Morrison's work from 'The Bluest Eye' to 'Jazz': the importance of 'Tar
by Malin Walther Pereira
It is a mark of an author's status as "major" when we begin to
periodize their work. William Faulkner, Adrienne Rich, William Butler
Yeats, Gwendolyn Brooks, and T.S. Eliot are among the major authors for
whose ouevres periods have been suggested. Toni Morrison's body of work
is large enough, and her achievements notable enough, that it seems
appropriate to periodize her work. While literary criticism of Toni
Morrison's novels has generally acknowledged differences between her
early and more recent work, there is a more radical shift in her oeuvre
than has been articulated. Morrison's complex relationship to
colonization is radically transformed from her early to more recent
work. Periodizing Morrison's work in relationship to her process of
decolonization clarifies differences between her early and more recent
periods and stresses her development across her oeuvre. This approach
also gives a central role to Tar Baby, a role not accessible within
project--periodizing Morrison--has profound implications for both
teaching and research. When Morrison's work is taught as a whole, as in
a major author's course, periodization will affect the way in which the
novels are grouped conceptually, the selection of themes and literary
techniques to be investigated, even determining which novels would not
be taught once her body of work expands further. When one of her novels
is taught as part of a survey course in American fiction, women's
writing, or African American literature, periodization will affect
which one of her novels would be selected as representative. In terms
of research, periodization will provide a focus to the discourse and
encourage a shared vocabulary instead of the disparate theoretical
discourses now in place.(1)
want to begin here is a call/response dynamic on the issue of
Morrison's canon and its periods, and I hope my call generates many
responses. The conversation on periodizing Morrison should be exciting
and multi-voiced; I do not intend the periodization I probe exciting
and multi-voiced; I do not intend the periodization. I propose here as
a final product.
One of the
central concerns throughout Morrison's work is colonization.(2) Her
early work struggles with the effects of colonization on African
American individuals and the community, while her later work moves into
an exploration of decolonized African American culture and history. In
this context, her fourth novel, Tar Baby, assumes a rich significance.
Understanding the importance of Tar Baby to Morrison's distancing from
the colonizing effects of Euro-American culture is central to
understanding how the novel divides her early and later works.
Tar Baby seems an unlikely choice for pre-eminence in the Morrison
canon. It is, after all, the least admired, least researched, and least
taught of her novels. It has been called her "most problematic and
unresolved novel" (Peterson 471) and has received little critical
attention generally, and virtually no critical attention in the past
five years.(3) Few of us teach it, choosing the shorter,
"woman-oriented" Sula, or the richer, male quest patterned Song of
Solomon, or the current favorite, the cathartic Beloved. Yet perhaps
Tar Baby seems problematic and unsatisfying to many of us precisely
because it functions as a transitional text in Morrison's oeuvre.
Viewed in this light, Tar Baby's ambivalences, refusal of answers, and
weaknesses in plot and characterization reveal tensions in Morrison's
process as a writer; the novel offers maximum insight into both her
Tar Baby's central
concern is colonization.(4) The island hierarchy at the beginning of
the novel reinscribes the classic colonial schema, with the white
colonizer, Philadelphia exile Valerian Street, presiding over a
household empire that includes a beautiful wife, Margaret, a black
"assistant," Jadine, black servants, Ondine and Sydney, and occasional
employees from the island, Gideon and Therese. The arrival of a black
American drifter, Son, disrupts the household hierarchy and challenges
Jadine's uncritical acceptance of white European culture and values.
Tar Baby thus constitutes a working through for Morrison of issues of
colonization and culture and provides a key focal point in
understanding Morrison's relationship to colonization in both her early
and later periods.
