Saturday, May 10, 2008

saturday book rec : the bluest eye

Toni Morrison is widely recognized as one of America’s greatest literary authors. However, because of her race, she is most often labeled a great “African American” author. When was the last time you heard John Updike, or Jane Smiley, or any other pale-faced writer, described as a great “European American” author? Or even as a “white author”?

Racial labels are rarely applied to white American authors, or to other kinds of artists who are white, unless their work is being compared to that of non-white artists. The latter, however, have to drag around their group identities, representing and supposedly speaking for their race wherever they go.

Toni Morrison’s writing has always demonstrated her willingness to take on this burden, which she does by addressing the manifold realities of “her (black) people.” However, categorizing her this way limits recognition of the insightful artistry with which she depicts and examines other subjects. In her first novel, The Bluest Eye, which was published in 1971, the title itself suggests that this story, about African American characters living in Ohio during the 1940s, is really about something else.

Although this novel is one of several that routinely earn Morrison praise for producing “masterpieces of African American literature,” The Bluest Eye really focuses on three other topics: Love and Beauty, and a social force that still determines who most deserves both, American White Supremacy.

The novel’s main characters are a trio of girls—Claudia and Frieda McTeer, part of a relatively secure, middle-class family, and Pecola Breedlove, whose family mostly does the very opposite of what their name implies. As the novel opens, Pecola is staying with the McTeers because her own family unit has been destroyed. That happened when her father, Cholly Breedlove, raped and impregnated her. As she drinks way too much milk from a Shirley Temple cup, Pecola gradually becomes obsessed with acquiring that which the world most evidently loves, blue eyes.

Claudia narrates alternating sections of the novel from an adult perspective, sorting through her childhood memories in an effort to understand how Pecola’s life was ruined. She retells and reveals much else along the way, especially the forces that bore down on the lives of everyone she knew back then. The novel’s other sections, told by an unknown narrator, relate the life stories of various members of the Breedlove family, and also towards the end of the novel, that of a peculiarly clean “dirty old man,” a fraudulent spiritual adviser named Soaphead Church.

Throughout the novel, as in real life, black people are continually faced with the assumptions and demands of a white world. Some of these involve encounters with actual people, as when white furniture movers refuse to take back the Breedlove’s torn couch, or when a white candy store owner displays his contemptuous indifference towards Pecola because she’s black. But like the great Modernist writers she has studied and emulated (she wrote a Masters thesis on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner), Morrison is more interested in interior landscapes. In The Bluest Eye, she burrows deep into her characters, exploring the insidious ability of white supremacy to ambush the black psyche, ultimately crippling what we now identify as “self-esteem.”

The novel’s primary object of critique is the “thing” that makes some children automatically more valuable than others, more loved because they are considered more beautiful. This “thing” finds its way into the novel’s girls via their parents and the other black adults around them, who coo over white babies on the street but not black ones, and who give their black children white dolls, Shirley Temple drinking cups, and affectionate nicknames based on white movie stars.

One of many painful scenes in the novel describes the failed efforts of Claudia and her sister to befriend a favored, light-skinned classmate, Maureen Peal. All the girls can eventually manage is hatred for each other, and the adult Claudia explains that the cause was something external to them all, something that caused adults to love Maureen more than Claudia and Frieda. Compared to the fair Maureen, Claudia says,

We were lesser. Nicer, brighter, but still lesser . . . . What was the secret? What did we lack? Why was it important? And so what? Guileless and without vanity, we were still in love with ourselves then. We felt comfortable in our skins, enjoyed the news that our senses released to us, admired our dirt, cultivated our scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness.

And all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us.

In Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-esteem, bell hooks discusses this same “thing,” which is actually a set of standards for beauty and worth. hooks encapsulates these standards with the term “white supremacist aesthethics,” and she explains well the vexed relationship that Morrison’s novel is all about, that between white standards and black females:

The black female body is the site where white supremacist thinking about beauty and blackness is reinscribed again and again. Dark-skinned black males, thought often portrayed stereotypically, play a number of roles in mass media. They are not always and only villains. They are not always and only depicted as ugly, or less than desirable.

Yet whether the images are those of black girls or black women, the color caste is in place and dictates the standards. The contemporary movie Soul Food depicts images of three black sisters, all of whom are fair skinned with straight hair, all of whom are portrayed as desirable. Their black male partners are different colors—one is dark, one is light, one is brown skinned—but they are all depicted as desirable. The only darker-skinned black female character is the obese brown-skinned mama; she is not portrayed as desirable.

These racist, sexist stereotypes are all-pervasive. They set the standards in all mass media. Yet scholars and writers have not created a progressive body of work that examines fully the connection between shaming about the black body and low self-esteem. It continues to be the case that the most brutal stigma of color affects females more than males.

“Internalized racism” has become the standard term for describing the effects of white supremacy on non-white self-esteem, and Morrison’s novel may well be the most effective, moving description of how such standards hold back and even destroy non-white people. The Breedloves feel continuously “ugly” and act accordingly, and the primary reason is little more than their disfavored black skin. Pecola’s mother, Pauline, gradually gathers a sense of herself as despicable, especially by going to the movies and comparing herself to the parade of white beauties; one consequence is her subsequent inability to love her children well.

The broken personality of Pecola’s father, Cholly, is also traced back to encounters with white power. Like hooks, Morrison demonstrates through Cholly’s story that white supremacy affects black men differently, because men are valued more for what they do than for what they are. As hooks puts this difference, “sexism leads men to be judged more by how they perform than by how they appear.” Being interrupted and laughed at by white men while performing one of his foundational acts—his first sexual encounter—becomes for Cholly a literally defining moment for understanding himself, and as a result, for the inability of another Breedlove parent to love effectively.

Pecola’s repeatedly crushing encounters with the many guises of white supremacy bring her to Soaphead Church, a man who says he can give her those blue eyes, if she will consent to giving him something in return. By novel’s end, Claudia’s realizations include the fact that “Love is never any better than the lover,” and that black beauty fails to gain self-affirming recognition because it’s defined so strongly as the opposite, by a blind, omnipresent white eye.

The Bluest Eye was published in 1971, at the height of that particular coalescence of the Civil Rights era known as the black power movement. Although Morrison had her reservations about that movement, her first novel demonstrates her alignment with its aggressive assertion of black self-esteem.

Like Morrison herself, though, The Bluest Eye also deserves credit for artfully depicting the awesome power and reach of white supremacy.

Finally, for a profound and highly influential analysis by this “African American author” of some more specific white behavior and tendencies, I also recommend her brief non-fiction work, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the American Literary Imagination.

Now that James Baldwin is no longer with us, white America has no better, more insightful and loving critic of itself than Toni Morrison.


PS--For more on white beauty standards, see this earlier post


  1. Toni Morrison is wonderful.

    I love "Jazz" especially.

  2. Hi! I know this is in older post, but I've been reading through your blog, and it's way cool. I am white and I am trying to educate myself to be anti-racist. (I don't think I have educated myself enough yet to claim that term, which is why I don't use it).

    Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that this post inspired me to reread the Bluest Eye. Thanks! I love that book!

  3. That's great to hear, Jesse! And I'm glad you've been inspired to go back to this novel--it IS an amazing, loving work.


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code