In 1994, I was a 4th grader with an imagination that often found me daydreaming myself far, far away from the confines of my windowless classroom, from the boring, incomplete or inaccurate history lessons and the math that was becoming increasingly difficult to perform. Though I loved books, I also found myself in need of escape from the overwhelmingly white children that dominated so much of the literature my all-black classmates and I were tasked with reading.
Leisure reading gave me the freedom to seek representation on the page, but that wasn’t always the easiest task. There were some options crafted for young African-American readers, but the vast majority of pre-teen lit was about white kids. I found some common ground with the members of The Babysitters Club and the “perfect size 6”-wearing twins of Sweet Valley High when I could. But they were no match for the magic of seeing the world through the eyes of black authors, even if most black-penned fiction was written for adult audiences. I had to find myself where I could, and it was that search for stories that felt like they were penned with me in mind that led me to The Bluest Eye, the first novel of Toni Morrison, the Nobel prize winning author who died last week at the age of 88.
When I swiped the yellowed, tattered copy from our bookshelf, I knew that it was An Important Book, and I begged my mother to let me read it.
Published in 1970, the book focuses on a group of young girls who, as Morrison did, came of age in Lorain, Ohio on the heels of The Great Depression. The lives of sisters Claudia and Friedia McTeer, aged 9 and 10, are changed forever when their parents take in a foster child, 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove.
My mother warned me that The Bluest Eye was one of the most emotionally difficult books she’d ever read, that I may come across some things that I wouldn’t understand and some that would make me uncomfortable. I brushed off her concerns and took great pride in placing the novel in my bookbag, excited for my teachers to see what a serious and mature reader they had before them.
Alas, I was but a few pages in when I felt a swift punch to the gut: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby…”
The youngest Breedlove’s life is largely defined by violence: insults from peers about her looks, bearing witness to fights between her parents and, most devastatingly, the rapes she endured at the hands of her father, Cholly. Though our lives were quite different, I recognised her in the faces of girls I knew who were bullied for simply showing up with dark skin and kinky hair, and those who seemed perpetually weary from home lives that didn’t provide them the tenderness they deserve.
Among the devastating consequences of the trauma faced by Pecola is an obsession with having blue eyes---a theme inspired by a conversation that Morrison had with a friend during her own childhood who longed for the coveted genetic defect herself. In a forward originally penned for a 1993 re-release, she wrote of how that longing horrified her in real time (“I looked around to picture her with them and was violently repelled by what she would look like if she had her wish”) and haunted her decades later: “Who had looked at her and made her feel so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale?”
On the other hand, Claudia both rejects and questions the pervasive fixation on white beauty and white girlhood. She loathes Shirley Temple in a way that rang very close to my own distaste for the Olsen Twins and others like them who twinkled in the eyes of an adoring public. When Pecola and Frieda fawn over Temple and her performance with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Claudia struggles to hide her malcontent: “he was my friend, my uncle, my daddy...who ought to have been soft-shoeing and chuckling with me.”
It wasn’t the famed dancer’s relationship to Temple that unnerved Claudia (and me), but what it represented: white girls were almost universally recognised as precious, lovable and childlike, while black ones were too often viewed as small, unlovable adults. The sight of one of our best and brightest men smiling and tap-dancing with one of them was an insult that would be heaped upon the injury of white supremacy over and over again throughout the lives of girls and women like us—even girls like Pecola that are rarely treated in a manner befitting how soft, pure and naïve they can be.
The Bluest Eye was written in the heyday of the “Black is beautiful” movement, but takes place long before there was a mass effort to teach black girls to love their features.
By my childhood, black dolls were common enough that my parents were able to prohibit me from playing with white ones. Claudia, on the other hand, received what well-intentioned adults assumed would be a beloved toy at every holiday--and used them to express her malcontent:
“Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs—all the world agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every child treasured,” Claudia bemoaned, unable to take pleasure in the plastic monuments to the privileged. “I destroyed white baby dolls. But the dismembering of dolls was not the true horror. The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls…to discover what eluded me: the secret of the magic they weaved on others. What made people look at them and say ‘Awwwww,’ but not for me?”