Morrison's struggle with the colonizing effects of Euro-American
culture,on African Americans might seem to eclipse other themes, such
as African American folklore or double-consciousness. Yet a
decolonizing frame for Morrison's oeuvre provides a way of connecting
concerns that at first seem more central; such a frame can account for
both the double-consciousness in The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon, as
well as the African American folklore and musical emphases of Beloved
and Jazz. Likewise, focusing on Morrison's decolonizing process also
integrates an understanding of her emergence as a writer during the
Black Arts Movement (approximately 1964-1974) and its concern with
decolonizing the black psyche. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye,
published in 1970, focuses intently on the colonizing effects of white
female beauty on a black girl and her community. In her 1993 Afterword
to the novel, Morrison explicitly ties the issue of beauty in The
Bluest Eye to the politics of racial beauty and identity in the 1960s.
the reclamation of racial beauty in the sixties stirred these thoughts
[about beauty], made me think about the necessity for the claim. Why,
although reviled by others, could this beauty not be taken for granted
within the community?.... The assertion of racial beauty [in the novel]
was...against the damaging internalization of immutable inferiority
originating in an outside gaze. (210)
Rejecting that internalization of the (white) outside gaze was part of
the project of the Black Arts Movement. Essays such as Ron Karenga's
"Black Cultural Nationalism," Larry Neal's "The Black Arts Movement,"
and Morrison's own "What the Black Woman Thinks About Women's Lib"--all
written during this period--each discuss the black struggle to be free
of white ideas, aesthetic or otherwise. A representative poem of the
period, Don L. Lee's "The Primitive," illustrates the dominant Black
Arts theme of rejecting colonization in the lines,
raped our minds with:
T.V. & straight hair
Reader's Digest & bleaching creams,
tarzan & jungle jim,
european history & promises.
Those alien concepts
of whi-teness (297)
During the Black Arts Movement writers delineated the impact of the
cultural colonization of the black community by Euro-American culture
and values and actively pursued a black aesthetic. Using a
decolonization framework for periodizing Morrison's work thus embraces
both her recurring concerns as well as her literary origins dur-braces
both her recurring concerns as well as her literary origins during the
Black Arts period.
first four books, The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby,
constitute Morrison's struggle with colonization, both for her
characters and their communities, as well as in her own writing. We can
see this pattern in the dialogical way in which Morrison frames her
early novels: The Bluest Eye is framed with a deconstructive dialogue
with the Dick and Jane children's books; Sula, with the Bible; Song of
Solomon, with the American capitalist success myth. With Tar Baby's
explicit identification of colonization as a central issue, Morrison
finally breaks free from the need to focus primarily on white ideas,
aesthetic or otherwise; following Tar Baby, Morrison begins publishing
a trilogy, of which we now have seen Beloved and Jazz published, a
trilogy focused on black history and written primarily within an
African American cultural perspective. In contrast to the concern with
white frames in the early novels, both Beloved and Jazz take as their
frames historically documented events in black lives: Beloved, on the
case of Margaret Garner; Jazz, on a photo taken by James Van Der Zee
that appears in The Harlem Book of the Dead.
One of the many thematic concerns that can be clarified by a
periodization of Morrison's work based on her struggle with
colonization is her treatment of beauty throughout her work.(5) In the
novels before Tar Baby, Morrison repeatedly depicts black female
characters engulfed by white ideals of beauty. In The Bluest Eye,
Pecola's desire for blue eyes reflects a community absorbed by white
ideas of what is beautiful. References to idols of white female beauty,
Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, Jean Harlow, and to the child icon of
beauty, Shirley Temple, bespeak an obsession with a standard of white
female beauty that, in turn, renders black women and girls invisible.
Pecola's insanity at the end of the novel mirrors, Morrison suggests, a
cultural insanity that threatens the black community's identity and
strength. Likewise, in Sula, Nel is raised in accordance with white
ideas of beauty. She is told to pull on her nose to make it "nice," and
endures the hot comb in her mother's pursuit of smooth hair for her
(55). In Song of Solomon, the Hagar subplot revisits the maddening
effects of internalized white standards of female beauty on black
women. When Hagar sees the new object of Milkman's affections, a girl
with light skin and smooth, long hair, she begins an obsessive downward
spiral, attempting to buy and "put on" those markers of beauty more in
accordance with received notions of white-identified beauty. Part of
Milkman's quest in the novel is to come to an appreciation and
acceptance of a beauty based on black ideals, as reflected in his
taking a lock of Hagar's hair with him upon returning to Not Doctor
In Tar Baby, Morrison's
struggle with the colonization of African American beauty by white
notions of beauty comes to a head in her portrait of a colonized black
beauty, Jadine. Unlike the previous three female characters, who are
hurt by, struggle with, and ultimately succumb to internalized views of
beauty, Jadine is thoroughly happy with a definition of beauty based on
white standards, because she fits it. In fact, Jadine struggles not
against a white-defined standard of female beauty, but against a
black-defined beauty, as represented by the woman in yellow who haunts
her dreams, because it reminds her of her inauthenticity. The character
in Tar Baby who is personally hurt by white standards of beauty, Alma
Estee, as exemplified in her grotesque russet wig, is a marginal
character. Thus, Morrison makes an important shift in her handling of
the ideas of beauty and colonization in Tar Baby, for by moving away
from focusing on the personal devastation caused in black women by
internalized ideas of white female beauty to instead concentrating on a
black woman who fully identifies with and achieves those internalized
standards, Morrison shifts her concern away from the personal toward
the cultural. Jadine represents the cultural costs to the African
American community of blacks who identify with white culture to the
extent that they reject their own. Jadine is not absorbed only by white
culture's definition of beauty, she fully identifies with European
cultural values about art, nature, family, and money.
