Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby: An Ecocolonial Reading

tar babyIn her novel Tar Baby, Toni Morrison writes that “No man should live without absorbing the sins of his kind” (243), noting that “the foul air of [man’s] innocence” has wilted the “rows of angel trumpets and cause[d] them to fall from their vines” (243).  Though the novel explores the complexities of the construct of race, it is this passage that best exemplifies the spirit of the novel, which is an exploration of how humanity has colonized the natural realm, and how that colonization mirrors the ways in which the West has colonized the peoples of Africa.  In this way, the novel acts as an ecocolonial work, ‘colonial’ serving as a catchall for how Western imperialism extended its authority over racialized groups.  Just as ecofeminism notes how the conquest of nature epitomizes how patriarchal systems have oppressed women, ecocolonialism illustrates how humanity’s conquest of Nature mirrors the ways in which colonial forces oppress native populations, particularly racialized groups.   Morrison achieves this by first outlining how humans conquered the island where the novel takes place, L’Arbe de la Croix as it was named by colonial forces.  She likewise articulates how wasteful humanity is to underscore the ways in which the colonization of Nature has poisoned natural environment. This is linked with the treatment of people of colour as Morrison aligns nature with the characters of African descent, and underscores the authority of Nature through her use of ecological metaphors, and by challenging the semiotics of Western language.  It is through these meticulous and eloquent constructions that Morrison underscores how the colonial mind that allows for the conquest and destruction of Nature likewise allows for the conquest and destruction of fellow human beings.  Consequently, it is not until man accepts the sins of his kind that humanity can move forward.

 

MAN VS. NATURE

 

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

In order to establish how the colonization of Nature allows for insights into the oppression of colonized populations, Morrison first outlines the destructive nature of humanity’s usurpation of the nature realm.  She notes that men had “folded the earth where there had been no fold and hollowed her where there had been no hallow”.  She goes onto explain that this is why the river had “crested, then lost its course, and finally its head”, because it had been “Evicted from the place where it had lived, and forced into unknown turf, [where] it could not form its pools or waterfalls, and ran every which way” (9).  Fresh water is vital to sustain every living organism on Earth, but in reshaping the landscape to suit their needs, humans had destroyed the river, thereby limiting supplies of fresh water.  The river, though, was not the only victim, as “men had gnawed through the daisy trees until, wild-eyed and yelling, [until] they broke in two and hit the ground” (10).    The daisy trees, which were a central part of the ecosystem, are destroyed, and no practical reason is offered.  Instead, Morrison frames this act as one of unreasoned anger, noting that the men were “wild-eyed and yelling”.  In both instances, elements of natural realm are destroyed, diminishing the capacity of the ecosystem.

 

A blue orchid (image borrowed from here).

A blue orchid (image borrowed from here).

This destruction of the river and daisy trees serves to illustrate how each element of the ecosystem is interconnected, and Morrison reinforces this by personifying humanizing the natural realm and demonstrating how much more humane Nature can be. While the men were ‘wild-eyed’, Morrison notes that “the champion daisy trees were serene”, and then links them to the ecosystem, stating that “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” (9).  In this passage, Morrison describes the trees as being more emotionally grounded than the men seeking to tear them down.  This mental balance can be linked to the notion that the trees did not place barriers between themselves and other organisms around them, as men had, as they identified themselves as part of the island, and focused on providing help to other organisms, such as the diamondbacks (which may be a reference to the snake, though diamondbacks are typically found in America).  The interconnection is reinforced when the daisy trees fall, and the “orchids spiraled down to join them” (10), showing how the fate of each organism is interrelated.  As noted by the American Orchid Society (AOS, and yes, there is such a thing), orchids can be cultivated in trees.  Thus, the destruction of the daisy trees leads to the destruction of the orchids (whether they be blue orchids, or orchids any other colour).  The destruction of the daisy trees, then, mean the destruction of both the diamondbacks and the orchids, articulating the ripple effect felt be the ecosystem, and underscoring how these organisms are interrelated.

