toni Morrison doesn't shy away from how complicated they are. She explores them in all their tangled ickiness and manages to make all of her characters both sympathetic and totally ensnared in the knotted web of racial tensions. Tar Baby takes its title from a legendary super-duper sticky doll, and the racial tensions in this novel are as just as clinging and suffocating as tar.

Also complicated are the characters in Tar Baby. Well before Walter White started cooking meth, Toni Morrison was creating characters that existed in a limbo between good and bad. The anti-heroes in Tar Baby could give the most grizzled premium cable character a run for his money, no joke.

So if you're looking for flat characters and an easy black-and-white (pun intended) approach to racism in America, go find yourself another book. But if you want to explore the permeating, suffocating nuances of racial tensions, stick around. If you want a heavy dose of brilliant reality, gorgeous prose, and unforgettable characters, look no further than Tar Baby.

 

What is Tar Baby About and Why Should I Care?

You know you're getting close to literary greatness when you start making people super uncomfortable. Vladimir Nabokov made people uncomfortable with Lolita. Joseph Heller made people uncomfortable with Catch-22. James Joyce made people uncomfortable with Ulysses (and also with pretty much everything else he wrote).

And Toni Morrison sealed the literary greatness deal with Tar Baby. Why? Because it made people sweat a little bit. Morrison wasn't content to talk about the racial tensions that exist between white people and black people… the project of Tar Baby is to discuss the racial tensions between black people.

This, as you can imagine, is not a topic that makes people feel warm and fuzzy inside. But since Toni Morrison is in the being-a-literary-genius trade and not that making-people-comfy trade, she wasn't going to hold back on telling the truth just because the truth was a little awkward.

Morrison is writing from history. Although Jade and Son—the super-good-looking lovers in Tar Baby—are fictional, the outlooks they represent are very much the real deal. Jade is all about achieving success in the predominantly white world of the Parisian fashion industry and Son wants to live in an all-black town in Florida. This goes way deeper than ye olde City vs. Country debate. It cuts to the heart of 20th Century civil rights and black power.

Super-quick history lesson time! The Civil Rights movement wanted to end segregation and racism using nonviolent means and togetherness. Some thought that this approach came at the price of diluting a distinct black identity: Black Power movement emerged to argue that violence should be met with violence and that racial pride was more important than everyone being a big, happy family.

It doesn't take history PhD to realize that Jade falls more on the Civil Rights movement side of the spectrum and Son falls more on the Black Power side. And this, folks, is the #1 tension in Tar Baby. It's not about black vs. white. It's about two different approaches to black identity clashing, even as the characters that personify these different approaches are smooching and being The Best Looking Couple Ever.

Does this plot make people uncomfortable? Heck yeah. Does it bring up unsettling questions about identity and history? Yes indeed. Does it make for a fascinating novel? Yeppers.

But even if you're allergic to history, don't think that because this novel is based on historical realities it's a dry doorstop. Remember that Game of Thrones is based on the kinda yawn-inducing War of The Roses. And, like Game of Thrones, Tar Baby is sexy, thrilling, and pretty messed-up.

Tar Baby Resources

Websites

Real-Life Eloe
This is the official website of Eatonville, "the oldest black municipality in America."

High Society
The Toni Morrison society has literature on Morrison, hosts events and symposiums, and is affiliated with Bucknell University. If you love Toni Morrison and you're looking for a place where fandom meets Lit Crit, this is the place for you.

BioSphere
Check out Toni Morrison's biography and marvel at the life of the woman and her awesome literary prowess.

Articles and Interviews

The New York Times Gave Tar Baby a lukewarm review.
Not so much two thumbs up as two thumbs sorta held to the side. WTF, NYTimes?

How Racist is the Term "Tar Baby?"
The New Republic takes a crack at this question… and says the answer lies in the context.

Morrison in Paris
The Paris Review is famous for it's awesome and awesomely well-researched author interviews. Morrison's interview doesn't disappoint.

You know it's Morrison's interview when the headline is 'Predicting the Past'
Morrison chats with the Guardian on the other side of the pond. We could listen to this woman talk all day.

More Morrison, More Better
Another Morrison interview, this time with Salon. The awesomeness keeps coming fast and furious.

Beyonce as Jade?
This article suggests Queen B to star, and Woody Allen to direct. Hmm… that could just work.

Video

Check Out Awesome Eatonville
It's the real-life equivalent of Eloe, Florida. Eatonville is "the town freedom built."

So. Much. Toni. Morrison.
We squealed with joy when we saw just how much Morrison goodness happens in this video.

What Morrison is up to today.
Tar Baby came out in 1981. What's Morrison working on now? This video gives some insight.

Tar Baby On The Big Screen
No, they're not making a movie of Tar Baby. But the Br'er Rabbit and Tar Baby folktale did feature in the antiquated Disney movie The Song of The South. Here it is!

Audio

Good Ghosts, Good Golly
It doesn't surprise us in the least that Toni Morrison has some ghostly experience.

Retro Disney Br'er Rabbit Story
If you ever wondered what the precursors to audiobooks sounded like, you're in luck. Wonder no longer.

Images

The Original Tar Baby Cover
Um, yeah. When you get a work by Matisse on your book cover, you know you're getting the Nobel Prize eventually.

The Canary Yellow Dress
Wonder what it looked like? This s a good guess.

Don't Punch Him
This is the grossness that comes from punching a tar baby, Disney-style.