Tar Baby also represents a departure from Morrison's earlier depictions
of beauty in its plurality of beauty ideals. While in the earlier
novels the idea of beauty seems to be dominated by white standards, in
Tar Baby Morrison represents and elaborates on alternatives. First,
several types of female beauty are represented: a white female beauty,
Margaret; a white-identified black female beauty, Jadine; and a
black-identified black female beauty, the woman in yellow. Second,
characters discuss differing aesthetic values throughout the novel,
with Jadine favoring Picasso and hating the swamp, with Valerian
preferring his hot-house blooms to the tropical vegetation outdoors,
and with the emperor butterflies deploring the sealskin coat Jadine
adores. There are aesthetic and cultural choices available to the
characters in this novel, even for the white beauty, Margaret, who by
the end of the novel chooses natural beauty over her previous
high-class, artificial beauty object persona. Jadine chooses to reject
the swamp women and Son, and decides to return to her life in Europe,
and thus chooses to remain colonized.
By placing this issue of beauty and aesthetic value in the context of
colonization, and by making colonization a choice rather than an
inescapable fact (once your options are made available), Morrison is
then free in Tar Baby to reject colonization by white ideas and choose
a decolonized stance. When Jadine's plane takes off and she leaves the
novel, Morrison in effect says goodbye to colonization in her work and
turns the novel's attention to the black cultural mythos of the blind
horsemen and the tar baby folktale. Morrison's work after Tar Baby
continues this decolonized focus on black history and culture.
Morrisons primary dialogue with and critique of white culture becomes
tertiary with Tar Baby..
Paralleling this general shift in emphasis between Morrison's early and
later periods, Beloved departs from Morrison's first four novels in its
complete disinterest in the colonization of black female beauty by
white ideals. The main female characters simply don't think about
whether they fit prescribed notions of beauty, nor are they held to a
beauty standard within or without the community. The two instances
where beauty becomes an issue are minor, and unrelated to colonization.
First, Paul D, who had initially found the scars on Sethe's back
beautiful, reacts negatively after having sex with her and thinks her
back is a "revolting clump of scars" (21). Both he and Sethe are having
doubts and thinking of how little the other measures up. Second,
Beloved is described as beautiful, which is part of her magical effect
on others. Both of these are quite unlike the trap of white-identified
female beauty elaborated on in the early novels. Thus, the lack of the
female beauty issue in Beloved supports reading Morrison's post-Tar
Baby work as decolonized.
it could be argued that Beloved does not reflect a post-Tar Baby
decolonized stance because it constitutes Morrison's dialogue with and
critique of white versions of the history of slavery. Beloved certainly
offers an alternative version of the slavery experience, written as it
is from the perspective of African Americans, both free and enslaved.
But Beloved is not focused on correcting white versions of slavery, of
Margaret Garner, or even on depicting the horrors of slavery, although
it does, in effect, do these; instead, the central focus in the novel
is on the inner realities and interpersonal relationships of the
central black characters, while the white characters remain marginal.
Furthermore, Beloved's (and Jazz's) focus on primary philosophical
issues such as memory, identity, time, and love, issues that are not
circumscribed by any dominant cultural frame, suggests a turning away
in her later work from a primary focus on cultural colonization.
