A response to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, by John C. Pendleton from The Black Literature Collective.
On August 27, 2011 a little girl sprang forth into the world. Born of a Black mother and a Black-Japanese father, she has grown into a beautifully spunky, creative, passionate and highly intelligent six-year-old. Long, sandy, curly brown hair. Light-skinned, paler during winter. Lover of sparkly things and bright colors. What many people would consider “a pretty little girl.” And she is indeed one of the prettiest little girls I’ve ever known. She’s my niece, Elise Cassandra Ai Borner. She brings beauty to life. Yet at the innocent age of six, she already struggled to see it.
Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” follows the story of Pecola Breedlove, who was considered “an ugly girl” by all accounts. Ugly. Over and over throughout this literary masterpiece filled with illustrious language, we read this simple and brutish word used to describe Pecola and her family, and how Pecola’s physical appearance made her stand out.
As I read, I could not stop thinking of Elise’s conflict. One of the only Black girls in her school, there was a time when she wanted her hair to be straight. Although she didn’t verbalize it as such, what this pretty little Black girl was saying was that she wanted to alter her beauty to be closer to whiteness.
Pecola had this adoration of whiteness, as well. And it lingered. Because of some very unfortunate events in the Breedlove home, Pecola was sent to live with the Macteers. She and the daughters, Frieda and Claudia, became friends of sorts. As Claudia states, “Frieda and she had a loving conversation about how cu-ute Shirley Temple was. I couldn’t join them in their adoration because I hated Shirley.” Claudia says her hatred was born from the receiving of white dolls at Christmastime.
“Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs — all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured,” Claudia states. “Here,” they said, “This is beautiful, and if you are on this day ‘worthy,’ you may have it.”
Though there are efforts to correct this generalization of beautiful, the world continues to offer one box of beauty to little girls — and what a pity for those who do not fit the mold. How unfortunate it is for little ones, who have yet to even understand long division, to have to wrestle with an entire society’s view of whether they are worthy to be considered beautiful.
In her foreword, which is an enriching and vital part of the book, Morrison states, “Couple the vulnerability of youth with indifferent parents, dismissive adults, and a world, which, in its language, laws, and images, re-enforces despair, and the journey to destruction is sealed.” This is exactly what happens to dear Pecola. She and Frieda adored Shirley Temple. However, Pecola’s world was one where everyone, schoolmates and community members alike reinforced despair, continuing to tell her that she was ugly. This one little girl faced the power of all the world’s view concerning what is actually beautiful. There was only one outcome for that battle.
The world continues to offer one box of beauty to little girls — and what a pity for those who do not fit the mold. How unfortunate it is for little ones, who have yet to even understand long division, to have to wrestle with an entire society’s view of whether they are worthy to be considered beautiful.
In the book, Morrison humanizes her young characters and shows that what they need and want, but cannot articulate, are the same deep interactions that adults desire. For example, although Claudia destroys the white doll she receives as a Christmas gift, she avers that instead of a doll, “I wanted rather to feel something on Christmas day… The lowness of the stool made for my body, the security and warmth of Big Mama’s kitchen, the smell of the lilacs, the sound of [Big Papa’s] music, and, since it would be good to have all of my senses engaged, the taste of a peach, perhaps, afterward.”
Throughout the book, we encounter many adults who abuse and misuse Pecola. But Morrison, in her brilliance, humanizes even them. She tells their stories so the reader can see that they, too, were once shattered children. A twisted sort of compassion surfaces for them, and the reader is led to direct the hate for certain characters to the norms and systems which work in the background to crush Pecola.
The unhealthy norms in our culture today that systematically devalue children, Black people and women must be acknowledged and challenged until they are ultimately changed. And we adults who have been disregarded because of our youth, color or gender must be the voices and activators of that change. We must fight to create a new normal for the sake of our children who will ultimately build the future.
As Morrison says in her foreword, “Some victims of powerful self-loathing turn out to be dangerous, violent, reproducing the enemy who has humiliated them over and over.”
The unhealthy norms in our culture today that systematically devalue children, Black people and women must be acknowledged and challenged until they are ultimately changed. And we adults who have been disregarded because of our youth, color or gender must be the voices and activators of that change.
This will not be the fate of my pretty little niece. You see, there are people who tell her, again and again, if needed, that the white girls in her classes are not prettier than she just because their hair falls with gravity and doesn’t rise to create its own shape. Although Elise is experiencing the vulnerability of youth, she is not surrounded by indifferent parents or dismissive adults. She has a mother with a crown of large, curly glory and a father who embraces the ethnic heritages of both his parents.
Elise is one of the lucky ones. How many Pecolas still exist today; girls and boys who hate their Black skin or wide noses or dark eyes or nappy hair? How many walk in self-loathing and live with the disregard of adults who were also nurtured with the lie that they were ugly and deficient because of how their Blackness shaped their features? We will continue to see the same cycles if we leave children to fend for themselves. The compassion of adults who understand the weight of systems that weigh on a child’s heart can change the lives of little Black ones everywhere. But until we understand the evil systems which rule our world and how they have affected us, children will be left to try and help children, and more Pecolas will continue to be driven mad in their desire of the bluest eyes.