Foreign Exotic or Domestic Drudge? the African American Woman in "Quicksand" and "Tar Baby."(novels by African American Women Nella Larson and Toni Morrison)

By Rayson, Ann | MELUS, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Foreign Exotic or Domestic Drudge? the African American Woman in "Quicksand" and "Tar Baby."(novels by African American Women Nella Larson and Toni Morrison)


Rayson, Ann, MELUS


Both Helga Crane in Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928) and Jadine Childs in Toni Morrison's Tar Baby (1981) are faced with racial and sexual choices. Both women, orphans taken in by an aunt and uncle, are courted by white European men and black American men who represent respectively, wealth, position, power, and asexuality versus poverty, anti-intellectualism, and sexuality. Helga rejects her European suitor, the Danish painter Axel Olsen, while Jadine fin ally opts to return to her life as a fashion model in Paris. What Europe, through these men, represents for black American women is the other: control, power, coolness, perhaps the benevolence of the white master who treats the black woman as an exotic, a child, a pet, and the embodiment of alluring, primitive sexuality. What makes Helga finally reject a pampered life in Copenhagen, where she is feted and admired, and makes Jadine choose to return to Paris is worth exploring--the European view of the African American woman, as opposed to the American view, both white and black, and the choices available to her in these novels. Both Quicksand and Tar Baby are, in the end, sad indictments of the choices available to African American women.

Josephine Baker will forever symbolize the mythical black American woman in Europe--she played her part daringly and successfully, creating the exotic primitive Paris was ready for in the 1920s, determined to forget the ravages of World War I and embrace what Freud explained and the Victorian era repressed, sexuality. A new interest in things African, popularized by Picasso and others, further set the stage for Baker's arrival as did the rise of jazz music, the blues, and Harlem. However, black women writers did not flock to Paris the way black American male writers, such as McKay, Hughes, Cullen, Locke, and others, did. As Michel Fabre says, "many of the women writers of the Harlem Renaissance were unable to travel abroad. A few did go to France, like Dorothy Peterson and novelist Nella Larsen, but their stays were either very brief or have been difficult to document" (114).(1) Europeans in Quicksand and Tar Baby want to see Helga and Jadine as rare exotics, as they saw Baker. The black American male was treated less as an object in Europe; nevertheless, a number of Harlem Renaissance writers exploited the exotic primitive image then in vogue, notably Claude McKay in his novels. Fabre describes the contemporary Paris of Tar Baby as a "social paradise in which a black woman is welcome and desired and loved, especially when she is fair-skinned and European-looking" (289). Helga at first enjoys the attention she receives as a mulatta in Copenhagen, then finally rejects it. In the end, Jadine eschews what Helga will settle for--a hard life in a small black Southern town. The central images or symbols in both novels, quicksand and the tar pit, reveal what these women have to combat. Helga sinks into quicksand as her life travels in a downward spiral almost from the beginning. We applaud her moral ground in rejecting the highest European bidder for her body, but are clearly told that her alternative choice is worse--a sinking life in a small town as the beleaguered and eternally pregnant wife of an ignorant Southern preacher. Jadine, on the other hand, remains symbolically in the tar pit, the tar-baby made and put in the road by Brer Fox to attract Brer Rabbit, Son Green, the black man who is finally smart enough to leave her there. But he is not smart enough to leave her alone, and she pulls herself up out of the tar pit and disappears. Joel Chandler Harris, like Toni Morrison, leaves the ending to the Tar-Baby story ambiguous:

   "Did the fox eat the rabbit?" asked the little boy to whom the story had
   been told. "Dat's all de fur de tale goes," replied the old man. "He mout,
   end den agin he moutent. Some say Jedge B'ar come 'long en loosed im--some
   say he didn't."

Created by the farmer, her white patron Valerian (or Brer Fox), Jadine lures Son into her trap. …

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