Tar Baby: Chapter 2
This chapter surveys the nighttime hours at L’Abre de Croix and supplies more details about the lives of Valerian, Margaret, and Jadine.
Jadine awakens from a dream and recalls an unpleasant incident that happened to her when she was shopping in Paris two months ago. A beautiful, tall African woman in a yellow dress was in the grocery store. Jadine and the other customers were admiring her, but as the woman left the store she looked at Jadine and spat in her direction.
Then Jadine remembers the memorable dinner party she attended in Paris. Everyone, men and women alike, wanted to befriend the beautiful fashion model. She had everything she wanted. And yet, as she slips out of bed and goes to the window, she wonders why the African woman’s insulting gesture upset her so much, when she had wanted the woman to like and respect her. She also thinks about a decision she has to make; of three male admirers, the one she most wants to marry, Ryk, is a smart and sexy white European, but she wonders whether he wants to marry her for herself or just because she is black. She left Paris to come and see her aunt and uncle to see what they would say about the situation. But so far she has not confided in them or spoken about her plans.
Valerian wakes up. He is discontent at the way the day went, and he thinks back over his life. He inherited the ownership of a candy factory, but he did not find running the company in Philadelphia the most thrilling occupation and promised himself at the age of thirty-nine that he would retire at sixty-five. It was also when he was thirty-nine, and divorced, that he fell in love with the teenage Margaret as soon as he saw her, on a float in her role as Miss Maine, the beauty queen. They were quickly married, and she bore him a son. He bought the Caribbean island and built a house on it and vacationed there when he could. His wish was that Michael, his son, would take over the business, but Michael showed no interest in it, so Valerian sold it and retired to the island at the age of sixty-eight, only three years later than he had planned.
Margaret cannot sleep. She is the beautiful, red-headed daughter of struggling Catholic, probably Italian immigrants, who gave more attention to Margaret’s less beautiful siblings than to her, on the grounds that attention should go to those who needed it. Margaret therefore grew up something of a stranger in her own family, and when she married only eight months out of high school, the distance between her and her family increased. But she never managed to settle in Philadelphia where her husband took her, spending a lot of time alone. She did not feel comfortable with Valerian’s friends, and lived for the times when Valerian took her out to concerts or restaurants. She did, however, manage to strike up a friendship with Ondine. She also recalls her son’s early years, and now she thinks that he has turned out well. She enjoys his company, and she convinces herself that she wants to live near him not to mother him but to enjoy him as an independent individual.
She finally falls asleep.
This chapter reveals more of the principal characters and also hints at some of the underlying racial subtexts that will become even more important later on. For example, the unpleasant encounter Jadine has with the black woman in the store in Paris reveals the ambivalent position Jadine occupies. She is a black woman but she has been educated in “white” culture and makes her living as a fashion model in that culture. She is fully at home in Paris, one of the centers of Western culture, and wants to marry Ryk, a white man. The African woman who spits at her represents another kind of blackness that does not make any compromises with white culture. The woman in the yellow robe and multi-colored sandals is fully herself and makes her own rules. She does not bend to the demands of the white culture in which she finds herself. This is shown by the way she picks out the three eggs she wants, not caring that the eggs are sold by the dozen or half-dozen. She just does things her way, and is so confident about it that the cashier cannot find the courage to point out how the store expects the eggs to be sold. When the woman spots Jadine and spits at her, it is because she instinctively recognizes the compromises Jadine has made with her black heritage. The fact that Jadine, a black woman, has become a product of white culture offends her, and Jadine feels the sting of the insult even though she does not really understand it. All she knows is that the African woman made her feel in some way “inauthentic” (p. 49).
Another hint of racial tension comes in the account of Margaret’s life when she first married Valerian. She became friends with Ondine even though she did not believe that black people were her equals. The relationship between Margaret and Ondine becomes something of a mystery for the reader at this point. We are told that they became friends, but in the previous chapter, Ondine’s present contempt for Margaret was plain to see. What happened to destroy the friendship? No explanation is yet forthcoming. Another small mystery is Margaret’s attitude to her son. Why does she seem to be trying so hard to convince herself that he turned out so well? Why does she keep saying that she is not one of those mothers one reads about in the National Inquirer? Why does she say she loved her son when he was young but no one would believe her? What is she talking about?
In this way, Morrison plants some seeds in the minds of her readers about these characters and their relationships. When the chapter ends with all the inhabitants of the house asleep, “nothing disturb[ing] them” (p. 61), we can be sure that this uneasy equilibrium will not last for long.