The mid-story introduction of a relatively wealthy transfer student highlights a complicated duality that exists among black girls and women on the basis of complexion. According to Claudia, Maureen Peel was “a high-yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back.” Classmates, teachers, white kids and black boys all treated her with a level of respect that would not be afforded to the majority of her female counterparts. She also would take permanent residence in my mind as the sort of light-skinned girl I never wanted to be: one who seemed to take pleasure in receiving more “Awwwwws” then she might have if she were just a few shades darker.
A conversation between Maureen and the three lead characters takes a hostile turn when she makes reference to a rumor about the dark secret of Pecola’s home life which leads to her calling the other girls “black and ugly.” Her acceptance of her place on the social hierarchy increased just how how uncomfortable I felt at knowing the “magic” I sometimes weaved on adults and peers alike came at the expense of the girls who I consider to be my sisters (and, perhaps, would be among the factors fueling my own sense of appearance-related self loathing.)
Wise beyond her years, Claudia recognises that while the new girl in town may have been complicit, she was not responsible for their pain: “…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.”
That unnamed “thing” is white supremacy; however, though racism is the root cause behind much of the trauma Pecola endures—as well as the pain and challenges experienced by other characters in the novel, the white gaze is largely absent within its pages. In a 1993 preface to the novel, Morrison explained that she deliberately chose not to focus on racism functioned via direct contact, but instead “on how something as grotesque as the demonisation of an entire race” might manifest in one of society’s most vulnerable figures: a young girl.
Early in the text, Pecola poses a haunting question to the McTeer sisters: “How do you get somebody to love you?” I knew even then that she didn’t mean a partner or a husband, but rather someone, anyone to treat her with the care that the white girls, the dolls, Maureen and even Claudia and Freida experienced. Subject to contempt because of her dark skin and undeniably Black features, Pecola identifies the “magic” of white femininity as the answer to her problems. If only she could be like them, perhaps she could, too, could be loved.
Coincidentally enough, my first read of The Bluest Eye took place around the same time that Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number,” an unflinching testament to an illegal, immoral and predatory relationship between a 15-year-old black girl and her 27-year-old mentor and producer, would make its way up the charts. The late Aaliyah would not be maligned and cast aside by her community like Pecola Breedlove—quite the opposite—but she would not be protected by them either.
Twenty-five years later, I am a writer myself. Though I am certainly not of the caliber of the great Toni Morrison, she is among the master teachers who helped me to develop my ability to analyse the conditions of my people and speak of, about and to us without pandering to the outside gaze. I’ve taken on the likes of R. Kelly and other predators who’ve harmed black girls and women in honour of the Pecolas and Aaliyahs among us who never got the protection they required. I’ve centered black women and girls in a world that still doesn’t believe we deserve the space, and I can do that because Morrison did it for me, and for herself.
I also now find myself faced with the task my mother grappled with back when I first encountered The Bluest Eye: helping a young daughter come to terms with her complicated identity and arming her with the tools to battle with the forces committed to rendering her insignificant.
Trauma is inextricable from black girlhood; it's deeply embedded in our DNA, it flows through the veins of the women who raise us (and, at times, excuse or ignore violence against us as if it were a birthright that cannot be denied). and defines so many of our experiences. To hide our little ones from it is to deny them the ability to identify “the thing” that chokes us, that misinforms our self-image and hinders our range of motion throughout the world—and as Morrison’s first (!) novel taught us, to discuss black struggle without particular attention to the condition of our girls is not to discuss it at all.
The Bluest Eye destroyed white baby dolls, chipped away at the unreasonable preciousness of white girlhood and gave life to the oft-ignored humanity of black girl children that had been lost to both the crushing grip of racism, and a laser focus in our communities on how it impacted black men and boys. At 9, the book lent credence to my gut feelings and a diagnosis for ills that often felt like hallucinations. At 35, I am still floored by the beauty and precision of our now-ancestor’s voice, still sitting at her feet to learn about both our world and how to write about it.
Toni Morrison’s eighty-eight rotations around the sun shook the Earth in the most glorious way—I am confident that my daughter’s daughters’ daughters will read her work with the same fervour and reverence as the two generations of Morrison fans born before me—yet there is a deep sorrow that I cannot help but to feel for knowing that I’ll never get to look her in the eye and thank her for what she created for our people. Alas, we are all better because she lived and because she had the bravery to love black girls out loud.