 

tar baby 1It is not only the living organisms that are framed in such a way, but all elements of Nature.  For example, when the men folded and hollowed the land, destroying the river, Morrison notes that “The clouds looked at each other, then broke apart in confusion” (10).  This suggests that elements of nature can not only speak to each other, but have cognitive capabilities as the actions confused the clouds.  The clouds then “raced off to carry the news of the scatterbrained river [and] to the peaks of hills and the tops of champion daisy trees” (10).  In this way, the clouds, river, hills, and trees all speak to each other, and each are given characteristics, such as ‘scatterbrained’, again humanizing these elements of nature.  In the wake of man’s battle with Nature, Morrison describes the river as a “Poor insulted, brokenhearted river” and a “Poor demented stream” (10).  Morrison, then, is careful to describe the river and other elements of Nature with the same emotive rhetoric that one might describe a person with, thus framing Nature in human terms.  Moreover, in having each of the elements communicate with each other, Morrison also illustrates the importance of transcending barriers.  This not only serves as a template for interactions between all members of humanity, undercutting segregation based on arbitrary/constructed categories like race, religion, or nationality, but also challenges the notion that there is a barrier between the human realm, and the natural realm.

 

 

Daisies (image borrowed from here).

Daisies (image borrowed from here).

This conflict between man and Nature is later framed in the rhetoric of war, further underscoring the antagonist relationship that exists, but highlighting Nature’s superiority.  Morrison, for example, notes how “the champion daisy trees were marshaling for war” (274), and anthropomorphizes the trees by suggesting that they encroached on the Dominique, ‘tossing’ their branches and ‘walking’ the hills (274).  The superiority of Nature is alluded to when Morrison writes that the trees’ “new formations challenged the wit of the chevaliers” (274), implying that the wit of the trees was greater than man’s.  She also reiterates how man has divided elements of Nature, creating false barriers, as the daisy trees’ “brothers over on Dominique knew nothing of the battle plans for they were in a rain forest tamed for tourists that came by bus from the Old Queen Hotel” (274).  In this manner, the division created by man impedes the communications shared between natural elements.  Though man does manage to ‘tame’ parts of the jungle, Morrison states that they are “the aliens”, and alludes to their wasteful and violent ways, concluding that they,  “in a mere three hundred years[,] had killed a world millions of years old.  From Micronesia to Liverpool, from Kentucky to Dresden, they killed everything they touched including their own coastlines, their own hills and forests” (269).  This asserts man’s ineptitude as they destroyed “their own hills and forests” (269 emphasis added), to their own detriment and nobody else’s.  Even when, as Morrison observes, “some of them built something nice and human, they grew vicious protecting it from their own predatory children” (269).  Sadly, in the end, Morrison suggests that the “Wilderness wasn’t wild anymore or threatening” and that “wildlife needed human protection to exist at all” (221). With rhetoric that includes terms like ‘marshaling for war’, ‘formations’, and ‘battle plans’, Morrison reinforces the militaristic nature of the conflict that exists between man and Nature, and by framing Nature as possessing wit, and man as being ‘vicious… predatory children’, she likewise frames Nature as superior to man.  The irony is the man’s perception of Nature as an ‘other’ cause man to destroying his own home.

 

MAN VS. ISLAND

 

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

The ‘man vs. Nature’ debate is perhaps best displayed through the ways in which Valerian, the patron of the novel’s central figure, seeks to tame the island that is the setting of most of the novel.  Upon moving to the island, “Valerian turned his attention to refining the house… killing off rats, snakes and other destructive animal life, adjusting the terrain for comfortable living” (53).  The delicate ecosystem, already taxed by the colonization of the island, suffers further indignities as Valerian kills off rats and snakes, along with other animal life that he deems ‘destructive’.  Destructive in this sense, though refers not to the destruction of the habitat, but of Valerian’s home that he might adjust “the terrain for comfortable living” (53).  This search for control over the natural realm is best exemplified by the greenhouse Valerian builds “as a place of controlled ever-flowing life”, which Valerian sees as “a simple, modest enough wish” (53).  The greenhouse serves as an emblem for tamed Nature, and the god-like control that humanity seeks to exercises over the natural realm.  In the greenhouse, Valerian decides what is to grow, and what life is to come in and out.  He, for instance, tries to keep ants out of the greenhouse.  Controlling such “ever-flowing life” is a god-like aspiration that highlights humanity’s vanity and the breach that exists between Nature and man. This even appears in Valerian’s rhetoric as he called “the island “L’Arbe de la Croix”, and opposed to the ‘jungle’ (39).  Both terms are man-made signifiers, but one alludes to Nature’s authority, and once pays homage to humanity’s usurpation of the natural realm: it is only the later that Valerian endorses, aligning him with the colonizing force.

