Toni Morrison's first novel (1970) is brutally beautiful. She creates a kind of genealogy of brutality, showing how it's passed down from from white to black, from parent to child, finally settling on the head of the weakest and most innocent: a little girl. Pecola Breedlove is eleven, and in the eyes of the world and in her own eyes her blackness makes her ugly. She wishes for a miracle that will give her blue eyes. Pecola is the ultimate victim, but those who victimize her are victims, too—victims of past brutality, victims of hopelessness, victims of self-hatred. Even love—the thing that Pecola wants the most, that she believes blues eyes will give her—is deformed by brutality and self-hatred. It's a hard novel, but an important one that should not be missed. Morrison refuses to slip into easy judgment of her characters, even those who are violent and mean and commit unforgivable acts, because she knows where that violence and meanness comes from. She sees inside her characters the innocence and vulnerability that become warped by living a hard life in a racist society.
The Bluest Eye is about seeing: seeing beauty and ugliness, accepting society's images of beauty and ugliness. For these little black girls in 1941, Shirley Temple is the template of beauty; fair-haired, blue-eyed, universally-adored, she is everything that Pecola is not. Films—black-and-white projections of idealized images—are important in the novel. Pecola's mother, Pauline, goes through a period of soaking up movies at the local cinema, absorbing their ideas of beauty and love: "It was really a simple pleasure, but she learned all there was to love and all there was to hate." At one point in the novel, Pecola walks home with Maureen, a light-skinned girl who is popular and "cute." When she learns Pecola's name, Maureen asks, "Wasn't that the name of the girl in Imitation of Life?" Actually, the girl in that film is named Peola—the character is a light-skinned African-American girl who rejects her race and passes as white. The film reinforces the idea that blackness is ugly. (In reality, the actress who played Peola, Fredi Washington, refused—despite her light skin and green eyes—to "pass." She often had to wear dark make-up to play black roles, and eventually found it impossible to find work as a black actress.)
But a novel, despite Toni Morrison's stunning descriptive language, doesn't allow you to "see" as a film does. The reader is told that Pecola is ugly, but that physical ugliness is not constantly before the reader's eyes. What the reader "sees" is the fragile beauty of a human soul being cracked, like a mirror, by the weight of images. Pecola believes that if her eyes—"those eyes that held the pictures"—were different, were blue, the world would be different too.
My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .
The frontispiece from Countee Cullen's The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929). Illustration by Charles Cullen. Click to enlarge. On...
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