by Toni Morrison, 1970
Okay. I get it now. Toni Morrison. Wow.
Although I’ve previously read one of Morrison’s books, it was for a class long ago and I remember very little. Essentially, this is the first time I’ve really read her and I can’t say how happy I am that decided put forth the effort to conquer her works this year. I was unprepared for how painful, how evocative, how visceral this story was. Yet, I was also unprepared for how beautiful her words would be.
To judge by the book’s description, The Bluest Eye seems like a simple tale of a young black girl who yearns to have blue eyes, a trait synonymous with white beauty. But, there was so much more within these pages that I almost wish I had gone in ignorant of the supposed premise. You see, it isn’t simply that dark-skinned Pecola Breedlove wishes to be white. There is an entire history of racial prejudice here that Morrison mines for its uncomfortable truth.
The Bluest Eye is told from the first-person perspective of Claudia MacTeer, a foster sister of sorts to Pecola, as well as a number third-person perspectives of other characters in the story. While I found this narration style a bit disorienting at first, it ultimately allowed for Morrison to examine not just why Pecola wants blue eyes, but everything in her family’s history that led to that desire. The Breedloves are described as ugly, as if wearing a “cloak of ugliness” with conviction, and parents Pauline and Cholly’s constant fighting, along with Cholly’s drunkenness and their harsh treatment of Pecola, do nothing to refute this image. Having seen the way others treat fair-skinned classmate Maureen Peal, and the way her mother treats the blonde for whose family she works, Pecola can’t help but think that:
[I]f those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different…If she looked different, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they’d say, ‘Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes.’
For, bad things do happen to Pecola. This is the story of her loss of innocence and her desperate wish that whiteness could wash it away. It is about the culture of blackness and the still relevant higher value that adults impart on fair-skinned children. It is about the difference between “colored people” and “n****rs,” the line between them “not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it, and the watch had to be constant.” It is about the battle fought against blackness, the modification of behaviors, the way of presenting oneself that show “the careful development of thrift, patience, high morals, and good manners,” that prove one has gotten rid of “the funkiness.” It is about all of these girls feeling lesser because of the darkness of their skin:
Dolls we could destroy, but we could not destroy the honey voices of parents and aunts, the obedience in the eyes of our peers, the slippery light in the eyes of our teachers when they encountered the Maureen Peals of the world. What was the secret? What did we lack? Why was it important?… 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.
It is easy to proclaim that what happens to Pecola does not happen to her because she is dark, that her belief that white skin and blue eyes will save her is pure naivete, but there is such painful truth about what whiteness affords to be explored here. The Bluest Eye is a difficult story to read – there is little uplifting to be found – but there is so much conviction behind Morrison’s words that it cannot and should not be ignored. It’s one of the few books that, upon its close, I wanted to go back and start reading again.