 

HUMAN WASTE

 

John Oliver, who detailed the impact of food waste in a segment on his program Last Week Tonight.

John Oliver, who detailed the impact of food waste in a segment on his program Last Week Tonight.

Whilst the colonization of Nature may seem like an issue of pragmatics, the novel also highlights humanity’s wasteful nature.  This is alluded to early in the novel when Margaret, Valerian’s wife, demands that their Christmas dinner have a goose.  Though she “won’t be able to eat at bit of it”, she wants “to see it on the table anyway” (18).  Food waste is an excessive problem in America, and is not only frustrating in the face of tragic rates of starvation in America and around the world, but also because it has a negative impact on the environment, as detailed in a John Oliver segment.  This passage demonstrates that this is not only an accidental phenomenon where people anticipate that will eat more food than they do, but an intentional one where people actually plan on wasting food in order to make a show of their wealth.  In this way, waste serves as a status symbol.  The irony of this wastefulness is highlighted when Valerian fires two Black servants for eating an apple.  Though Valerian and his wife waste a great deal of food, they could “chew a morsel of ham and drink white wine secure in the knowledge that he had defecated on two people who had dared to want some of his apples” (204).  Though the food Valerian and Margaret wasted could have easily fed the servants in question, it was more important for them to assert their property rights than share their excess.  It is important to note that Morrison frames this assertion of authority in a rhetoric of waste. It is not simply that they enacted their rights as property owners, but they ‘defecated’ on these servants.  The langue, then, highlights how oppressive this waste is.

 

Sociologist Thornstein Veblen, who coined the term 'conspicuous consumption'.

Sociologist Thornstein Veblen, who coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’.

The wasteful tendencies of the wealthy classes graduate to a societal level later in the novel as the masses seemingly embrace the notion of conspicuous consumption, leading Morrison to prophesize tragedy.  Morrison notes that the hegemonic institutions taught the masses that “the sole lesson of their world [was] how to make waste, [and] how to make machines that made more waste” (203).  Instead of eliminating waste, people were taught how to endure waste, and how to “legalize waste and how to despise the culture that lived in cloth houses and shit on the ground far away from where they ate” (203-4).  Thus, cultures that were seen as primitive are framed as inferior by the West because they were not wasteful and lived in tune with nature, while the dominant culture promoted a society propelled by waste.  Morrison then acts as prophet, noting that the waste “would drown them one day” and that “they would all sink into their own waste and the waste they had made of the world” (204).  In no uncertain terms, Morrison makes it clear that humanity’s wasteful indulgences will negatively impact the environment, and lead to humanity’s downfall.

 

MAN IS THE CRUELEST ANIMAL

 

Is it fair to equate lambs with humans?

Is it fair to equate lambs with humans?

Whilst this wastefulness highlights humanity’s excessive nature, there is an element of cruelty that is even more disheartening, and this cruelty serves to further demonstrate the link between colonized people and Nature.  Son, the love interest of the novel’s protagonist, articulates this cruelty when speaking of “lambs, chickens, tuna, [and] children”, all of whom “he had seen… die by the ton.”  He goes onto note that “There was nothing like it in the world, except the slaughter of whole families in their sleep and he had seen that, too” (131).  Here, Son tears down the barriers that exist between the natural realm and the human realm, placing lambs, chickens, and tuna on parity terms with children.  It is important to note that it is not simply humans he links them to, but children, who are inherently more innocent than adults, thus linking these animals to a state of innocence.  This passage highlights the cruel nature of this by comparing it to the ‘slaughter of whole families’, but the fact that it is Son who makes this observation is crucial to the novel’s subtext.  It is only a member of the colonized group that is able to make this link, and so it is those who are colonized that are in the best position to speak of the oppression of Nature because they can empathize with it and see past the constructed barriers the West has placed between humanity and Nature.  This reinforces the notion that the oppression of colonized people and the exploitation of Nature share an analogous structure.

