IS IT POSSIBLE TO ESCAPE A SYSTEM that has intentionally set you up to fail? How can we dismantle a system that teaches us that the lies that feed self-hatred are the gospel truth? In Toni Morrison’s 1970 debut novel, The Bluest Eye, beauty is a social privilege enforced by white supremacy and 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove is the perfect victim. She’s a Black girl without any real sense of home, so she develops a mask that she uses to stay “concealed, veiled, eclipsed—peeping out from behind the shroud very seldom.” From the book’s first pages, it seems almost inevitable that Breedlove will succumb to tragedy, becoming a victim of her circumstances and her surroundings. But by the end of the book, she’s alone and ostracized, grief and abuse having driven her to madness. She becomes “a winged but grounded bird, intent on the blue void it could not reach—could not even see—but which filled the valleys of the mind.”
Breedlove’s mental and emotional demise is a slow drowning, a spiritual death that leaves behind a husk of a person, which is what makes Morrison’s debut so profound: It captures a collection of brutalities with the swiftness of a sharpened knife. And 50 years after it was originally published, The Bluest Eye still illuminates Morrison’s deft ability to make Black girls feel and be seen. Morrison’s portrait of the fatalities of racism still scares people, including those who sit on school and library boards. The novel has landed on the American Library Association’s (ALA) Top Ten Most Challenged Books list because it’s considered “sexually explicit,” “unsuited for [its targeted] age group,” and “contains controversial issues.” (The book ranked at number 15 on ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list from 2000 to 2009.) But why are the issues raised in the book “controversial”?
While Morrison doesn’t filter Breedlove’s childhood environment through the lens of sentimentality, she tenderly portrays the fleeting moments of happiness that come from the ignorance and naiveté of adolescence. But “ugliness,” one of the novel’s running themes, is examined under an unforgiving spotlight because it’s such a familiar experience for young Black girls—Morrison included—who quickly learn they don’t have the same amount of bodily autonomy as their white peers. Unlike white girls and women, Black girls are not given the benefit of innocence, and a refusal to conform to white beauty standards is viewed as a reflection of moral failure. In schools and at work, Black girls and women of all ages are told their natural hair is unkempt and “inappropriate,” and some schools have even adopted dress codes that specifically target natural hair, including the wearing of braids and locs.
Even if you’re an Olympian making gymnastics history, there’s extra scrutiny to have your hair done and to look presentable, a belief echoing the flawed ideology of respectability politics. And even for the Black girl children of celebrities, such as Blue Ivy Carter, criticism begins early. We live in a world where Black girls are not protected, where normalized abuse is an unbroken tradition founded by racism and misogynoir. While Breedlove is a passive participant in her own degradation, Claudia MacTeer, a strong-willed 9-year-old Black girl who lives in the same Ohio town as Breedlove and is sometimes the book’s narrator, is able to resist the empty promise of acceptance through assimilation. In the first chapter, Breedlove temporarily moves in with MacTeer’s family after her father, Cholly Breedlove, burns down the family’s house and the state removes her from her parents’ custody.
In a January 2020 article for the New Yorker, author and cultural critic Hilton Als notes, “Despite all this looking, few people, aside from Claudia, bear witness to much. To do so would be to think critically about the society that formed them and be moved to effect change.” The adults in Breedlove’s life consciously and unconsciously enable her downfall, contributing to her lack of self-worth. Cholly is a violent alcoholic who rapes Breedlove, resulting in her pregnancy. Her mother, Pauline, is sealed-off and detached, showing more affection to the daughter of the wealthy white family she works for than to her own children and taking refuge in the whitewashed fantasy of the cinema. Morrison peels back the layers of Breedlove’s family history, sketching out the past traumas of her mother and father.
The family sins are not Blackness, as white supremacy would have them believe, but a lack of love. And not just any kind of love, but a healthy, functional, unconditional love that nurtures. Breedlove asks MacTeer, “How do you do that? I mean, how do you get somebody to love you?” Breedlove has inherited a toxic form of love from her parents that violently consumes and destroys both the sender and the recipient.
Black Is Beautiful and Complicated
When The Bluest Eye was published, there was an emerging “Black Is Beautiful” cultural movement that denounced Eurocentric beauty standards and uplifted Afrocentric features. The movement, often linked to the Black Power movement, allowed Black girls and women a chance at inclusive representation. As Morrison told Interview magazine in 2012, she purposely wrote a book that wasn’t perfectly aligned with that mantra and idea. “One of the aggressive themes of the ‘screw whitey’ movement was ‘black is beautiful.’ I just thought, What is that about? Who are they talking to? Me? You’re going to tell me I’m beautiful?” Morrison said. “And I thought, Wait a minute. Before the guys get on the my-beautiful-black-queen wagon, let me tell you what it used to be like before you started that! You know, what racism does is create self-loathing, and it hurts. It can ruin you.”