In Jazz, Morrison picks up the theme of beauty but treats it from a
decolonized perspective by signifying on it.(6) In many ways, Jazz is
about signification. The epigraph, "I am the name of the sound / and
the sound of the name. / I am the sign of the letter / and the
designation of the division," from The Nag Hammadi, frames the novel's
playing on the division between signs and their referents. Joe and
Violet's last name is Trace, taken by Joe after being told his parents
"disappeared without a trace" (124), surely signifying on Jacques
Derrida's concept of the trace left by the absent sign in the process
of signification.(7) Signs proliferate throughout the novel: Dorcas'
photo on the mantel is a sign of the dead girl, a sign which in its
differance (to differ and defer) marks the trace of her presence in Joe
and Violet's minds as well as her absence in death, and which signifies
differently depending on the beholder (12); Joe tells of waiting to
learn his mother's identity, asking that "All she had to do was give
him a sign" and he would know it was the wild woman who was his mother.
Morrison has fun in Jazz with the proliferation of meanings offered by
the process of signification, as in the case of Malvonne, who, upon
discovering the sack of mail her nephew had stolen, reads the letters
and makes additions that alter the senders' intended significance
(40-44). Under signification, meaning, while multiple, cannot finally
be determined. Cause and effect, arche and telos, become separated when
signs are at play. While indeterminacy can be disorienting, there is a
freedom and lightheartedness associated with signifying. One is free of
oppressive meanings; one escapes being determined by a final,
this post-modern, decolonized stance, the novels of Morrison's later
period revoice and revise those of her earlier period. For example,
Morrison signifies in Jazz on the meanings of female beauty in her
first novel, The Bluest Eye, in which the white ideals of beauty were
oppressive determinants of Pecola's identity. We can say of The Bluest
Eye that signs of white beauty throughout the culture were internalized
by the black community. We can say that, according to that discourse of
signs, Pecola was rendered invisible. We can even say that the sign
system of beauty (along with the rape by her father) drove her mad. We
cannot make such statements about beauty in Jazz. In Jazz, Morrison
signifies on the signs from The Bluest Eye, but her characters and the
novel escape being determined by them. They remain at play, never
resting with a final signified. And that breaks their power.
The first sign in Jazz that Morrison is signifying on The Bluest Eye
from a decolonized position comes in Morrison's repetition and revised
use of the narrator Claudia's opening comment, "Quiet as it's kept,
there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941" (5). In Jazz, this phrase
reappears in the first section in the narrator's disclosure about
Violet: "but quiet as it's kept, she did try to steal that baby
although there is no way to prove it" (17). Such repetition of a phrase
might seem coincidental, were it not for Morrison's newly published
Afterword to the 1993 edition of The Bluest Eye, in which she discusses
at length her use of that opening sentence in The Bluest Eye as
representative of her writing at that time (211-214). As the Afterword
makes clear, Morrison is looking back with a critical eye at her early
work, noting its limitations, and, in Jazz, playing with its
signifies in Jazz on the color and musical motifs of The Bluest Eye.
The blue eyes Pecola longs for are not only blue because they represent
a white, Aryan ideal, but because her desire for them and the madness
that brings is a theme suitable for a blues song. As Ralph Ellison
defines it, the blues
is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal
experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged
grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by
squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form, the
blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe
Pecola has the blues and cannot sing them away. She is "the bluest I."