 

Who could look at this cute guy and think "He'd make a great coat"?

Who could look at this cute guy and think “He’d make a great coat”? I mean besides a sociopath.

Though some might argue that the slaughter of such animals is required for the sustenance and survival of the human race (a flawed argument as there are other means to sustain the needs of the human body), humanity’s cruelty is further reinforced by the baby-seal coat, which is featured prominently in the novel.  In order to make one jacket for one woman, the “hides of ninety baby seals [were] stitched together” (87), but rather than noting the extreme cruelty and excessiveness of this, it is noted that they hides were stitched “so nicely you could not tell what part had sheltered their cute little hearts and which had cushioned their skulls” (87).  Morrison is sure to instil the passage with the dual nature of this artifact. Yes, the craftsmanship is commendable, but it is built on the hearts of ninety infant seals, and so is tainted. This cruelty is a corrupting force on Jadine, the novel’s protagonist.  When she wore the coat, “The skin of the baby seals sucked up the [her] dampness”, and she “closed her eyes and imagined the blackness she was sinking into” (112).  Though Jadine should be able to empathize with nature, being a member of the colonized group, she has been accepted and seduced by, literally and figuratively, the West, and so is being absorbed but the darkness of their sins.  Morrison, though, sees blackness in dual terms, and uses this colour as a means to reinforce the link between colonized people and Nature.  For example, as Jadine “stood looking at the coat she could not tell whether [Son] or it was the blacker or the shinier, but she knew she did not want him to touch” the coat (114).  In this passage, Son and the coat are conflated and seen as equivalents that cannot be discerned from one another.  Thus, there is a link between them, and no clear barriers.  Though a complex scene with a multiplicity of potential readings, it is clear that the slaughter of ninety baby seals for one coat is seen as cruel exorbitance, and that a further link is made between those animals who are treated so cruelly, and colonized people like Son.

 

COLONIZED = NATURE

 

greenhouseThe link between colonized people and Nature, as exemplified through Son, is the crux of the novel and can be found in a number of different instances throughout the novel.  In one passage, for instance, Son enters Valerian’s greenhouse.  In the process, he inadvertently lets ants enter, breaking down the man-made barrier and facilitating the remediation between two elements of the natural realm.  In this way, he is seen as a conduit of Nature, a fact that is reinforced when he observes that the flowers that have failed to bloom lack the benefit of the wind.  To correct this, he flicks them with a finger, allowing the plants to flower.  Valerian is angered by this at first, as he, a member of the colonizing forces, is separate from Nature.  Son, an extension of Nature, knows more than the man who has spent his retirement trying to control the natural realm.  The flowers soon bloom, and Valerian is in awe of Sons’ innate wisdom.  This contrast not only highlights how colonized people such as Son are in tune with Nature, but simultaneously illustrates how the colonizing forces, even in their close study of Nature, are unable to understand the natural realm.

 

western_lowland_gorilla_1Though the colonizers fail to understand Nature, their rhetoric serves to link Nature and the colonized through derogatory and condescending language.  The colonizing forces make it clear that they see the two groups as one in the same.  Jadine, when speaking to Son as a supporter of the colonizing authority, tells him that “Valerian will kill” him, and calls him “ape”, rather than his name (121).  Likewise, Margaret said “He looked like a gorilla” (129).  In both instances, the colonizers use ecological metaphors with a pejorative tone to emphasize that the colonized group, in this case people of African descent, is seen as an extension the natural realm. As such, they were to be marginalized like Nature.  It is important that the colonizing authorities speak in this manner because it demonstrates that, just as they are able to commodify the natural realm and devalue the life within it, so too are they able to do the same to colonized people.