Pecola’s obsession with blue eyes—and by extension, girlhood fashioned out of the carefree obliviousness offered to white children, the dimpled sweetness of Shirley Temple, the girl on her favored Mary Jane candy wrappers—exemplifies how beauty can be weaponized against society’s most vulnerable. While Breedlove believes her Blackness is proof of her ugliness, MacTeer outright rejects white supremacy. She admits, “I destroyed white baby dolls.” Breedlove associates whiteness with beauty, which she extends to the idea of love. On the other hand, MacTeer doesn’t see what others see. She realizes, “The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls…What made people look at them and say, ‘Awwwww,’ but not for me?” A major theme in The Bluest Eye grapples with the idea of seeing—really seeing someone or something for who or what they are. No one actually sees Breedlove. She’s both invisible and hypervisible.
When Breedlove is not thought of as a burden or an outcast, she simply doesn’t exist. For example, when Breedlove goes to a grocery store to buy penny candy, the shop owner, a white man in his 50s with blue eyes, stares at her with “glazed separateness.” She isn’t surprised by the store owner’s disregard: “The distaste must be for her, her blackness. All things in her are flux and anticipation. But her blackness is static and dread.” Morrison famously chose not to write for the white gaze. Instead, she wanted to write, as she told Charlie Rose, a book “that had no codes, no little notes explaining things to white people, no little clues.” Morrison, having been an editor at Random House for 19 years, knew all too well the unspoken rules of mainstream publishing and which stories were routinely prioritized.
The data surrounding diversity in publishing is nothing new at this point; the numbers routinely contradict the endless “commitments” to diversity from corporate figureheads. Unfortunately, books such as American Dirt are not an anomaly. Stories about marginalized people written from and for the white gaze have crossed genres, age groups, and generations. Yet Morrison’s work breaks from this tradition. She wrote about Blackness without apology. “I love her written work, needed her written work,” said Coretta Scott King Author Award-winner and Newbery Honor recipient Renée Watson. “I also needed to see a Black woman look a white journalist in the eyes, unfazed and without compromise, and discuss her work, pushing back against the familiar questions Black writers are asked,” she tells Bitch. “Her legacy as a writer and a person is about centering Black women, always. All ways.”
Watson, who first read The Bluest Eye as a senior in high school and then again an adult, cites one quote that stuck out: “Anger is better. There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and presence. An awareness of worth. It is a lovely surging.” The words seemingly gave Watson permission to express anger and stand up for her self-worth. “Anger moves us to action and it was such a powerful gift to have this sentiment to lean into,” she said. While anger has been weaponized against Black women (the Angry Black Woman stereotype), it’s a necessary—and even vital—emotion. Anger prevents complacency and challenges the idea that we must accept being dehumanized or degraded.
Nikki Grimes, who won the 2017 Children’s Literature Legacy Award and has written more than 55 books, has a deep emotional connection to The Bluest Eye. “I remember how I ached when I realized Pecola hated her Black self so deeply that she wanted blue eyes more than anything, that she believed blue eyes would give her the magic she needed to make her life worth living,” Grimes said. “I cried for that little girl because, hard as my own life was, I never felt ugly or less than. It angered me that the world didn’t always see my worth, though, but I understood how this world could make a Black girl feel ugly,” she tells Bitch. Grimes says Morrison’s “bold, gut-punching, truth-telling depictions of African Americans” allowed other Black writers to “write for and about our people, in all our guises, in our authentic voices without apology or explanation.” Morrison’s influence is a lifeline. Like the root of a plant, it can be traced to Black women who currently write about Black girlhood and are unafraid to address difficult issues.
Toni Morrison’s influence is a lifeline. Like the root of a plant, it can be traced to Black women who currently write about Black girlhood and are unafraid to address difficult issues.
