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.
In the May 1981 issue of Essence magazine, Toni Morrison published an excerpt from her novel Tar Baby, in conjunction with the book’s wider release. The scene features a fraught encounter between the novel’s two young black protagonists in the vacation home of a white US candy magnate on the fictional Caribbean Isle des Chevaliers. Jadine Childs, a Paris fashion model and graduate student at the Sorbonne, is visiting the magnate, Valerian Street, who has paid for her elite education. Son Green, a former soldier now running from the law, has just been discovered hiding in Valerian’s house. The triangulated relationship among Jadine, Valerian, and Son replicates key features of the Tar Baby story that Morrison learned as a child, in which a white farmer creates a figure out of tar to trap the rabbit that has been raiding his garden (Morrison 2004, xii–xiii). The Essence scene is one of three in the novel that reproduces the story’s central action, in which Bre’r Rabbit greets the Tar Baby and then hits her when she fails to respond, only to become caught in her sticky substance. As the scene in Essence begins, Son uses an open door to enter Jadine’s bedroom uninvited. Though he initially admires her silent face on the cover of a French fashion magazine, their encounter quickly devolves into an exchange of insults. Just before the scene ends, Son seizes Jadine from behind and pins her body to his before letting her go.
Throughout the escalating aggression of the scene, the presence of a fashion magazine featuring a beautiful black woman on its cover would have alerted Essence readers to the metacommentary embedded in the scene’s action. In this essay, I argue that the archive of Essence magazine’s first decade in print provides a crucial intertext for understanding 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. Beginning with its first issue in spring 1970, assembled under the editorial leadership of Morrison’s close friend Ruth Ross (Lewis 2014, 110), Essence sought to equate its entrepreneurial project with “Black Is Beautiful.” But it also quickly established itself as a popular forum for debating rival interpretations of the slogan from black capitalist, black nationalist, and black feminist perspectives (Rooks 2004, 144; Gumbs 2012, 96–97). Pitched to “young, urban, inquisitive and acquisitive black” women (Time1970, 80) like Jadine and committed to placing a black woman’s face on the cover of every issue, the magazine provided its white advertisers and investors with access to an untapped consumer market even as it offered black subscribers multiple ways to understand black women’s beauty as an emancipatory force in their own lives.
As such, Essence showcased “the politicization of beauty and of black women’s bodies” (Craig 2002, 41) in the late 1960s and 1970s when, as Maxine Leeds Craig has argued, “the movement for black liberation fragmented” and activists began deploying stylized “images of the beautiful black woman” (20) in their “attempts to forge a unified black identity and to maintain solidarity within black political organizations” (41). Invited to play the role of a beautiful queen in competing narratives of black liberation, black women of the era were simultaneously tasked with the “burden” of being “living symbol[s]” of a racial unity that did not yet exist (20). In Tar Baby, Jadine Childs finds herself repeatedly cast as just such a symbol during her stay on the Isle des Chevaliers. Throughout the novel, Morrison engages a wide range of material published in Essence, drawing unexpected connections among its coverage of the debates surrounding the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan, its travel features on the Caribbean, its historical analyses of slavery’s enduring impact, and its shifting assessments of affirmative action, white feminism, and domestic violence. All these connections hinge on the relationship Morrison poses between contemporary celebrations of black women’s beauty and the black power movement’s rhetoric of black warriors and queens. In a decisive move, Morrison does not trace this rhetoric back to Africa, as its proponents did, but instead follows it to European discourses of chivalry that the conquistadores brought to the New World. Conflating the symbolic roles of the beautiful black woman and Tar Baby in the character of Jadine, Morrison uses Tar Baby’s story to demystify New World legacies of chivalric rescue and romantic love and to identify the particular peril that these legacies pose to black women.
Reading for the intertextual connections between Tar Baby and Essence reframes current historical assessments of the novel and opens up paths for understanding Morrison’s broader acts of political and historical assessment within it. In two incisive analyses, Yogita Goyal (2006, 395) and Beauty Bragg (2015, 32–35) place Tar Baby on a historical threshold between a fading era of black nationalism and the discourse of soul, championed by the backward-looking Son, and a dawning era of diasporic studies and the concepts of diasporic cosmopolitanism, cultural mulattoism, and a post-soul aesthetic, championed by the forward-looking Jadine. While they offer an important corrective to the masculinist definitions of ideal blackness that dominated earlier critical responses to the novel, these analyses continue to focus on a dyadic contest between the ideological positions that Son and Jadine embody. In contrast, Morrison uses the Tar Baby story to identify a triangulated relationship with white power that allows whites to exploit social divisions in the black community in order to preserve larger patterns of racial exploitation and oppression that date back to the earliest slave economies of the New World. A focus on this triangulated relationship confirms Goyal’s and Bragg’s alignment of Son with radical expressions of black nationalism but repositions Jadine as a proponent of black capitalism, which received controversial ideological elaboration under the Richard Nixon administration when it became identified with direct government and corporate support for a select group of black businesses. This iteration of black capitalism, which stood behind the success of the Essence launch, forms a neglected precursor to the more positively valued academic discourses of diasporic cosmopolitanism and cultural mulattoism that Goyal and Bragg embrace.
In Tar Baby, Morrison adopts the popular narrative template of a stormy love affair to dramatize the clash among black capitalist, black nationalist, and black feminist interpretations of “Black Is Beautiful” that played out in the pages of Essence during its first decade in print. Unlike her critics, Morrison resists the temptation to endorse any single political articulation of the slogan over others. Instead, she reads the slogan’s competing articulations as a symptom of a longer New World history that has not only constituted racial blackness in and through division but has also positioned black women as scapegoats for a more general failure to achieve racial unity in the face of white domination. In this way, Morrison advances a gendered critique of “Black Is Beautiful” that faults both its various ideological proponents and its white financial backers for perpetuating a history of violence against black women that haunts all New World legacies of chivalric rescue and romantic love.
