Tar Baby: Chapter 3
On a foggy day on the island, Valerian, Margaret, and Jadine are eating dinner together, waited on by Sydney. Margaret feels awkward, and Valerian needles her by correcting her pronunciation of a foreign word. Margaret ignores him and continues to talk to Jadine but when she makes a mistake in her table manners (something she fears), Valerian shouts a rebuke at her. They all quickly pretend that nothing has happened and Margaret resumes her talk with Jadine, who is speaking about an invitation the Streets have received from the Brandts to spend Christmas with them. Valerian dismisses the invitation, and Margaret informs Jadine that Michael is coming for Christmas. Valerian continues to snipe at her, saying that Michael will not come. Margaret protests, and they continue to bicker and taunt each other, while Jadine can think of nothing to say that would deflect the conversation. Jadine has been staying with them for two months, and she is starting to notice “flecks of menace” (p. 68) in their quarrels. The argument turns to Margaret’s belief that Valerian’s sister Cissy has hated her from the beginning. She explains how Cissy had asked her when they first met, thirty years ago, to remove the crucifix she wore around her neck, saying that “only whores wore crosses” (p. 70). Valerian laughs, thinking the remark funny. The quarrel gets more intense, and Margaret leaves the table. Valerian apologizes to Jadine, who comments about how she likes Michael. She cannot think of much to say, and struggles to find a way to leave the table. But they end up discussing Michael. Jadine remembers meeting him during her first year in college, and he reproached her for what he called abandoning her history and her people. Valerian speaks disparagingly of his son’s commitment to progressive social causes, while Jadine tries to be a little easier on him. She goes on to explain that she does not regret favoring Western culture over her black heritage. She was never convinced by Michael’s arguments that the social and economic system as it concerned blacks was broken and the only solution was a return to handicrafts such as pottery and a new system of barter.
Valerian then laments that Margaret brought Michael up in the wrong way and made a loser out of “the most beautiful, the brightest boy in the land” (p. 75). He had wanted Michael to make more of his life than he has. He insists that he loves his son, although Margaret refuses to recognize this. He also explains to Jadine his belief that Margaret was not ready for Michael when the boy was young, and now she wants to take care of him, but it is too late. He tells of how he used to come home when Michael was two and find him singing in a cabinet under the sink. This happened more than once; Valerian complains that Margaret was not consistent in the way she treated her baby; sometimes she was interested in him and would interact with him and sometimes not. He hoped that when Michael went to college he would escape from his dependence on her, and acknowledges that since Michael rarely calls or writes, this has indeed happened. But now Valerian fears that Margaret wants to get control of her son again. Then when he is dependent on her, she will change her mind and leave him.
Jadine is bored listening to Valerian. But their conversation is interrupted by Margaret who re-enters the room screaming. She talks incoherently about something in her closet. Sydney is sent to investigate. When he returns, he is pointing his pistol at a black man with dreadlock hair. Margaret exclaims, “It’s him!” But instead of calling the police, Valerian invites the man to have a drink.
There are two important points in this chapter, giving further insight into Margaret and Jadine. There is some strange mental instability about Margaret. It was glimpsed in the last chapter when it was explained that sometimes she would be forgetful in ways that she forgot the names and uses of things. Like suddenly not knowing whether a tube of lipstick is for licking or writing your name. There is some kind of glitch in her brain. At dinner with Valerian she is never sure when this confusion will return, which makes her nervous. Once she forgot to unwrap the Amaretti cookie at the side of her plate and put the whole thing in her mouth. Sometimes she would pick up a knife instead of a celery stalk. It is as if at certain moments she is not in full control of herself. The reader wonders at her psychological states, which seems brittle. Sometimes she thinks Ondine is trying to trick her in the way in which she prepares the food. Margaret is therefore clearly a little disturbed. This adds to the tension in the dialogue between her and Valerian. This fragile equilibrium, behind which lies so many years of unexamined issues between them, seems sure to burst open at some point, with consequences that cannot be guessed at.
The other main point of interest in this chapter is what we learn about Jadine. She is extremely sensitive to the fact that she identifies more with white culture than black. Margaret makes her uncomfortable because she seems to have fixed ideas about racial characteristics that Jadine does not share. And years ago, Michael would make Jadine feel guilty about her preferences, the fact that she preferred “Ave Maria” to gospel music. In the present, she defends her views to Valerian, saying that “Picasso is better than an Itumba mask. The fact that he was intrigued by them is proof of his genius, not the mask-makers’” (p. 74). She despises the black artists whose work she has seen in Europe, believing them to be pretentious.
Jadine, a black American woman who has become a Euro-centered lover and beneficiary of white culture, will soon face a direct challenge to the lifestyle she has chosen, in the form of the black intruder into the Street household.