I have finished The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I have had it on my bookshelf for some time — one of those things I just hadn’t got around to reading. I finally read it because it is one of our novel choices for ninth graders. If you have read this book, I think that revelation might just astonish you. Nanci was not kidding when she said that the school is liberal. There is no way in hell I would even be able to consider teaching this book at any other school where I have previously taught. To be quite honest, I think it is a very good thing that this sort of freedom exists. I despise book banning, but the school system/library system of the county where I most recently worked is rather notorious for it. I think it will be refreshing not to have so many restrictions on what books I can or can’t teach. I can’t recall if I told you or not, but at an interview with another public school system, I expressed astonishment when another teacher mentioned teaching The Catcher in the Rye. It isn’t that I don’t approve — I wholeheartedly do approve of teaching that novel in high school. However, I have never lived nor taught anywhere that didn’t feel it necessary to shelter students from books with the tiniest bit of controversy. So while teachers could enthusiastically recommend that I could read those dangerous books, and I could do the same with my students, I could not ask that a class read the book. I shouldn’t completely misrepresent the public school system. I did teach such books as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is arguably one of the most banned books in history (and this was something I always discussed with my students). However, I cannot imagine a public school setting that would allow me to teach The Bluest Eye. With all of that said, I don’t think I can teach this book.
This is an ugly book. It exposes the ugliest parts of humanity. The predominant theme of the book is that whiteness is beauty, and beauty makes you lovable. Most of the black female characters learn “racial self-loathing;” they learn to equate their dark skin with ugliness. I cannot claim to experience what it is like to live as a black woman in a society that prizes white beauty (still, even 30 years after the publication of this book). Even black stars our society acknowledges as “beautiful” have “whiter” features of some sort: Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, Denzel Washington. Everyone talks about how our narrow standards of beauty damage people who do not fit them, but no one does anything about it. Once, one of my black students wrote an essay about what her life would be like as she grew older. Part of her happiness in the future was predicated on the fact that her skin became lighter with the passage of time. I cried for her when I read it, but I felt utterly helpless. I could tell her I thought she was wrong, but the entire society she lives in would argue with me. How can you fight that kind of power?
I felt pity for the characters as they each, in their way, discovered and either accepted or rejected their “ugliness” in our society. I think Cholly sees it as a legacy of his parents: they were “no account,” so he is too. I think Polly sees it as inevitable. Her foot broke when she was two. After her tooth fell out, there was no hope for being beautiful again, so why bother with hair and makeup? She rejected her own husband and children in favor of keeping house for a white family. She rejected her life in order to be a part of theirs. Little Claudia seems to be the only character who questions these notions. She alone is able to imagine Pecola’s baby is beautiful in its blackness. She hopes it will live, when everyone else hopes it will die. Pecola’s child, after all, is the result of incest and rape.
Morrison told this story in a very disjointed way. She says in her Afterword that she broke “the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader.” She says that this approach does not “satisy [her] now,” adding that “many readers remain touched but not moved.” I have to say that I fall into that category. I didn’t ever become anything more than a dispassionate observer of the events in the novel. I was repulsed and horrified. I didn’t internalize, or “love” any of the characters. I pitied them. When Pecola believes she has achieved the blue eyes she desired, she has actually achieved madness. Most of the time, with books, the writer somehow enables you to care for the characters so that when terrible things happen to them, you cry. I couldn’t cry over these characters, and it seemed that nothing but terrible things happened to them. This book was utterly depressing. I think it is important that we examine our standards and beliefs about beauty. I think it is important that abuse is exposed. Maybe I’m selling them short, but my experience with 9th graders is that this isn’t the kind of reading they are developmentally ready for. I do not feel comfortable with discussing much of the book with a class. Maybe that will change someday.
Nanci was kind enough to say that we should not teach something we’re not passionate about. I may not be able to find a book that explores the same theme, but I certainly think I’ll be able to find something that doesn’t make me queasy.