Morrison’s critique recalls and reevaluates a cultural comparison that Huey Newton (2009a, 39) makes in Revolutionary Suicide, where he recounts “listening to Little Black Sambo” and “the Black Tar Baby story” in grade school and discovering that the characters in these tales were “totally unlike the courageous white knight who rescued Sleeping Beauty” (18). Newton reads his ensuing feelings of racial shame and inferiority as a measure of a racist “school system’s assault on Black people” (16). But for Morrison (2008a, 37; see also 2008b, 40–42), black power advocates’ compensatory efforts to locate the sources of group dignity and strength in a royal African past amounted to little more than “instant and reactionary myth-making.” Writing about the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan in 1974, she argued that a political movement that “skipped over some 300 to 2,000 years of lived life” (2008a, 36) in search of “a myth to our liking” risked jettisoning the actual cultural legacies that Africans brought to the New World and adapted in response to its oppressive conditions (2008b, 41). As she told Charles Ruas (1994, 112–13), Morrison viewed these legacies as vital tools of survival that preserved ancestral understandings of “what in fact the dangers are, what are the havens, and what is the shelter” in the societies that enslaved them.
Aníbal Quijano and Immanuel Wallerstein’s discussion of Americanity helps to elucidate the particular value that Morrison saw in the ancestral story of Tar Baby. In their account of the centrality of the Americas to the development of the modern world-system, Quijano and Wallerstein (1992, 556, 550–51) argue that the Iberian conquest of the New World produced societies that organized power on a hybrid “seigniorial-mercantile” basis and simultaneously created a new social division of labor by sliding the category of race and ethnicity into place alongside preexisting labor categories of gender and class (see also Saldívar 2011, 123). As they assert, “The Iberian conquistador carried with him in his mind concepts of power and social values that were seigniorial, despite the fact that his acts and motives in the conquest were commercial in origin” (Quijano and Wallerstein 1992, 553). With the establishment of the encomienda system and African slave economies, “seigniorial privileges were exercised particularly in relation to ‘Indians’ and ‘Negros’ with all the attached sociopsychological implications,” such as “disdain for labour,” “concern with social prestige,” and “‘honour,’ and its correlates” (553).
New World cultures of chivalry, first introduced by conquistadores enchanted with their seigniorial privileges and later adopted by plantation elites in the US South, evolved in sync with the Americas’ developing world-system as an expression of the dominant point of view. In contrast, the Tar Baby story offers an early conceptual diagram of that same world-system from the perspective of those it oppressed and identifies the persistent danger posed by black women’s literal and symbolic positioning between powerful white “farmer[s]”—or plantation owners—and disempowered black men in a social order that simultaneously granted and euphemized the seigniorial slave-master’s sexual access to his slaves. Thus, in her foreword to Tar Baby, Morrison (2004, xii) describes the Tar Baby as “the sticky mediator between master and peasant, plantation owner and slave.” “Constructed by the farmer to foil and entrap,” her Tar Baby is a “difficult, unresponsive, but seducing woman” who “snares” the rabbit in “a love story” that “compounds” the rabbit’s “entanglement” while heightening his “demand[s] to be freed” (xii–xiii).
Morrison supplements her novel’s narrative focus on sticky moments of entanglement with another kind of entanglement embedded in its innovative form. As she explains in her foreword, the abstract symbolic figure of the Tar Baby, planted like “a blatant sculpture . . . at the heart of the folktale,” inspired her decision to turn all the characters in Tar Baby into living symbols. Modeling their narrative identities on “African masks”—“ancient, alive, and breathing, their features exaggerated, their power mysterious”—she sets them moving in an ancestral dance that “merge[s] the primal and the contemporary, lore and reality” (xiii; see also LeClair 1994, 127). As the story of one young couple’s stormy love affair widens to encompass the entire history of the New World, multiple characters pair and clash on a symbolic ground marked out by the ancestors, where the bodies of the living fuse with the spirits of the dead. Morrison creates this ground by importing African and African diasporic traditions of the animal tale and masked tribal dance into a literary field first delimited by the medieval prose romance, from which fairy tales like “Sleeping Beauty” and the novel itself derived. Allowing the lineaments of the Tar Baby story to surface within and then overwhelm her novel’s proliferating narratives of chivalric rescue and romantic love, she performs a struggle between two ways of representing and remembering the past that ultimately grants victory to the black aesthetic tradition. In the formal reclamation of this tradition, Morrison reaches beyond the local terms of her engagement with the black power movement and Essence magazine and activates the power of her tale to function as “both history and prophecy” (Ruas 1994, 111) for a “people [who] are being devoured” (LeClair 1994, 121).
When Essence debuted in spring 1970, its future was far from certain. Triangulated relationships with white power had marked the Essence venture from the start and almost immediately became a source of debilitating public controversy and upheaval. As Ed Lewis (2014) recounts in his memoir, the origins of the magazine were tied up in new government efforts to promote “black capitalism.” Personally championed by Nixon, who viewed it as an antidote to more militant expressions of black power sweeping the nation, black capitalism became the watchword for a federal paradigm for encouraging white corporate investment in the integrationist goals of the civil rights movement that doubled as an early form of affirmative action. In his memoir Lewis reaches back to a pervasive political trope of an era that was still digesting Jacqueline Kennedy’s comparison of her husband’s presidency to Camelot when he casts white corporate support for the Essence venture as a chivalric act of rescue. As he reports, the financial and logistical help that he and his three black male partners received from Shearson, Hammill, and Company—and particularly from its executive vice president Michael Victory, whom he lauds as “our steadfast white knight”—was crucial to the magazine’s launch. But that same help was modest enough to leave the new magazine “severely undercapitalized” (41), and the ongoing need to court white advertisers and investors quickly led to conflicts among members of the magazine’s leadership team.
Morrison’s friend Ruth Ross became the first casualty of this dynamic. She left a permanent mark on the magazine when she changed its name from Sapphire to Essence (24–26). But her desire to mobilize “Black Is Beautiful” as a rallying cry for black women’s collective self-empowerment clashed head-on with the advertising department’s plan to use the same slogan (101) to connect national-brand product manufacturers with readers who “looked good, used makeup, raised children, prepared meals, traveled, and decorated their homes” (112). When an advance review in the white press questioned how long the magazine’s target demographic would tolerate discussions about “the long-standing, dehumanizing rape of the black woman in America” (Time1970, 80), the founding partners stepped in, running a revised version of Ross’s first editorial over their own names in the magazine’s inaugural issue and then firing her midway through the production of the second issue. This intervention did little to resolve the structural problems posed by the magazine’s desperate need for capital. After a second leadership shake-up a short time later, ousted partner Jonathan Blount and departing editor Ida Lewis charged the remaining Essence partners with deeding editorial control of the magazine to Playboy Enterprises, which had recently made a $250,000 investment in their cash-strapped venture. On-site protests by local black nationalists followed (Gumbs 2012, 97–104). As Lewis (2014, 157) recounts: “The historical and sexual implications were enormous. Talk of [Playboy] dominating the board of directors and ‘getting a good run for our money’ smacked of two black American horrors: slavery and rape.” Though the magazine managed to survive the scandal, it was plagued for years by rumors that it “was really ‘owned’ by Playboy at worst, or by some nonspecific white people at best” (158).
