I read Toni Morrison for two reasons: 1. Delight in language. 2. A glimpse into a world I know little to nothing about, which is, in very important ways, part and parcel of my own world.
Tar Baby is ripe with delightful language:
Only the champion daisy trees were serene. After all, they were part of a rain forest already two thousand years old and scheduled for eternity, so they ignored the men and continued to rock the diamondbacks that slept in their arms. It took the river to persuade them that indeed the world was altered. That never again would the rain be equal, and by the time they realized it and had run their roots deeper, clutching the earth like lost boys found, it was too late.
Tar Baby, however, is a glimpse into a world I know nothing about. The idea of “race traitor” in my world means something entirely different because, as a white woman, my “race” means very little to me. Which statement can very likely stand alone as an example of “white privilege.”
In the world of Jade and Son, “race traitor,” (although I don’t think the phrase is ever used), means denial in a way I have trouble imagining. Jade is a beautiful black woman, raised in a white household and educated to make her way in that world. Son is an escapee from the justice of a small Florida town that he still considers home, a place to which he brings Jade, hoping he can make it home for her as well. For Jade, it is:
Blacker and bleaker than Isle des Chevaliers, and loud. Loud with the presence of plants and field life. If she was wanting air, there wasn’t any. It’s not possible, she thought, for anything to be this black.
The world that Jade wanted to introduce to Son is the world I call civilization. The world Son wants Jade to remember is something more primal, some rooted blackness, some remembrance of the world that lies beneath the world that both she and I call civilization.
Tar Baby was a failure for me, in that it did not broaden my understanding of an alien world. Morrison, of course, could not care less. She did not write it for me. My Celtic and Nordic ancestors do not haunt my dreams the way that the night women haunt Jade.
There is a superficial way in which I understood the novel. I know stories of hidden sins, of the heiress and the gardener’s boy. There are story-telling tropes here that, even buried under paragraphs of brilliant exposition and dialog that cuts to the heart of the matter, are recognizable. But there is something else here that’s deeper, that an old white lady like me will never quite get a handle on. Something that lies deep within a culture not my own. And that has to be okay.
Sometimes, you just have to say to yourself, “I don’t understand.” And sometimes that’s all the understanding you will be able to get.