 

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

However, Morrison also uses this linguistic link in an empowering manner.  In one passage, for instance, Morrison writes that “Black people’s hair… Left alone and untended… was like foliage and from a distance it looked like nothing less than the crown of a delicious tree” (132).  In this passage, Morrison links the colonized people with nature using an ecological metaphor that links their hair with foliage, but what is most empowering with this comparison is that she compares the hair to the ‘crown of a delicious tree’.  Rather than humanity possessing regal authority, it is Nature that is host to a signifier of regal authority: a crown.  Moreover, it is man that ought to aspire to follow Nature’s rule, and it is the lowliest of people within the human hierarchy, the colonized, who are closest to mirroring Nature’s regality.  The longstanding authority of Nature in invoked through an intertextual reference as well, as Morrison writes that Son’s skin was “as dark as a riverbed” (113).  This ecological metaphor that links Son to rivers calls to mind Langston Hughes’s ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, which also has a strong ecocolonial reading.  Though the intertextual reference is not explicit in this passage, it becomes more overt later when Son speaks of the Natives of the rain forest: “They knew the rain forest when it was a rain forest, they knew where the river began, where the roots twisted above the ground; they knew all there was to know about the island and had not even seen it” (206). This wording is akin to those found in Hughes’s poem: “I’ve known rivers ancient as the world”.  The link Morrison makes, though, extends this beyond the people of Africa, and includes all colonized peoples, such as the Natives of the Americas, who Son refers to in this passage.  Just as Hughes links the ancestors of Africa to ancient rivers, and in turn the longest lineage of true authority through the natural realm, so too does Morrison’s work, though in more subtle tones.

 

 

'Hysteria' is not just a Def Leppard album.

‘Hysteria’ is not just a Def Leppard album.

There are more understated examples of the ecological similes and rhetoric that highlight the relationship between the colonized and Nature.  It is when Jadine begins to explore her connection with her biological culture that Morrison juxtaposes elements of the colonial world and the natural realm. In the shower, Jadine holds “Neutrogena Rainbath Gel and a natural sponge”, but it is the sponge that Morrison writes is “the same colour as [Jadine’s] skin” (131).  Though Morrison doesn’t overtly contrast the Neutrogena Rainbath Gel with Jadine’s skin, the absence of a simile linking the two in the presence of a clear correlation between a natural sponge and Jadine’s skin underscores the fact that she has a link with Nature, and not with a product associated with Western consumption.  Morrison also outlines the negative impact when one is separated from Nature.  In one passage, for instance, she writes that “Only Thérèse had tasted apples once when she was seven, and again when she was thirty-five and had a craving for them akin to hysteria” (109).  This passage has Edenic implications, as Eve was first to taste the forbidden fruit, often assumed to be an apple.  This separation of the fruit and the woman, then, is a separation between humanity and knowledge.  The Edenic gender associations are reinforced by the fact that Thérèse is said to have a craving akin to hysteria, which was originally an illness associated only with women and named after the Latin word for ‘suffering uterus’.  Humanity’s separation from Nature, then, causes a mental illness.  These passages, though perhaps not as central to the narrative, illustrate importance of the link between colonized people and Nature.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

As with all of Morrison’s works, Tar Baby is a complex masterpiece with a multiplicity of layers and potential readings, and though conversations on racialized groups are prominently featured in this work, it is Morrison’s commentary on the colonial elements of exploitation of the environment that are perhaps most compelling.  Her innovative handling of the conventional ‘man vs. Nature’ conflict provides an empathic view of Nature that is attuned to the British Romantics’ and American Transcendentalists’ views on Nature, and expertly highlight the parallels between the exploitation of Nature, and the colonization of various peoples.  In so doing, she underscores humanity’s wasteful practices, and cruelty.  This simultaneously offers oppressed people insight into the nature of their oppression, while situating the colonized as the people who are best able to advocate to the ethical treatment of the natural realm.  These themes are woven together in a lush tapestry of rich characters and an engaging narrative that serve to keep the reader invested in the people, and the themes that shape the world around them.  The result is an emotive and intellectual work that encourages the reader to consider their value systems from a different perspective, but does not prescribe a specific world view, instead leaving the reader to discover their own answers.

 

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni.  Tar Baby. New York: Plume.  1981.  Print.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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