These incidents highlight the ways in which white capitalist investment in the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan heightened class and gender conflicts in the black community and stirred up searing memories of slavery. The destructive effects of this dynamic connected early leadership struggles at Essence with a perceived crisis in black men and women’s romantic relationships, which received headline status in the magazine’s first years of production and remained a prominent topic of discussion throughout the 1970s. Together with contributors to Toni Cade Bambara’s (2005) groundbreaking anthology The Black Woman, which appeared three months after the Essence launch, Essence commentators firmly rejected the “tangle of pathology” thesis of the 1965 Moynihan Report, which had concluded that poor black women had too much power, and instead traced gender conflicts in the black community to the traumatic effects of its ongoing history of triangulation with white male power. In the lead article of Essence’s inaugural issue, “Black Man, Do You Love Me?” Louise Meriwether (1970, 81) identifies the abusive cycle that begins when the black man, “kept powerless by the oppressive system, . . . brings his pain and rage home to his woman” and “she fights back, reaffirming his powerlessness to protect and provide for her.” Her statement that “love today is in jeopardy everywhere” (81) was echoed by Leslie Alexander Lacy’s (1970, 6) question in the same issue: “What should the definition of ‘love’ be for people who are oppressed?” In The Black Woman, Jean Carey Bond and Patricia Peery (2005, 146) introduce the image of a dance to characterize the relationship between white domination and black interpersonal conflict: “Stymied in his attempt to protect and free the Black woman (and himself), the Black man further degrades her. She, doubly powerless and vengeful, insults his manhood by whatever means at her disposal. Thus are many Black men and women hateful partners in a harrowing dance.” Numerous contributors to Essence and The Black Woman identified the origins of this dance with the start of the New World. In their article “Black Man, Black Woman at the Controversial Gate,” Inez and Frantz Reid (1973, 38) dissect the “divide-and-conquer tactics” that defined black people’s “colonial experience” in the Americas. Inaugurated with the systematic sexual exploitation of black women under slavery, which black men had been powerless to stop, these tactics continued after emancipation in the form of racist hiring and admissions practices, which granted black women limited access to jobs and education while denying the same “opportunities for betterment” to black men. The Reids argue that the modest gains of the civil rights era failed to break this pattern and instead led a new generation of black men and women to fight “over the economic crumbs tossed their way.”
A year earlier, Lindsay Patterson had published an excerpt from his unfinished novel, T-Baby, in the May 1972 issue of Essence. The excerpt, which features a chance encounter in a dance hall between a US soldier and a sexy woman named T-Baby, explicitly fuses the motif of the feuding black couple with the Tar Baby story: when she refuses to acknowledge his small talk, he pins her to the wall with a kiss, and she hits him in the jaw. In the rest of the story, the two trade in their oppressive pasts for a revolutionary future, joining forces in an underground movement that seeks to arm black people across the globe. Patterson’s conflation of the folkloric figures of Bre’r Rabbit and Tar Baby with the contemporary figures of the black warrior and queen paved the way for Morrison’s creation of Son and Jadine. But where Patterson transforms the folk tale into a political fantasy about a coming day of victory,1 Morrison probes the same tale for a better critical understanding of the present.
The intertextual connections that bind Morrison’s novel to Patterson’s T-Baby excerpt and the wider Essence conversation about gender conflict in the black community allow her to approach the Tar Baby story as a shared text that has gained new relevance through an act of communal reengagement with the ancestors during a time of crisis. Morrison underscores these intertextual connections when she constructs a Tar Baby who embodies the Essence brand: a highly successful fashion model, Jadine is also a young urban consumer with entrepreneurial ambitions. Returning this Tar Baby to the Caribbean epicenter of the Americas’ developing world-system, she places her in a love story that recapitulates both the political debates surrounding the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan that Essence helped to stage and the history of triangulated gender conflict that marred the magazine’s first years of production. As the affair that Jadine and Son begin on Valerian’s island estate slides from verbal sparring to outright abuse, Morrison fuses contemporary portrayals of a romantic crisis in the black community with clashes playing out in the public sphere over how best to respond to the enduring reality of white domination.
At the same time, Morrison calls on their status as sacred African masks to endow all three characters with a symbolic content that reverberates across multiple temporal dimensions. Animating the connection between the living and the dead, Jadine, Son, and Valerian enact their parts in a harrowing dance that exposes the essential stability of New World social hierarchies over time. Thus, as critics have noted (Carruth 2009, 609–11; Krumholz 2008, 287), Morrison roots Valerian’s present power and position as the retired head of a US candy corporation in the antebellum history of the Caribbean sugar trade and the United States’ more recent emergence as a regional and global superpower. Resplendent in the role of the “Candy King” who claims ideological descent from the French chevaliers who purportedly gave his island its name (Morrison 2004, 31, 47–48), he represents the ongoing strength of the New World’s seigniorial-mercantile traditions. Similarly, Morrison aligns the separatist stance undergirding Son’s radical black nationalism with New World histories of marronage referenced in a rival black Caribbean account of the island’s name (152–53). Finally, the symbolic content of Jadine’s character inscribes a less explicit but more devastating alignment of the contemporary era, marked by white corporate investments in the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan and black capitalism, with New World histories of plaçage.
Multiple intertextual connections with Essence subtend these creative decisions. In her depictions of the Isle des Chevaliers, Morrison exploits contradictions in the magazine’s romanticized promotions of travel to the Caribbean that resulted in simultaneous representations of the islands as a playground for reenacting white colonial fantasies of luxury and unchecked dominion and as a stronghold of Garveyite traditions of black regional autonomy and romantic love. In addition, three essays directly inform the symbolic construction of her characters and the historical continuities they make visible: James Baldwin’s 1962 essay, “My Dungeon Shook,” which charges white America with the crime of innocence; a 1978 Essence piece by former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist Julius Lester that returns to Baldwin’s essay for the terms of its critique of white attitudes toward affirmative action; and a 1972 Essence piece by supermodel Pat Evans that equates the fashion industry’s treatment of black models with “slave trading” and “prostitution” (14).
