THERE IS an understanding that even the lightest skin cannot hide any traces of African blood from the eyes of another Black person. For Toni Morrison, this blood reveals itself as a ghost. She sees ghosts haunting each pair of eyes, coloring every Black man or woman's skin, ghosts that become, for Black people, a cloak and an identity. Toni Morrison must stare very hard and deep into the brown faces she sees, watching these ghosts so intently that they have become alive themselves and are often more vibrant than the human beings whose lives they influence.
Her characters lead difficult lives trying to listen to these spirits that come from a collective past. Following the dictates of these voices keeps them close to a Black tradition that often becomes excruciatingly painful, no matter how hard they try to escape its grips. Their pain comes from their alienation, from never being considered anything but Black in a country like America, and the pain impels them to clutch hungrily at the spirits of Black folklore that live in their dreams, their songs and their stories. Morrison does not make Black life a retreat or an imposed exile from white society; it exists as a mystic world where the present is infused with the frightening richness of the past. Sometimes the past speaks so loudly to these characters that it drowns out their connections to the present. Morrison's characters can be very lonely people who hear little except the voices inside their heads.
Pecola, in The Bluest Eye, wished for blue eyes that would carry her away from the indifference with which plain little Black girls with kinky hair and dark skin were treated. Her ghosts agitated her with visions of a softer feminity than the one she seemed destined to live, while at the same time they haunted her rapist father with clues to her extreme pathos. From this story, and from Sula, where ghosts exist but are still subordinated by present reality, Morrison leaped to a world where spirits have full control over reality in the mythical novel Song of Solomon.
At times, Song of Solomon reads like a song, but at other times, the musical myth diffuses not only the present world of the characters but the plot of the novel as well. The Biblical allegories and the legendsare themselves so radiant that they divert the reader from the much flatter characters who sift through this mystic past. Time becomes a very confusing element with dead characters too closely blended to living ones, adding incoherence to the work.
Tar Baby, Morrison's latest novel, makes interesting use of time, alternately erasing, alternately accentuating the poignancy of the characters' lives. On one level Tar Baby appears self-conscious, as when Morrison's efforts to bring the theme of alienation to a new height fail and her characters are left in affected poses, muttering cliches. But the softness of Morrison's prose when she describes the dreams of her characters, plus her sensitivity to the historical traditions that created Black America, save the novel from total affectation. The symbols which Black Americans use to interpret much of their lives do not only hold the identity of these characters, they release the best in Morrison's creativity.
Tar Baby takes place on the tropical Isle des Chevaliers. The spirits that inhabit this island cast gloomier, Carker spells than those from the South, and a feeling of past tragedy introduces the island to the reader:
There he saw the stars and exchanged stares with the moon, but he could see very little of the land, which was just as well because he was gazing at the shore of an island that, three hundred years ago, had struck slaves blind the moment they saw it.
The blinded slaves populate the folklore of Isle des Chevaliers alongside other tales of horsemen and moaning women who wander through the forest. Morrison echoes the whispers of centuries-old legends in her phrases, animating the landscape and infusing each piece of nature with a soul:
When it was over, and houses instead grew in the hill, those trees that had been spared dreamed of their comrades for years afterward and their nightmare mutterings annoyed the diamond backs who left them for the new growth that came to life spaces the sun saw for the first time.
One of these houses belongs to Valerian Street, a retired millionaire candy manufacturer who does very little but cat voraciously, drink wine, and watch his plants while he listens to classical music. He has an eerie, distant relationship with his younger, beautiful wife Margaret, the "Principal Beauty of Maine" who made something "kneel down in his heart" when he first looked at her and who finds island life a tragedy of boredom. The Streets have been served for years by an elderly Black couple. Sydney and Ondine, who keep the house in working order and help to maintain the social order. They do not eat with their employers, but their lives are centered on that house and the behavior of the Streets. Sydney and Ondine speak about them constantly, diverted only by hassles in the routine and their neice Jadine.
Jadine is a modern, beautiful young woman whose atypical life is a product of Valerian's charity. She has been educated at the Sorbonne and became a socialite in Paris, top model with her "mink eyes" on the cover of Elle. She bridges the gap between the white employers and her aunt and uncle, but the only mystical images which this gap produces are stereotypes. The other native women who periodically work for the Streets watch Jadine closely. They call her "fast-ass": she calls them all Mary because "all the baptized black women on the island had Mary among their names." Jadine is young, beautiful, talented but orphaned; she has lost her sense of past. Her traditions died with her mother, and those Black people who dwell comfortably in legend do not trust her with her light skin. They see the traces, the Africa in her face, but they don't believe that she does since "Yallas don't come to being black natural-like. They have to choose it and most don't choose it." She is a vicious thorn piercing Black men's imaginations, a "tar baby side-of-the-road whore trap."
