Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Be(e)ing and "Truth": 'Tar Baby's' Signifying on Sylvia Plath's Bee Poems

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Be(e)ing and "Truth": 'Tar Baby's' Signifying on Sylvia Plath's Bee Poems

Article excerpt

In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison outlines a critical reading practice by which we might study "American Africanism" in canonical (usually white male, sometimes white female) texts. As she defines it, Playing in the Dark investigates "the ways in which a non-white, Africanlike (or Africanist) presence or persona was constructed in the United States, and the imaginative uses this fabricated presence served" (6). Morrison's readings of works by Cather, Melville, Twain, Poe, and Hemingway convincingly illustrate how an Africanist presence is used in their works. Ultimately, whatever literary strategies the writers employ, Morrison argues that the "always choked representation of an Africanist presence" in their work is a reflection of the effects of a racialized society on nonblacks; the misreadings, distortions, erasures, and caricatures marking the Africanist presence in nonblack texts say more about the writer's fears, desires, and ambivalences than they state any truth about African Americans (17). Some critical works have already begun the project Morrison suggests, such as Alan Nadel's Invisible Criticism: Ralph Ellison and the American Canon, Dana D. Nelson's The Word in Black and White: Reading "Race" in American Literature, 1638-1876, and Eric J. Sundquist's To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature. Such work needs to expand into exploring the Africanist presence in twentieth-century canonical literature.(1)

The rereadings Morrison calls for can clarify both the racial substructures of texts by significant precursors and the ways Morrison's own fiction responds to the call of her theory. In this essay, I would like to focus on one such response: Morrison's signifying repetition and revision in Tar Baby of the bee queen from Sylvia Plath's bee poem sequence in Ariel, an intertextual relation which reveals an unacknowledged racial (and racist) dimension in Plath's poetry.(2) Near the end of Tar Baby, Morrison describes in some detail the life of the queen of the soldier ants on Isle des Chevaliers.(3) Following directly on the departure of Jadine, the description of the ant queen appears as a commentary on Jadine's quest for self, thereby recalling - in both the image of an insect queen and the theme of female selfhood - Plath's bee sequence. This is of particular significance because many critics have interpreted Plath's bee queen as the emblem for a female self. Rereading through Morrison reveals this self to be a white self, constructed in part by the fear and repression of blackness.

Morrison's repetition and revision of Plath's bee queen in Tar Baby uncovers an Africanist presence in Plath's bee poems, a presence unnoticed by Plath critics. Furthermore, fiction, unlike criticism, allows Morrison a space for a corrective revision to such distorted representations of Africanism, a place in which the truth of African American being can be told. Reading Plath through Morrison thus reveals the American Africanism in Plath's bee poem sequence and the limitations of Plath's (white) feminist vision; reading Morrison through Plath tells us the other side of the story and expands our understanding of the limitations of Jadine's choice at the end of the novel. Furthermore, Morrison's novel self-reflexively comments on the power relations at work when discourses make competing claims of epistemological and ontological truth.

The ant queen parable in Tar Baby occurs immediately after Jadine's plane takes off for France, thus suggesting its role as commentary on Jadine's quest for self. Morrison details the lives of the soldier ants, who "have no time for dreaming" (250). Almost all of them are women because, as Morrison writes, "the life of their world requires organization so tight and sacrifice so complete there is little need for males and they are seldom produced" (250). However, the queen of the soldier ants vividly remembers her bridal flight with a male, her "one, first and last copulation" (250). …

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