Didi at Brown Girl Reading is hosting #readsoullit this month, a month long reading challenge to accompany Black History Month in the US. For this purpose, she set a photo challenge, a whole month of booktube videos by various booktubers and she also set up the read along for Tar Baby by Toni Morrison.
I have read a lot by Toni Morrison over the years, all the books are very different in tone and story, but they share a couple of characteristics too: Difficult to read due to style and content, strong characters that drive the book making the plot often secondary. Yet, to me the books have always a compelling quality.
As a white European woman, I am fully aware that I don’t get all the socio-cultural references within Morrison’s work. Or in other words: I don’t know what it means to be black in America, I don’t even know what it means to be white in America. So, quite often if I don’t understand parts of the book, I will either have to do some research or I will have to let it go. Despite this, however, I often get a lot out of her books, they make me think, they make me look within myself and wonder what aspects of the characters can be found within me.
Tar Baby is the story of a series of couples, there is Valerian and his wife Margaret, who loath each other, living mostly on this Caribbean island being served hand on foot by Sydney and his wife Ondine. Therese and Gideon look after the tasks that are too menial for the house servants, and then there is Jardine, niece to the houseservants, but elevated within the household as a protege and Son, the stranger appearing in their midst.
There are many themes in the book, but the one that struck most of a chord with me, was the one on how the way the men perceive the women is how the women end up seeing themselves. It takes Jardine almost the entire book to consider that she is not that person that she is told by the men in her life that is she is. The men are quite vile to the women at times out in the open at times more subtle in how the woman has to shift and maneuver to accommodate the man. It often made me feel uncomfortable, particularly, when one woman who is assaulted by a man, later finds herself in a relationship with that same man.
An interesting read and I am sure it will echo with me for a long time. You cannot say about such book that you loved it, I did not love this book, but it made me think, I adore her characters, so imperfect, so flawed, so unlikeable, but so, so real.
“I wonder if the person he wants to marry is me or a black girl? And if it isn’t me he wants, but any black girl who looks like me, talks and acts like me, what will happen when he finds out that I hate ear hoops, that I don’t have to straighten my hair, that Mingus puts me to sleep, that sometimes I want to get out of my skin and be only the person inside– not American– not black– just me?”
By the way, according to the dictionary, a tar baby is “a difficult problem that is only aggravated by attempts to solve it.” – I had never heard of it.
Paperback, 320 pages
Published June 8th 2004 by Vintage (first published 1981)