JADINE has feelings, though, and a deep sense of womanhood which is Morrison's gift. She hardly looks or acts the way Black people expect her to, but she feels the force of their folklore and their spirit. An African woman she sees in a Paris supermarket, with "eyes so beautiful they burned the lashes around them," haunts Jadine for months when she spits at her with disdain. The spirits of the past strike hardest with the discovery of an untamed, uneducated filthy young man named Son who has been hiding in the Street's house for days. At first he is an ugly rastaman, a "nigger in the woodpile" whose lack of breeding and cleanliness offend her and the rest of the family. All except Valerian, who invites him to stay-and with one gesture opens the door to legends and tales that will haunt the rest of the plot.
After Son bathes and becomes more acceptable to Jadine's delicate senses, he draws her closer and closer to a mythical world of ancient Black customs. He is Natural Man, flexible enough to do and be everything for her, but rigid enough to make her as "natural" as he is. The "savannahs in his eyes" lure her, and yet his presence upsets all her next artifices and all those of the household. Morrison identifies Son's revelatory force with his unwashed body's smell which is powerful enough to wake a sleeping Jadine and to arouse her sexually, but horrible enough to mix with her fantasies a sense of shame comparable to that of a bitch in heat, taken by a pack of dogs turn by turn and then beaten in disgust by townspeople.
Before Jadine gives in to Son's more gentle advances and he takes her away, the artificial peace of the Americans has been completely broken. Their prodigal son Michael never comes to see them, but another Son does inspires the destroying of some myths surrounding Margaret's mothering. White people, for the first time in a Morrison novel, have imaginations also populated with ghosts. Theirs are European images of chivalry on horse back, spirits with gleaming swords that conquered the land. Their dream of Michael's identity is that he is a sort of missionary figure to Indians. Son exposes Jadine to screaming nightmares filled with ghosts of the women of his past, "diaspora mothers with pumping breasts" who watch her mockingly. She flys from Son eventually, and the novel leaves them and their painful dreas separated.
ALL THE GHOSTS dreams and tales seduce Toni Morrison and release her inhibitions, making for some truly enchanting writing. She sees wonder in the strangest places, even traditionally non-haunted places like New York City which she can give a curious other-world quality:
...Son looked in vain for children. He couldn't find them anywhere. There were short people and people under twelve years of ago, but they had no child's vulnerability, no unstuck laughter. They cracked into the M2 buses like terrified bison running for their lives, for fear the school at their backs would grab them and eat them up one more time. It wasn't until he caught the downtown A that he saw what they had done with their childhood. They had wrapped it in dark cloth, sneaked it underground and thrown it all over the trains. Like blazing jewels, the subway cars burst from the tunnels to the platforms shining with the recognizable artifacts of childhood: fantasy, magic, ego, energy, humor and point. They had taken it all underground.
Morrison, however, indicts the present and sacrifices it, in her prose, to the power of her legends. Where there are no legends, the prose is dead. Jadine shows Son a chic N.Y. of Max's Kansas City at 4:00 a.m., promenades on Third Ave. from the Fifties to Soho listening to "RVR and BLS" and buying "mugs in Azuma's." None of these places mean anything to readers who do not know New York City, and few New Yorkers would claim these spots as immortal landscapes of their city. WRVR has already been taken off the air. This, and frequent references to Bally shoes, Vera sheets. Thom McAn and Billy Blass, date the novel and make the characters seem affected, label-crazy people. Their present is stilted. Unfortunately, even the folkloric tropics suffer under the slaps of some heavy-handed metaphors, particularly the poor fishes who are made to listen to "the beating of hooves" which belong to clouds (?!?!). Worse, Jadine screams "Horse-shit!" and the "avocado tree standing by the side of the road, heard her, having really seen a horse's shit, thought she probably misused the word." The sentence is pretty misused too and just falls flat on the page.
For the most part, Toni Morrison writes very beautiful stories, and Tar Baby is usually a lovely, intelligent and sensitive novel. Her characters are pieces and products of the symbols and ghosts Morrison treasures as Black heritage and an interesting quality of this work is that the author sounds like she loves her characters. They are a part of American folklore, the general culture and the Black one, a link which Morrison insists on. Son is placed in the legion of "undocumented men" like Huck Finn, Nigger Jim, Caliban, Staggerice and John Henry. Jadine becomes the flip side of a stereotype portraying light-skinned, long haired Black women. Her-Blackness and her womanhood are two gifts of beauty and richness to Morrison. Black women give birth to legends; their ghosts live forever as long as skins bear traces of this mystical parentage.
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