Seeing the World Through the Morrison Gaze
When 2018 Stonewall Book Award-winner Brandy Colbert read Morrison’s 1973 novel, Sula, she had an emotional response similar to the feelings Watson and Grimes had about The Bluest Eye. Colbert, who grew up in a predominantly white area in Missouri, said, “Up until that point, most of the books I’d read treated being Black as something shameful or not to be mentioned, and Morrison’s work was a celebration of Blackness. I’d grown up with a sense of Black pride in my home, but this gave me permission as a young writer to put that pride on the page.” Morrison offered a different and much welcome portrayal of Black people. “I’d found someone who looked like me and was writing about girls and women who looked like me, and it felt so empowering,” Colbert says. Reading Morrison for the first time “felt like crawling out from under a rock,” opening up pathways to Alice Walker and Dorothy West and, later on, to ZZ Packer and Zadie Smith.
I was raised in a predominantly white suburb in Connecticut, closer to the Rhode Island border than New Haven or Hartford, where the mall was a favorite hangout spot, high school students borrowed or were gifted their parent’s old Volvo or Subaru after earning a driver’s license, and a fall/winter uniform consisted of a North Face fleece jacket, Uggs, and black leggings. It bore little resemblance to the old-money East Coast haughtiness typically associated with the image of New England preppiness, but it was nevertheless flattening, sterile, and homogenous. I never felt like I belonged; days and nights were eased by the feverish dream of escaping, shedding my old life, and never looking back. My dad cultivated a sense of Black pride in me and my brother from a young age, educating us about a history excluded from standard textbooks. I distinctly remember my father placing his thoroughly highlighted version of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 1996 book, Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement, front and center in his bookcase.
Unlike Breedlove’s family, mine didn’t bear Blackness with shame. I’d always known I was the daughter of a Black man and a Filipino mother, and in our small town, I would most likely be seen as the Other. But the first time I truly realized I was different was in the third grade, when my teacher made fun of my hair in front of the whole class. It was a shock to my existence to be an 8-year-old child belittled by a teacher, and over time, these small slights fed into a larger hatred of my appearance. No matter what my parents said, I was convinced I was ugly—even hideous. It pained me to look in the mirror, to confirm that today wouldn’t be the day I woke up with bone-straight hair, smaller lips, and a waiflike body built for couture runways. I didn’t wish to be white, but I wanted the attention and romantic adoration that white beauty inspired. I wanted to be wanted and not in spite of my race. I didn’t want to be anyone’s exception or fetish or embarrassing secret.
Depression found me at 13 and followed me to high school, then across state lines to college. I wondered, when did the warmth of my own sun start to burn? My unquiet mind was ruthless, relentless. The mirror provided an exercise in sadism. During my senior year of high school, I read Beloved, the 1987 novel that earned Morrison a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and I felt horrified by the oppressive malevolence of slavery and the way it poisoned everything in its wake. I was captivated by her use of language, her ability to breathe life into the deepest of heartbreaks and fears. I first read The Bluest Eye in college, and it affected me in a profoundly different way than Beloved. I recognized Breedlove’s lack of power, her desire to transform into something that promised the comfort of safety. Our loneliness corrupted the image we saw in the mirror, had us searching for saviors in the wrong people and forms of privilege we were never going to win.
I had to unlearn all of these self-destructive cycles of thinking; it’s a never-ending process. However, Breedlove isn’t able to fight her way out of the tyranny of self-hatred. Colbert is mindful of “how it often feels that publishing is only interested in stories of pain when it comes to underrepresented groups.” She believes this “can be dangerous to readers and writers alike.” And while The Bluest Eye deals with trauma, it doesn’t fall into the dangers of telling a single story. The book “deals with incredibly painful aspects of Black girlhood, some themes that are still, unfortunately, present today,” Colbert notes, “but it’s also brutally honest in ways Black women across several generations can relate to. Being a Black American woman is always going to be a unique experience, and Morrison’s work makes the reader examine all the different parts of that experience: sometimes beautiful, sometimes difficult, and quite often extraordinary.”
In the lecture Morrison gave after winning the Nobel Prize in 1993, she says, “The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers. Although its poise is sometimes in displacing experience it is not a substitute for it. It arcs toward the place where meaning may lie.” Morrison’s work bends toward truth rather than universality. Language is used as a tool to preserve the past and empower the marginalized. Morrison refused to accept the limitations imposed on Black writers. In doing so, she was able to open doors for other Black creatives. “Her legacy empowered me to insist on the use of black idiom or dialect, when it suited, often against the wishes of my white publishers,” Grimes said. “I’ve even fought for the names of my characters and the way those names are spelled….Toni’s legacy empowered me to fight for what is authentic. Her legacy was, and is, everything.” Morrison wasn’t satisfied with just a seat at the table. Thankfully, she was beholden to a vision of wisdom impervious to whiteness. Morrison knew the importance of being seen; The Bluest Eye forces readers to wake up.