Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Reared in Ohio, Toni Morrison was in her thirties when the race riots of the 1960’s raged. By then, she held a bachelor’s degree in English from Howard University and a master’s degree from Cornell University, had taught at two universities, had married, had borne two sons, and had been divorced. By the end of the 1960’s, she had taken a position as an editor at Random House. The events of the 1960’s affected her deeply, even though she was not an activist.
Nevertheless, the social changes of the time had implications for all African Americans, causing Morrison to think hard about what it means to grow up black in America. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), is about a young black girl who longs to have blue eyes. Morrison’s Sula (1973) and Song of Solomon (1977) explore some of the social problems Morrison pinpoints so sharply in Tar Baby. Along with obvious matters of racial prejudice and stereotypes, Morrison’s novels are concerned with black women’s roles in male-dominated societies. Her works also focus on the social and economic questions of the poor in a society that is clearly affluent—one that is, paradoxically, equal yet glaringly unequal.
The social context of Tar Baby is enhanced by Morrison’s choice of setting. Isle des Chevaliers is at once romantic and decadent, appealing and appalling, comfortable and terrifying, foreign and familiar. Despite its distance from the United States, this Caribbean island provides a microcosm that obviously represents the United States and that presents—often in exaggerated form—the most pressing social problems of Morrison’s homeland.
Jade, in broad ways an autobiographical character, suggests many correspondences to Morrison’s own life and to the adjustments she had to make as a member of a racial minority during a time of racial transition. Jade is, at least partially, on the road to becoming what Morrison became in society: a black woman, bright and educated, who could function well in the white world. Both have shaken loose their bonds of blackness in a segregated society and, by virtue of sheer intelligence and talent, have flourished in the broader social context. The inner conflicts that Jade experiences are conflicts with which Morrison had first-hand familiarity.