Addressed to Baldwin’s nephew on the hundredth anniversary of emancipation, “My Dungeon Shook” represents the United States as a white man’s castle whose dungeons continue to hold black men captive in a deluded effort to keep white people safe. The essay as a whole turns on the distinction between the criminal “innocence” of Baldwin’s white countrymen and women, who “have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it” (Baldwin 1985, 334) and the intimate awareness of that destruction possessed by the black “grandmother”—Baldwin’s own mother—whose existence also remains unknown to whites “though she has been working for them all their lives” (334). Morrison makes the same gendered knowledge of white destructiveness central to the plot of Tar Baby. The Streets’ African American cook, Ondine, precipitates Valerian’s recognition that he is “guilty” of “the crime of innocence” (Morrison 2004, 242) when she reveals the secret of his wife’s abuse of their infant son in the novel’s climactic Christmas dinner scene. But this recognition of guilt fails to encompass crimes committed against the text’s two black Caribbean grandmother figures. After losing her ancestral plot of crop land to a Frenchman (108) and nursing “hundreds of French babies” with her breast milk, Thérèse Foucault works for poverty wages on Valerian’s estate in her old age (112). Similarly, the island’s tar swamp, Sein de Vieilles, began life as a free-flowing river until the building of his estate disturbed its bed and it fled, running “every which way” (9) before finally sitting down “in one place like a grandmother,” a “demented” witness to its own ravaging (10). All three female figures are childless, having seen their capacity to mother violated or expropriated by whites. Together, their histories offer a gendered representation of a larger New World history of human exploitation and environmental destruction that Valerian consistently chooses to ignore. Heir to a family business that perpetuates the violence of the modern world-system as a whole, he never confronts the true criminal proportions of his innocence, which exceed in their enormity the individual acts of interpersonal violence committed by other characters in the novel.
Morrison portrays Jadine as a black child who lacks Ondine’s intimate knowledge of white destructiveness. Orphaned by her mother’s death when she was twelve, she views the Streets as benevolent “patrons” (118) who did for her “what nobody else even offered to do” (119) when, at Ondine and Sydney’s urging, they extracted her from the impoverished Baltimore neighborhood where she grew up and sent her to private school. Content to remain their protégé (French for “protected”) indefinitely, she harbors vague plans “to open a shop or start an agency” with Valerian’s money (263). In an interview, Morrison identifies Jadine with the recent hopes for racial advancement attached to the Nixon administration’s black capitalist paradigm of integration: “There is a new, capitalistic, modern American black which is what everybody thought was the ultimate in integration. To produce Jadine, that’s what it was for. I think there is some danger in the result of that production. It cannot replace certain essentials from the past” (Ruas 1994, 105). In her portrayal of the danger Jadine embodies, Morrison again reaches back to Baldwin. In “My Dungeon Shook,” Baldwin (1985) warns his nephew against identifying too closely with the viewpoint of would-be white benefactors. He denounces the “impertinent assumption that they must accept you” (335) inscribed in terms like acceptance and integration and argues that “if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it” (336). Lester (1978) cites Baldwin in his epigraph and updates his arguments in an article titled “And Innocence Shall be No More,” published in Essence on the eve of the US Supreme Court decision in the Bakke case. Disputing the idea “that whites are doing us a favor” inscribed in phrases like “affirmative action,” “reverse discrimination,” and “preferential treatment” (72), Lester insists that “what they call ‘affirmative action’ is not white liberal benevolence but white acknowledgement of its bloody historical guilt,” “a weak but necessary admission by whites that they are not innocent” (73).
For much of Tar Baby, Jadine lacks the critical distance from dominant white paradigms of integration that Baldwin and Lester insist on. A “tar baby . . . made by a white man” (Wilson 1994, 134), she conforms to contemporary black nationalist portrayals of “selected and approved” (Ture and Hamilton 1992, 49) “token Negroes” who “become meaningless show-pieces for a conscience-soothed white society” while “sapping [the black community] of leadership potential and know-how” (53). Morrison underlines the danger that white investments in racial tokenism pose to the black community when she models Valerian’s relationship with Jadine on literary representations of plaçage.2 Though Jadine assures Son that Valerian “never made a pass” at her (Morrison 2004, 226), other details of her life story mirror the romantic lore surrounding plaçage, which flourished alongside slave economies in the French and Spanish Caribbean and Louisiana and survived as a favorite topos in the literary tradition of the white US South. Like Jadine, the typical literary placée was a free young woman of color who, with the help of older family members, entered into a financial agreement with a chivalric white male “protector” when she reached adolescence. Renowned for their light-skinned beauty, fashionable dress, and erotic allure, literary placées received genteel upbringings and educations, in some cases traveling to Paris and the Sorbonne to complete their studies. In exchange, they repaid their protectors with lifetimes of unstinting loyalty and devotion.3
Pat Evans references the romantic figure of the placée in a blistering attack on the fashion industry that Essence published in 1972, about eight months after the Playboy scandal broke. A likely source text for Morrison’s depictions of Jadine’s modeling career, Evans’s opinion piece challenges the magazine’s earlier efforts to capitalize on the vanguard role that black models had played in early civil rights struggles for integration. Implicitly rejecting previous associations made in Essence between the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan, the Paris fashion industry, and the French revolution,4 Evans (1972, 14) instead turns to France’s colonial histories in the New World for her descriptions of the “black model business” as “another form of prostitution” and “slave trading—only more refined.” Her raw account of the systemic forms of racism and sexual harassment that black models faced culminates in the claim that white men’s control of the industry had turned the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan into one more tool—and a disposable one at that—for securing profits from the sexual exploitation of black women. “Now that ‘Black is beautiful’ is finished in the white man’s eyes,” she asserts, “he is . . . back to using fair-skinned, soft-haired mulatto types who will probably be more ‘adaptable’ to his needs.”