In Jazz, however, the blues is transposed into jazz, which, while
grounded in the "blues impulse" that acknowledges the painful realities
of a complex experience, transforms blues materials into something
different. As Craig Werner explains the relationship between the blues
and jazz impulses, "the jazz impulse provides a way of exploring
implications, of realizing the relational possibilities of the (blues)
self, and of expanding the consciousness of self and community through
a process of continual improvisation" (xxi-xxii). In Jazz, Morrison,
like any jazz artist, whose work is, according to Ellison, "an endless
improvisation upon traditional materials" (234), takes her earlier,
blues materials and improvisationally explores their implications and
envisions alternative possibilities. While the tragedy of Joe and
Violet's love triangle is the stuff of a classic blues song, it becomes
a far more complex, free-wheeling jazz piece. Violet, unlike Pecola, is
not "the bluest V although she has the blues; instead, she is violet, a
color suggesting a more nuanced understanding of the complex realities
directly on the issues of beauty and colorism in Jazz in her depictions
of Joe, Violet, Golden Gray, and Dorcas and adopts a decolonized stance
toward their involvement with beauty ideals. Joe and Violet are both
purveyors of beauty ideals: he, with his case of "Cleopatra" beauty
products for black women; she, as the neighborhood hairdresser who
presses, trims, and curls black hair. Both are haunted, in a sense, by
a past involving Golden Gray, the white-appearing mulatto offspring of
Miss Vera, who Violet's grandmother True Belle helped raise and adored
and whose encounter with Joe's probable mother, Wild, has been passed
on to Joe by Hunter's Hunter. Beautiful, blond, elegant Golden Gray is
a trace in the novel, a trace of the allure of white-identified beauty
ideals, as well as a trace of plantation mythology in American
literature that plays out in Faulkner's work.(9) Having rejected the
colonizing plantation frame in Tar Baby, Morrison in Jazz takes a
decolonized position and jams on the myth.(10) Golden Gray, like
Faulkner for Morrison, still has influence and is a predecessor for
Violet, but no longer colonizes Violet's mind. Near the end of Jazz,
Violet tries to explain to Felice what had gone wrong in her life; how
she had wished she were "White. Light. Young again" (208). Violet
traces this to the stories True Belle had told her about Golden Gray:
"He lived inside my mind. But I didn't know it till I got here. The two
of us. Had to get rid of it" (208). Felice asks how she did that, and
Violet replies, "Killed her. Then I killed the me that killed her."
Felice asks, "Who's left?" Violet answers, "Me" (209). Morrison
describes here a process of decolonization in which Violet must destroy
the internalized white beauty ideal that's in her mind, as well as the
destructive part of her that killed it.(11) What's left is a
The depiction of
Dorcas also signifies on the traces of white beauty ideals in the black
community from a decolonized perspective in which those standards
ultimately lack power. Dorcas has the right signs of "beauty": "creamy"
skin tone and hair the narrator suspects she "didn't need to
straighten" (5). And Dorcas is very involved in beauty as something
valuable. Felice relates how Dorcas's reaction to the photo of her dead
parents was that "Dorcas couldn't get over how good looking they both
were" (200). In fact, according to Felice, "She was always talking
about who was good looking and who wasn't" (200). But Dorcas's signs of
and involvement with beauty don't, finally, signify that she is
beautiful, Morrison points out. As Felice muses, "Dorcas should have
been prettier than she was. She just missed. She had all the
ingredients of pretty too. Long hair, wavy, half good, half bad. Light
skinned. Never used skin bleach. Nice shape. But it missed somehow. If
you looked at each thing, you would admire that thing--the hair, the
color, the shape. All together it didn't fit" (201). Just as blue eyes
won't make Pecola beautiful according to a white-infused beauty ideal,
neither will having all the signs of it make Dorcas pretty. Dorcas, as
her name implies, is a dorky schoolgirl with pimples.(12) Furthermore,
the power of the white-identified beauty attributes Dorcas does have is
substantially diminished in Jazz, as compared to The Bluest Eye,
because Dorcas is dead.
signifying on beauty in Jazz breaks the power of beauty over the
characters and their community because of their self-reflexiveness and
sense of having choices, two markers of a decolonized self exemplary of
Morrison's recent work to date. Ultimately, Joe and Violet become aware
of their issues and choose not to remain stuck on them. Joe, for
example, when Felice asks if he is still stuck on Dorcas, responds,
"Stuck? Well, if you mean did I like about what I felt about her. I
guess I'm stuck to that" (212). Joe explicitly states it is not Dorcas
and her signs of beauty he is stuck on; rather, he now understands it
is the issues from his past he projected onto her that he must handle.
By the end of the novel Joe chooses Violet, although he had not done so
before. Making choices is a motif the novel returns to again and again:
Violet chooses Joe (23), although Joe didn't choose Violet (30); Joe
chooses Dorcas (135), although when Acton chooses her (216), she dumps
Joe. And Golden Gray, when he meets his father, Hunters Hunter, hears
him demand, "Be what you want--white or black. Choose. But if you
choose black, you got to act black, meaning draw your manhood up"
(173). In Jazz, Morrison's characters choose their affinities.
