Tar Baby: Chapter 5
Jadine tells Margaret all she knows about the intruder, now guest. Margaret promises to have it out with Valerian over the issue. She wants to fly to Miami to escape the situation and persuades a reluctant Jadine to come with her, but then Jadine has another encounter with the black man which makes her forget their plans.
The story returns to the black guest. After Jadine storms out of her room, he remains there, looking around at the room’s contents. Then he steps into her bathroom and takes a shower. He washes his hair and cleans his teeth, then puts on a robe and looks out of the window. He knows that the others in the house, except for Valerian, are frightened of him. He also knows that the women’s fears are baseless; he has no intention of raping anyone. He had entered the house only because he was hungry; he had been wandering around the property at night and sleeping during the day as he considered his options. He was considering trying to get work, earn some money and then fly back to his home in Florida. He had jumped ship only because of homesickness. Now, he looks out of the window and sees Yardman at work in the yard. He feels a kind of empathy for him which brings him almost to tears.
The narrative switches to Valerian, who is sitting in his greenhouse. Some details of his early life are related, about how his father died when Valerian was only a little boy. The loss affected him deeply. He then reviews why he chose to retire to the Caribbean; the Philadelphia he had known had grown strange to him; it was changing in ways he did not like, and his friends were either dead or dying, so he chose to leave.
The black man, dressed in a woman’s kimono, enters the greenhouse. They begin to talk, and the black man, who reveals that his name is William Green (although he identifies more with the name Son), explains that he was as frightened as Margaret was when she discovered him in the closet. Son gives Valerian a method of keeping ants out of the greenhouse; simply put a mirror outside the door, and the ants won’t go near it. He also helps Valerian with a plant whose buds won’t open. He simply flicks the stems with his thumb and middle finger and says they will be in bloom tomorrow morning. He says he knows all about plants. He then tells Valerian an off-color joke and the two men laugh uproariously. This is the moment Jadine sees them, related in the previous chapter.
Valerian then sends Son off with Gideon (Yardman) to get a haircut on a neighboring island where Gideon and his sister Thérèse live. Thérèse takes warmly to Son and parades him around town with pride. Gideon then cuts Son’s hair while Thérèse cooks dinner. After dinner the three of them talk. Thérèse has some wild ideas about what life in America is like, but Son says little to correct her. Thérèse mentions that she was the one who arranged for Son to have access to the Streets’ house, and he thanks her warmly. Gideon says that Son can come back and stay with them anytime. He asks whether Son intends to go back to the Streets. He has guessed that Son is attracted to Jadine.
When Son returns to Valerian’s house, he enters the living room while Jadine is there. She is struck by the change in his appearance and thinks he is gorgeous. He apologizes for what happened the previous day. He tries to play the piano for her, but is out of practice, and she discourages him from continuing. She tells him he should go and apologize to Sydney and Ondine. He agrees and leaves. Jadine is left to reflect on the fact that she finds Son attractive. But she is still restless and plans to leave after Christmas for New York and then Paris. She is bored.
Son goes immediately to the kitchen, where he apologizes to Ondine. She is testy at first but warms a little to him as he continues to speak respectfully to her. He tells her about his family in Florida and that his wife is dead.
Sydney enters and is surprised and hostile when he finds Son there. He says that if he had had his way at the beginning, Son would have had a bullet between his eyes. Son speaks politely to him, but Sydney will not be mollified. He says he does not trust a man like Son, who left his job, got into trouble, went underground and only surfaced when he got caught. He tells Son to clean his life up. Son knew that Sydney would be hard to deal with, and he continues to speak respectfully to him. Sydney’s attitude softens slightly. He and Ondine agree to allow Son to eat in the kitchen with them.
That evening, tensions in the house are reduced. Valerian takes steps to get Son a visa to get him back to the States; Margaret realizes that Son is harmless, and her anger at Valerian abates for a while. She is eagerly awaiting Michael’s visit and insists on cooking the Christmas dinner herself. That night everyone sleeps well except for Son, who contemplates the unsatisfactory nature of his life, homeless and without property, having sought a different kind of life than everyone else, “some other way of being in the world” (p. 166).
The next morning Son and Jadine take lunch and go to the beach together. Jadine takes out her sketch pad and Son talks about incidents in his life when he lived in San Francisco. He has no enthusiasm for making money, but Jadine tries to persuade him he should have. She explains that in her view, poverty is a prison. He tells her about Eloe, the small town in Florida that he comes from, which he has not seen for eight years. He also confesses that he killed a woman once, although he did not mean to. He found his girlfriend in bed with another man, and in anger and frustration drove his car into the house, which caught fire, killing the woman. When Jadine appears frightened by this, he tries to reassure her.
Son is attracted to Jadine, but as they drive home she thinks of all the reason she does not want to get sexually involved with him. Nonetheless, she finds him attractive. On the way home they run out of gasoline, and Son has to walk back to the pier to get some. While Jadine waits, she steps off the road and has to cling to a tree to escape a swamp. After she manages to get back to the road, she takes off her dirty skirt and cleans her feet and legs with leaves. Son returns to find her in her underwear. They return to the house, where Jadine explains to the surprised Margaret what happened. She defends Son against Margaret’s criticisms.
The theme of racism is present again in this chapter, since Margaret refers to Son as a “gorilla” (p. 129), while even Jadine, who is herself black, calls him a “nigger” (p. 129).
Jadine’s racial status is brought to the foreground when Gideon refers to her as “yella” (p. 155) that is, someone of mixed race or a light-skinned black person. He says that most of such people become like whites; in order to be black, they would need deliberately to choose it, and most of them do not.
In contrast to Jadine, Son is presented as the authentic black person who lives by his own lights and is close to nature. Son does not fall for the trap of seeking success in the white person’s world the way Jadine has done. He is presented as being close to the earth, in touch with nature. This can be seen in this chapter in the description of his hair: “It spread like layer upon layer of wings from his head, more alive than the sealskin. It made him doubt that hair was in fact dead cells. Black people’s hair, in any case, was definitely alive. Left alone and untended it was like foliage and from a distance it looked like nothing less than the crown of a deciduous tree” (p. 132).
Son’s closeness to nature can also be seen in his knowledge of how to make Valerian’s plants bloom, how to keep the ants out of the greenhouse, and his advice to Ondine that she could help her aching feet by putting banana leaves on them.
Such a close relationship with nature is beyond Jadine, as is seen in the symbolic episode in which she gets pulled into the muddy swamp and dirties her nice clothes. Unlike Son, she is a child of culture and sophistication, not the earthiness of nature.