Morrison’s construction of Jadine as a symbolic embodiment of the Essence brand fuses aspects of both Lester’s and Evans’s critiques. Though Jadine’s successful life in Paris ostensibly stands as proof of the power of black capitalist interpretations of the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan to advance the cause of black liberation, Jadine’s story actually meticulously reproduces an earlier phase in the history of the race’s oppression. Both her debts and her uncritical devotion to Valerian orphan her in a way that the death of her parents never could. Subjected to recurring sexual advances and sexual attacks, which stretch from her childhood in Baltimore through her school years and into her modeling career (Morrison 2004, 123–24), Jadine’s experience is firmly located within an ongoing history of violence against black women. But throughout the novel she refuses to disclose this abuse to anyone who cares about her. Cut off from the critical resources of a common culture formed in opposition to the dominant point of view, she remains trapped in a model of individual success that updates but does not fundamentally challenge the tiered structure of oppression that black people in the New World have faced all along.
In the bedroom scene published in Essence, Son forces the painful topic of Jadine’s sexual history into the open when he recycles Evans’s charges. Threatened by photographs in Elle that put “his . . . beautiful sleeping woman” on public display (138), he makes disparaging references to Jadine’s light skin and asks insulting questions about how much “dick [she] had to suck . . . to get all that gold and be in the movies” (Morrison 1981, 158; 2004, 120). Where Evans’s critique of “Black Is Beautiful” denounces white male control of the fashion industry, Son scapegoats Jadine when he equates the terms of her beauty and her high-paying career with an insider status that amounts to sexual and racial treason. In turn, the terms of Son’s own beauty concretize the outsider status that gives his remarks their political charge. Son’s dreadlocks, emphasized in the illustration that accompanied the excerpt’s publication in Essence (Morrison 1981, 90–91), align him with an unbroken tradition of Caribbean black male insurgency stretching from early maroon societies to the Rastafarian movement in contemporary Jamaica. But his uncut hair also embodies less heroic and more traumatic US histories of economic exclusion, military conscription, homelessness, and exile that deglamorize the image of the black male warrior and point to ricocheting forms of individual and collective sacrifice and injury. When Son chooses the fate of an outlaw over submission to a corrupt justice system after killing his wife on his return from Vietnam, he recapitulates key features of the life stories of legendary Black Panther Party members. Attentive to the price paid by young black women in the making of these legends, Morrison links Son’s murder of Cheyenne for betraying him in love with the Black Panthers’ and other radical black power groups’ more general tendency to target light-skinned, conventionally groomed young women like Jadine as living symbols of a racial treason attributed to the entire US black middle class (see Craig 2002, 129–42). In doing so, she locates a danger in the societal production of a Son that mirrors, through inversion, the danger involved in the production of Jadine.
The bedroom scene as a whole offers Essence readers a condensed symbolic representation of the controversies surrounding the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan that Essence aired within its pages. Further, it points to the controversies that overtook the magazine when white capitalist investment in the slogan heightened long-standing class and gender conflicts in the black community and reignited feelings of fear, shame, and outrage over a history of sanctioned violence against black women. But Morrison’s plot appears to jump back from these disclosures as soon as it makes them. In the next scene to reenact the central action of the Tar Baby story, Son plays the part of a chivalric gentleman who begs leave to touch his lady’s foot (Morrison 2004, 178–80). Inaugurating a romantic courtship that culminates in the Christmas dinner scene where he does psychic battle with Valerian for exclusive access to Jadine’s heart, this scene and those that follow rehearse contemporary black power fantasies about the revolutionary power of black love to heal division and emancipate the race.5
The ironies infusing this portion of the text coincide with an extended act of signifying, in which Morrison appeals to and then undercuts readerly investments in popular romantic fiction, a genre that appeared regularly in Essence. Morrison associates this genre with the attempt to sell black US consumers an “escapis[t]” and “mysti[fied]” relationship to the diasporic past when she correlates Son’s and Valerian’s rival claims on Jadine’s loyalty with a pair of Essence marketing strategies used to promote vacation packages in the Caribbean (Morrison 2008b, 42). As discursive indices of the endurance of the New World’s seigniorial-mercantile traditions, both strategies eroticized the region, making use of tropes that date back to romanticized depictions of plaçage. But where one strategy invited Essence readers to inhabit mainstream white colonial fantasies of unlimited wealth, power, and ease, the other appealed to racially specific longings for black romantic fulfillment and the related promise of black independence.
In “Finding Paradise,” Alex Exum (1974, 60) tropes his extensive travels in the Caribbean as a serial love affair—a figure made more jarring by his passing observation that Barbuda was “long ago a breeding station for slaves.” In the late 1970s, BWIA West Indies Airways ran an ad campaign that stated: “One of us excites you. One of us delights you. . . . Trinidad & Tobago: just the two of us.” Playing on related fantasies of a natural abundance that invited “free” indulgence of the appetites, American Airlines marketed Caribbean vacation packages in Essence that offered travelers “the sun and everything under it,” while the United States Virgin Islands Division of Tourism promoted “Sun, Sand & Free” vacation packages complete with a “free flight bag with a bottle of Virgin Islands rum in it.”6
Another side of the magazine’s coverage of the Caribbean took the connotations of freedom in a different direction. Ben Carruthers routinely included references to Independence Day celebrations and black Caribbeans’ political, social, and economic gains in his travel features. In his 1977 article-cum-advertisement, “The Caribbean Family Tree,” he links early maroon communities and the Haitian Revolution to contemporary signs of growing black regional autonomy (Carruthers 1977). Arguing that “the descendants of these historical experiences are now largely masters in their own houses and hosts to . . . vacationing millions” (74), he urges readers considering a visit to regard “our two struggles [as] one and perhaps the same” (76). Subsequent features on Jamaica juxtaposed the island’s maroon history with discussions of the Rastafarian movement’s rejection of Babylon (Gillespie 1979, 105; Essence1980, 76, 79, 82).
Though this focus on the Caribbean as a site of renewed black insurgency and independence did not explicitly eroticize the region, related efforts to market the Caribbean to single women did. In a series of articles and short stories pitched to readers fed up with the US dating scene, Essence writers fused the figures of the gracious island host and the perfect island lover. Jean Bonner (1973) touts the Caribbean as “a single woman’s paradise” (50), where “chivalry” is not yet “dead” (80). The same theme dominates “Caribbean Romance,” in which Irene Gandy (1978, 102) recounts a blissful two-week affair with a French West Indian man who knows how to treat her “like a woman and not as a competitor.” It surfaces again in “Cruising Along,” where Stephanie Bialick (1979, 66) identifies Caribbean and Mediterranean cruise ships as ideal places “for getting to know someone” and “the only places left in this topsy-turvy world where style and gracious living are constants.” Tales of perfect island love were so common that Essence ran a number of stories that openly mocked or undermined the genre’s founding assumptions (Meriwether 1971; Shange 1979; Wiggins 1980).