Morrison's central concern in her later work with self-reflexive
African American characters focused on issues of identity, memory, and
love differs radically from her focus in her early work with black
characters' struggles with the effects of psychological and cultural
colonization. Tracing Morrison's treatment of beauty makes the
differences between her early and later work salient; Tar Baby marks a
key shift in her oeuvre between these two periods. Such a periodization
of Morrison's work recommends we begin teaching Tar Baby as a central
novel in her canon, a novel that functions as the hinge high-lighting
the transition between periods. Likewise, further research on Tar Baby
could profitably trace how other concerns shift between Morrison's
early and more recent work.
would like to thank the students in my course on Toni Morrison at the
University of North Carolina at Charlotte in the fall of 1994 for
forcing me to explain how I saw Morrison's periods and for adding to
the evidence. I would also like to thank Craig Werner for his--as
always--helpful criticism of an earlier version of this essay.
(1.) While periodization may seem a rather traditional endeavor, in
light of how post-structuralism and ideas of intertextuality have
broken down the specific locations of texts (author, date of
publication, nationality, etc.), it seems to me a worthwhile means of
engaging the complexity of major authors who have written a body of
diverse texts. By foregrounding a key framework, periodization can
account for seemingly radical differences among an author's works. Of
course, one possible limitation is that a marginal thread may be
over-emphasized, but such claims are usually corrected in the critical
(2.) Although Morrison
herself has not used a post-colonial theoretical vocabulary in her
interviews or essays about her work, much of her non-fictional work
concerns issues of colonization for African Americans. Early essays
such as "What the Black Woman Thinks About Women's Lib" and "Behind the
Making of The Black Book" center on her belief in the importance of
black resistance to internalizing white culture and, instead, focusing
on African American cultural values. Such a concern also appears in her
later non-fiction, such as the essay "City Limits, Village Values,"
thereby indicating the issue of colonization as an on-going thread
throughout her work. A recent application of postcolonial theory to
Morrison's fiction is found in Homi K. Bhabha's The Location of
(3.) In Debbie Mix's
bibliography of Morrison criticism, Tar Baby has a mere sixteen
articles, only three of which have been published in the past five
(4.) See Walther, "Toni
Morrison's Tar Baby: Re-Figuring the Colonizer's Aesthetics," for a
fuller discussion of the novel's treatment of colonization.
(5.) For a fuller explanation of Morrison's treatment of beauty in The
Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Tar Baby see Walther, "Out of Sight:
Toni Morrison's Revision of Beauty" and "Toni Morrison's Tar Baby:
Re-Figuring the Colonizer's Aesthetics."
(6.) For a full definition of the term signifyin(g) see Gates. Eckard's
essay offers a basic discussion of signifying in Jazz.
(7.) While this essay was under consideration at MELUS, Philip Page's
fine article on Jazz's affinities with Derridean concepts appeared in
African American Review. See it for a detailed discussion of
differance, the trace, and the breach in Jazz.
(8.) Such a signifying on the color blue--and the blues--also occurs in
Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo." Thanks to Craig Werner for pointing out
this echo to me.
(9.) In Playing the Changes, Werner asserts that the Golden Gray
section of Jazz functions as a "Faulknerian fable" (301).
(10.) Mbalia suggests that the Golden Gray section of the novel is the
"jam session" of the novel (640).
(11.) Violet's killing-off of an ideologically-infected self echoes
Virginia Woolf's essay "Professions for Women," where she describes
killing the Victorian ideal of womanhood--the "angel in the
house"--that was in her head and kept her from writing. Note, too, the
shift in pronouns in Violet's statement, in which she first refers to
"him" (Golden Gray) and then refers to killing "her," more closely
echoing Woolf's figuration. This conflation of Faulkner and Woolf in
Violet's psychological killing of the colonized self is especially
interesting in light of Morrison's master's thesis on the two authors.
(12.) Thanks to Lucinda Ramsey for pointing out this slang parallel in
Dorcas's name to me.
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