This essay argues that Essence magazine provides a crucial intertext for understanding Toni Morrison’s engagement in Tar Baby with the political debates that surrounded the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan in the black power era and her use of the Tar Baby story to dramatize and interpret those debates. Tar Baby responds to early scandals at the magazine spurred by white capitalist investment in the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan as well as the magazine’s coverage of a splintering black liberation movement, its Caribbean travel features, and its shifting assessments of affirmative action, white feminism, and domestic violence. Throughout, the novel uses the Tar Baby story to link the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan not with an emancipatory politics but instead with New World histories that have constituted racial blackness in and through division and that position black women to become scapegoats for the failure to achieve racial unity in the face of white domination.

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