Morrison’s Caribbean tale is equally subversive, though she expands the targets of its satire to include not only dubious promises of island luxury and love but also the marketing schemes in Essence that encouraged readers to understand their relationship to the black freedom struggle and to the Caribbean though this lens. Jadine’s all-expenses-paid, two-month vacation on the Isle des Chevaliers concretizes the expanding set of consumer options that Essence sought to equate with the promise of black women’s liberation. But actually spending time there narrows her prospects down to a choice between two men. One, US corporate heir to the New World’s sugar fortunes, has the power to give her the sun and everything under it, while the other, a reworked version of the island lover, has the power to reestablish her connection with an ancestral culture of black resistance and autonomy. In the end, even this choice proves to be a false one. Morrison uses the rape of the river and resulting creation of the tar swamp on Valerian’s estate to expose ongoing forms of sexual exploitation and environmental pillage that African American travelers to the Caribbean would have to learn to ignore if they wished to consume mainstream fantasies of the region as an ever-virginal natural and erotic paradise. But she attributes a homologous structure of violence to the revival of black nationalist sentiment in both the Caribbean and the United States when Jadine’s relationship with Son also ends in rape. With this alignment, she suggests that chivalric paradigms of romantic love can never generate an emancipatory politics. Founded on a “desperate need to love only one person” (Koenen 1994, 73) and ensuing obsession with “owning that other person” (42), romantic love instead encourages forms of “complicity between master and servant” that reproduce the seigniorial-mercantile logic on which New World societies were built (70).
In her critique of romantic love, Morrison returns to tropes in “My Dungeon Shook” in order to refute dominant understandings of who is safe and who is dangerous that underpin white US fantasies of the black male rapist and helpless white woman. Where Baldwin (1985, 336) tropes the subordinated black man as “a fixed star” in “the white man’s world” whose movement causes “upheaval in the universe,” Morrison assigns this role to another middle-aged black woman who has been working for white people all their lives. Ondine’s disclosures at the Christmas dinner table dissolve Margaret’s initial account of Son hiding in her closet in order to rape her and replace it with the newly legible image of another son hiding in a bathroom cabinet in order to escape her abuse. The disclosure of Margaret’s violence activates Son’s role as a chivalric protector who comes to the rescue of his Sleeping Beauty after Valerian’s collapse leaves her in a state of “birdlike defenselessness” (Morrison 2004, 220, 210). When they make love later the same evening, the image of two throbbing stars that “fall out of the sky” (214) together tropes their union as the fulfillment of Baldwin’s earlier image of black revolution.
Morrison punctures the political fantasies inscribed in this scene of ecstasy with two scenes on either side of it that restage the central action of the Tar Baby story. In the first, Son reveals a capacity to “feel protective and violent at the same time” (177) when he follows up the story of murdering Cheyenne with his polite but insistent request to touch “the very bottom of [Jadine’s] foot” (276). In the second, he recounts the Tar Baby story while he rapes her (see Duvall 1997, 334–35). The same impulse to cherish and harm a beloved dependent drives Margaret’s abuse of Michael. Margaret manipulates the myth of her own helplessness in order to make her injured son act “like a slave to her” (Morrison 2004, 76), while Son’s tendency to view his relationship with Jadine “not just as love, but as rescue” (221) justifies his desire to replace Valerian as master of her universe. Both characters convert feelings of powerlessness that emerge in triangulated relationships with white male power into reassertions of their own supremacy by attacking the Tar Baby figures who mediate them. In both cases, New World paradigms of chivalric rescue and romantic love, rather than providing a way out of this dynamic, become its conduit. As Margaret and Son grow increasingly unable to distinguish between love and “owning that other person” (Bakerman 1994, 42), the historical specter of plaçage hovers over multiple pairings in the text.
In her parallel depictions of Margaret’s and Son’s abuse, Morrison subjects white mainstream understandings of who is safe and who is dangerous to a multifaceted critique, while avoiding the twin pitfalls of denying or essentializing either figure’s capacity for violence. Instead, Tar Baby portrays all contemporary instances of domestic abuse as surviving cultural symptoms of New World histories that combined seigniorial codes of chivalric masculinity and romantic love with the mercantile practice of chattel slavery. A series of articles in Essence on rape, domestic violence, and child abuse stands behind these portrayals. Though the essays do not fully anticipate the terms of Morrison’s critique, they record a chapter in black and Latina women’s ongoing response to white feminism that helped make it possible. In the magazine’s first years of publication, middle-class white women’s grievances rarely reverberated with its writers. But as the 1970s wore on, the emergence of second-wave feminist accounts of rape and domestic violence as society-wide problems allowed contributors to reframe earlier discussions about gender conflict in the black community in ways that both drew on and challenged white women’s universalist critiques of patriarchy.
In “The Ugly Crime of Rape,” Bernette Golden (1975, 37) counters lingering accounts of black cultural pathology when she outlines the role of mainstream gender norms in “fostering a rape mentality” and refutes “the myth that Black men primarily rape white women” with studies that identify rape as a “largely intraracial” crime in which the victim usually knows her attacker. Toni Breiter (1979) echoes these points in an article that identifies rape and wife beating as “silent crimes” (75) that, “contrary to popular opinion,” are “not limited to the minority poor in the ghettoes” but instead “cu[t] across all racial, economical, social and educational lines” (121). Underlining the cultural specificity of traditions that earlier white feminists like Susan Brownmiller had read through a universalist lens, Breiter attributes the treatment of wife beating “as a normal and acceptable occurrence in . . . Western civilization” to Roman and European legal codes that defined women as “physically owned by and spiritually absorbed into the male partner.” These codes, she argues, relegated wives to “child/protector relationship[s],” which left them “helpless in the hands of their husbands” (123). Golden (1975) revisits earlier analyses published in The Black Woman and Essence when she focuses on the colonial repercussions of these gender norms. In her account, rape’s status in the United States as a largely intraracial phenomenon has been complicated by a New World “psycho-history of rape” (37). Rooted in the institution of slavery, this psychohistory casts black women as “pawns” in a battle for dominance between white and black men and encourages black men to adopt “the white man’s attitude [that] Black women were not to be valued or protected” (37). Eldridge Cleaver’s remarks in Soul on Ice on raping black women for practice serve as her epigraph (36).
