Tar Baby: Theme Analysis
Cultural Authenticity and Inauthenticity
The main theme in the novel is cultural authenticity in the lives of black people. Who is authentically black and who is not? Two of the black characters, Sydney and Ondine, have spent their entire lives in service of the successful, privileged white male, Valerian Street, and are almost entirely dependent on him. Although the dignified Sydney still has pride in the fact that he is a “Philadelphia Negro,” neither he nor Ondine has much claim to be the embodiment of black culture or an authentic model of what blackness can or should be.
The other two central black characters are Jadine and Son, and it is they who carry the main theme. Jadine is represented as unable to carry her responsibility to embody her African American cultural heritage, while Son, whom she loves but leaves, is presented as the authentic black man, in touch with his ancestral roots, rejecting what he sees as the falseness of white culture.
Jadine is highly successful and prides herself on her independence. But although she is black, she has succeeded in the white European world and does not identify with her blackness. Since she was orphaned by the age of twelve, she appears to have had no authentic black role models, her uncle and aunt (Sydney and Ondine) being too much identified with the white world. Her education was paid for by Valerian, and she has come to identify with the Eurocentric values he represents. She says she prefers classical music to gospel, and thinks Picasso is superior to the African masks that inspired some of his work.
In spite of her success, however, there is something about Jadine’s life that troubles her. This is why she is upset by the contempt shown to her by the African woman in the yellow dress, who carries herself with dignity, pride and strength as a black woman. Jadine realizes that she wanted the woman to like and respect her, but instead she is left feeling lonely and inauthentic.
The problem is that Jadine has no real sense of what authentic blackness might be. She sees blackness only in terms of old stereotypes of the way black people supposedly are. For example, she wonders whether the white European man she is contemplating marrying will still want her when he finds out that “I hate ear hoops, that I don’t have to straighten my hair” (p. 48). When she first sees Son she sees him in stereotypical terms, as the black man who has come to rape, steal or murder. Later, when Son says he is not interested in money, she imitates stereotypical black talk and easy-going attitude: “Oooooo, Ah got plenty of nuffin and nuffin’s plenty fo meeeeeee” (p. 171). According to Therese, Jadine has forgotten her “ancient properties,” by which she seems to mean a kind of spiritual power rooted in African heritage. It involves more authentic relationships with other black women and a strong sense of community, which the individualistic Jadine lacks.
It is Son who points out directly to Jadine what he sees as her deficiencies. He sees clearly that Jadine has been molded in effect by a foreign culture. He calls her “little white girl” (121) and accuses her of preferring white to black. Son is uncompromising in his disdain for Western culture; he is not materialistic and has no interest in working for money and being part of an exploitative economic system. He is one of those who “refuses to equate work with life” (p. 166). When Jadine says he should go to law school, he replies that he does not want to know “their laws” but only his own. He is outraged when Valerian fires Gideon and Therese, whom he regards as humble workers who deserved better. Son is presented as being in harmony with nature, and also honoring his family, remaining true to his small-town roots in Eloe, Florida.
For Jadine’s part, when she first sees Son, she realizes that he is the kind of black man she has not seen in ten years. She loathes him because he is what she, in her jet-set, Eurocentric world, thinks she has escaped. But Son and Jadine are inevitably drawn to each other. Each has something the other needs. Son needs a way of surviving economically, of making his peace with the world; Jadine needs more of a sense of being rooted in her own black heritage. But the differences between them are too great to be bridged.