Here’s how to save yourself, your beautiful self.

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison

Once the decision has been made to read a certain book based on whatever criteria or recommendation has inspired the choice, I avoid reading blurbs and forewords until the end. More often than not, it is satisfying to completely consume the story within before reading other readers’ opinions or the author’s intentions spelled out in black and white on or just inside the cover. Satisfying, because I often receive validation of my own opinion, my own emotions, particularly with good books. So is the case with The Bluest Eye.

I heard of this book many years before I actually sat down to read. A reader and hopeful writer can’t possibly embark on a chosen life of reading and writing without hearing of Toni Morrison. She is out there, generous genius teacher and author, her works waiting for careful perusal, for minds that will absorb and consider and decide. I waited, unsure then how to articulate that instinct demanded I take the time to mature, to hone my blunt mind into a finer, more delicate receptacle for Ms. Morrison’s work. I waited years more after a professor said my piece, “Springtime”, called up the memory of The Bluest Eye, with it’s nursery rhyme refrains. When I finally opened the book, it was immediately apparent that I still wasn’t ready.

Even so, since consuming that story, since delving into the foreword and snippets of interviews with the author, since scrounging around for reviews and reading articles that list The Bluest Eye as one of the most challenged books on national school reading lists, I am grateful that I waited so long to read, grateful that I read when I did.

Consuming all this information, listening to Morrison’s own voice explain why she wrote the book, why she made specific decisions regarding the narration, has brought me to a few conclusions that might make great suggestions for teachers who would like to present this book to senior level high school students (to share it with lower level groups would not be appropriate, in my opinion). Before I get into that, however, I want to share excerpts from the most eloquently informative book foreword I have ever read.

The assertion of racial beauty was not a reaction to the self-mocking, humorous critique of cultural/racial foibles common in all groups, but against the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze. I focused, therefore, on how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female. In trying to dramatize the devastation that even casual racial contempt can cause, I chose a unique situation, not a representative one.

The extremity of Pecola’s case stemmed largely from a crippled and crippling family—unlike the average black family and unlike the narrator’s. But singular as Pecola’s life was, I believed some aspects of her woundability were lodged in all young girls. In exploring the social and domestic aggression that could cause a child to literally fall apart, I mounted a series of rejections, some routine, some exceptional, some monstrous, all the while trying hard to avoid complicity in the demonization process Pecola was subjected to. That is, I did not want to dehumanize the characters who trashed Pecola and contributed to her collapse.

One problem was centering the weight of the novel’s inquiry on so delicate and vulnerable a character could smash her and lead readers into the comfort of pitying her rather than into an interrogation of themselves for the smashing. My solution—break the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader—seemed to me a good idea, the execution of which does not satisfy me now. Besides, it didn’t
work: many readers remain touched but not moved.The other problem, of course, was language.

Holding the despising glance while sabotaging it was difficult. The novel tried to hit the raw nerve of racial self-contempt, expose it, then soothe it not with narcotics but with language that replicated the agency I discovered in my first experience of beauty. Because that moment was so racially infused (my revulsion at what my school friend wanted: very blue eyes in a very black skin; the harm she was doing to my concept of the beautiful), the struggle was for writing that was indisputably black. I don’t yet know quite what that is, but neither that nor the attempts to disqualify an effort to find out keeps me from trying to pursue it.

My choices of language (speakerly, aural, colloquial), my reliance for full comprehension on codes embedded in black culture, my effort to effect immediate co-conspiracy and intimacy (without any distancing, explanatory fabric), as well as my attempt to shape a silence while breaking it are attempts to transfigure the complexity and wealth of Black American culture into a language worthy of the culture. Thinking back now on the problems expressive language presented to me, I am amazed by their currency, their tenacity.

Hearing “civilized” languages debase humans, watching cultural exorcisms debase literature, seeing oneself preserved in the amber of disqualifying metaphors—I can say that my narrative project is as difficult today as it was then.

A class study of this book, in my opinion, should begin with studying those last two paragraphs. The question of language considered by the author as she wrote Pecola’s unique situation on the page demonstrates just how vital Morrison understood her story to be, how vital it was to her to express the tragedies humankind brings upon itself. In doing so, she told her side of the story as well as that of several fictional characters. She expressed her own fears, hopes, disappointments, and brought to light the dangers of simply being a child.

Allowing the students to approach the study as if each of them has previously stated their wish to find the words, the language, to express the overwhelming tragedies, hopes, successes, fears, dangers, loves, injustices, and disappointments experienced thus far in their own lives would put them eye-to-eye with this author and her narrator. To do so, would allow the students to step into this story with an important mission—to observe a regional, cultural, socially historical masterpiece unfolding.

That’s what Morrison has created here—a textbook of self and social expression, a social history, a book of language arts.

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