In his satirical essay, “The Role of the Beautiful Black Woman,” Milton Parrish (1974) offers a barbed assessment of how the “Black Is Beautiful” slogan mediates this psychohistory of rape. Throughout the article, he ventriloquizes the thoughts of a black warrior who wishes to see black women remain the “mothers of our brood, cookers of our victuals, [and] vessels of our lust.” As his warrior explains: “We changed your name from Aunt Jemima to Nefertiti. In other words, we changed your name, but not our game and with it we can make you do just about anything we want” (65). Parrish faults black women for conspiring in this reactionary agenda, which ultimately sets them up to take the blame for the enduring traumas of slavery. His warrior continues: “You see, we remember that time when the white man was able to have his way with you and we were powerless to do anything about it. In that impotence was the death of our manhood. But there won’t be a return engagement. . . . Our Nefertiti can’t very well sleep with the honkie, can she? And if she does, well she is not Nefertiti anymore, but a jiveass, Black bitch” (65). In Tar Baby, Son undergoes a similar reversal in his feelings toward Jadine just before he rapes her. “So have that white man’s baby, that’s your job,” he tells her. “You have been doing it for two hundred years, you can do it for two hundred more” (Morrison 2004, 269–70). Confronted with evidence of the money she receives from Valerian and the reviving prospect of her marriage to a white Frenchman, he experiences the traumatic past as a present threat to his gender and his race. In response, he reasserts a personal and political claim on her body, attacking her in the flesh as a living symbol of the race’s failure to unite in the face of ongoing white domination. But in committing an act of rape, Son revives the link with the ancestral history of rape that Jadine, as a light-skinned black woman, already embodies. In the overlapping temporal space generated by a dance of masks, he resubjects her to the traumatic past from which he is trying to free himself.
Jadine’s own fear of reliving the traumatic past fuels her desire to “be something other than” (183) her foremothers were. The presence of a chivalric male protector—first in the form of Valerian and then in the form of Son—initially appears to offer her a way to avoid their fate. Shortly after Son’s courtship begins, Jadine falls into the tar swamp that marks the spot where the island’s “abuse[d]” and “insulted” (10) river finally came to rest. Surrounded by the spirits of her female ancestors who peer down in wonder at her “desperate struggle . . . to be free” (183), she hugs the body of a young tree to keep from drowning. While the tree “shiver[s]” and “sway[s] as though it wished to dance with her” (182), Jadine makes herself sticky, vowing to “cling to [her] partner, hang on to him and never let him go” and to “love him and trust him with [her] life” because she is “up to [her] kneecaps in rot” (183). Her successful escape from the tar swamp suggests that the tree’s desire to dance has saved her. But when Son rapes her, it becomes clear that the trees and the tar swamp form a single ecosystem in which the prevalence of rot sets the figure of the dancing suitor moving and makes clinging to him so imperative. High up in their own trees, the spirits of the swamp women preside over a history of rape in which the dancing suitor, the chivalric male protector, and the seigniorial slave-master all play a part. As Jadine inches up the young tree “using the insides of her knees for leverage,” the rub of its bark lifts parts of her body away and leaves “tender skin behind” (183). To exit the ecosystem altogether, she must abandon the dance partner whose presence has ensured her survival but not her freedom from harm.
Jadine’s decision to exit Son’s life and the Isle des Chevaliers requires her to dismantle multiple investments in the era’s competing narratives of chivalric rescue and romantic love. Rejecting masculine “shoulders and limitless chests” along with other “dreams of safety,” she realizes that “she was the safety she longed for” (290). Morrison links this realization to Jadine’s assertion of her own claim on a black folkloric tradition that “identif[ies] danger” but also contains “the promise that if one understood it one would be free or made whole in some way” (Ruas 1994, 111). In her final exchange with Son, Jadine identifies the Tar Baby tale as the true story behind the “original dime” (169, 170) that grounds his idealized vision of a revolutionary black fraternity (205). In her retelling, Son’s dime comes from “some black woman like me [who] fucked a white man for it and then gave it to Frisco who made you work your ass off for it” (272). The new origin she assigns to his dime embeds Son’s masculinist fantasy of a just society within a larger New World—and now global—history in which the sexual exploitation of black women and the production of wealth have been inextricably linked. At that origin, Tar Baby’s role as “sticky mediator between . . . plantation owner and slave” (xii) merges with the countless black women who supplied the “sacred properties”—fertility, pregnancy, childbirth—with which “the first world of the world had been built” (183). Implicitly locating this earliest world not in Africa but in the Americas, Jadine identifies herself and other African American women as the ground of the ground on which contemporary US black liberation movements stand.7
When she responds to Son’s violence by generating a new version of Tar Baby’s story, Jadine disputes his self-positioning as the sole heir of the black diasporic cultural and aesthetic tradition. Constance García-Barrio (1980, 97) identifies folklore as “the invisible baggage West Africans brought to the New World” and hails the many “Black women in North and South America” who have used their “art and sensitivity [as] individual storytellers” to create “an inner treasury” from “their heritage of West African folklore plus their New World experience.” Jadine’s ability to tap this inner treasury in a moment of crisis aligns her with the novel’s oldest living storyteller, Thérèse, whose subversive tongue keeps the spirit of her maroon forebears alive. It also aligns her with Morrison (2004, xi), who remembers being asked to retell the old stories when she was a child and finding her mother’s and grandmother’s “judgment of [her] interpretation” “critical.” Through her act of storytelling, Jadine, the orphan child, claims membership in the group and simultaneously locates the resources to speak from and about her distinct place within it. The same act frees her from the fruitless quest for authenticity. When she heads back to Paris to “tangle with the woman in yellow” (290), she possesses something far more likely to advance the cause of black liberation: an ancestrally inflected understanding of the logic of racial oppression in the New World to place against—or combine with—the African woman’s knowledge of her own postcolonial condition.8
In her epigraph to Tar Baby, Morrison cites Paul’s remarks in 1 Corinthians that members “of the house of Chloe” have declared “that there are contentions among you” (ix). As John Duvall (1997, 328–29) has suggested, the epigraph contains a reference to Morrison’s birth name, Chloe Wofford. It also almost certainly refers to Essence, which, much like the household at the center of Tar Baby, proved to be a house of contention for black women across the nation during its first decade in print. The place of the storyteller within such a house was a matter that concerned Morrison deeply. Ross’s experiences at Essence may well have exacerbated Morrison’s initial doubts about the magazine, voiced in her 1974 comment about African Americans’ unprecedented “preoccup[ation] with the man”: “It’s as if all those Black children had their brains shot out just so we could wear a kente cloth bikini in ‘our own’ magazine (that looks just like ‘his’ magazine)” (Morrison 2008a, 35). But with time the founding partners realized that Ross had been right to insist that Essence “would have to take on the bigger topics of race and gender in equal measure to fashion and beauty if it was going to be relevant” (Lewis 2014, 112), and they gave subsequent editors more power to shape the magazine’s direction. When Marcia Gillespie became editor-in-chief in 1971, she abandoned the original plan to target young urban consumers and worked for years to build a socially and geographically diverse, multigenerational black readership for the magazine. She also brought an emphasis on current events and black history to its pages (Taylor 1995, 48–50). When Susan Taylor assumed the post in 1981, she developed a sustained focus on black women’s spirituality (54). In addition, both women sought to establish Essence as a forum in which black—and especially black women—writers could publish their creative work.
Gillespie’s and Taylor’s commitment to connecting contemporary black women writers with a broad, largely black female readership gave the magazine a unique role to play at a time when most other political and cultural institutions in the United States were not even trying to address its constituency. In a 1981 interview with Thomas LeClair, Morrison noted that she had “yet to read criticism that understands my work or is prepared to understand it” and mourned professional literary critics’ new disinterest in the task of creating a “great critical audience for the writer” (LeClair 1994, 127–28). During a crucial decade in her development as a writer, Essence consolidated just such an audience, using the resources of print journalism to expand the field of informed critical judgment that her mother and grandmother brought to the stories of her childhood. Under Marcia Gillespie’s editorial direction, Essence also created a national forum of debate that simultaneously exposed the deepening ideological divisions that defined African American experience in the black power era and encouraged conversation across those divisions. Locating the symbolic articulation of black women’s identities on a ground marked out by the profit motive and by the rival political visions of a splintering black liberation movement, it placed the meaning of “Black Is Beautiful” up for grabs. This indeterminacy was itself invigorating. Gillespie not only published seminal black feminist analyses that challenged the founding partners’ black capitalist and black cultural nationalist commitments, but she also gave subscribers a direct role in shaping the magazine’s contents (Taylor 1995, 48).
As a result, Morrison was able to create a novel that attended closely to the voices of the primary sector of its audience. Though numerous features of the magazine come up for critique in Tar Baby, the magazine’s contributors supply many of the terms of that critique in their pioneering accounts of the divisive constitution of racial blackness in the New World and the ongoing role of such division in perpetuating histories of violence against black women. The premium Gillespie placed on opening the pages of Essence to a broad range of voices also aided Morrison in her efforts to create a “peasant literature for my people” at a time when African Americans’ transition from a largely rural to a largely urban way of life had produced “a confrontation between old values of the tribes and new urban values” (LeClair 1994, 120, 121). As she told LeClair, Morrison believed that the novel offered city dwellers a way to preserve and transmit the subaltern black peasant culture whose existence had ensured the survival of the race (121). But she recognized that in order to express peasant values the form of the novel would have to change. In an Essence interview with Judith Wilson (1994, 132), she noted, “Peasant stories don’t pass any judgments. The village participates in the story and makes it whatever it is.” For this reason, they offer something “more vital than [a happy ending]—which is some kind of exploration of what the difficulty is in the first place” (134).
The dense web of intertextual connections that run between Tar Baby and Essence allows Morrison to reproduce an open-ended, collective mode of storytelling within the parameters of a print-based public sphere. Building directly on the work of other Essence contributors, she takes part in a communal reengagement with ancestral culture at a time when celebrations of the race’s royal antecedents in Africa threatened to devalue cultural legacies forged in the New World. This reengagement leads not only to the creation of mask-like characters who inhabit multiple temporal dimensions but also to the political rejection of the “happy ending,” which the novel had inherited from medieval prose romance. As Morrison explains, when the Tar Baby story surfaces within and then shatters her novel’s narratives of chivalric rescue and romantic love, it denies a powerful communal wish for Jadine and Son to “resolve their situation and hold hands and walk off into the sunset” (Wilson 1994, 134). In denying this, Morrison negates black power assertions about the revolutionary promise of black romantic love and chooses instead to secure a future for ancestral cultural legacies whose own promises had yet to be adequately deciphered or fulfilled. When she assigns the novel’s last version of the Tar Baby story to Jadine, Morrison opens up the circle of the tale’s potential tellers to include Essence magazine’s beautiful black fashion models and young urban reader-consumers. In doing so, she “earn[s] a new life” for “the original tale” and another new life for the matrilinear tradition of storytelling that has encouraged generations of black women to tell “their way through a buried history to stinging truth” (Morrison 2004, xiii).
In T-Baby, the underground movement supplies T-Baby’s all-female team with pills that allow them to manipulate white men’s sexual fantasies without being touched. Once the men are incapacitated, they steal their weapons to arm the revolution. Fran Sanders’s piece “Dear Black Man” contains an anecdote that also conflates the Tar Baby story with contemporary gender conflict in the black community. See Sanders 2005, 90–91.
Bragg (2015, 34–35) also references the history of plaçage in her reading of Jadine.
On literary representations of plaçage, see Clark 2013, 132–61, 168–71, 188–93; Martin 2000, 66–68; and Nagel 2014, 10, 12. I thank my student Jacqueline DeRobertis for the reference to Nagel and the Sorbonne. Faulkner’s (1990, 93) Charles Bon makes particularly clear the associations of literary plaçage with rescue—“sav[ing] that one”—and ensuing devotion. Morrison (1992, vii–xxx) returns to this reading of racial tokenism in her discussion of Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the US Supreme Court.
In 1970 Essence published a fashion shoot featuring black models marching on the streets of Paris next to the headline: “Paris 1970 Take-over! The Word Is Free!” (Essence1970, 30). On black models and early civil rights struggles, see Cheddie 2002.
For comments on the emancipatory power of black love in a reading of Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, see Newton 2009b, 124, 133. Morrison alludes to the film and Newton’s reading of it in her account of Cheyenne’s death and in her trope of the night women who taunt Jadine with the mythical power of their breasts.
All these ads appeared in the April 1978 issue of Essence.
On this point see Yates-Richard 2016, 504.
On this point see Bragg 2015, 29–30.