I recently read an article about a homeless woman sentenced to five years in prison for using her friend’s address to enroll her son in school. And last week I heard that a rich actress who cheated to get her child to college got away with just fourteen days and community service. Needless to say, the poor homeless woman is black and the rich celebrity is white. Racial discrimination is rooted in a long history of oppression that continues to this day in mostly covert but shockingly, on occasion, in overt ways too. Literature is a safe space for black people to express their grievances and angst. Ever since I read To Kill a Mockingbird, I’ve been drawn to narratives chronicling the experience of America’s ‘free’ but still bonded people. When I heard about the recent demise of Toni Morrison, I started reading the books penned by her that I hadn’t read yet. I wanted to read her in chronological order to follow her development as a writer and began with her debut novel, The Bluest Eye.
Set in Lorain Ohio, the author’s childhood home, the story begins with the perspective of a young girl Claudia who bemoans the fact that no marigolds bloomed in the fall of 1941. She adds that they thought it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds didn’t grow. Pecola’s father had dropped his seed in his own plot of black dirt and just like the seeds shriveled and died, so did her baby. What? In the beginning of the novel itself we are told that Pecola is going to be impregnated by her father and that her baby is going to die. What a punch to the gut!
At that point I wanted to put the book down. Actually I wanted to fling it away. I can handle pretty much any topic but incest and pedophilia are where I draw the line. Yet I persisted. The lyrical writing pulled me in. Besides I wanted to know what happened to the child. How did she cope and did she emerge a survivor? The defeated narrator declares: “There is really nothing more to say- except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” We already have the facts. We just learn the details as we move along.
Through different perspectives in a series of flashbacks, we learn about the events that led to the tragedy. Two young black girls, Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, live with their parents in Ohio. For a brief period they take in an eleven year old girl called Pecola Breedlove ( notice the ominous name) who comes from a troubled household. Her father is often drunk and her parents are physically and verbally abusive to each other and to her and her brother Sammy. She considers herself ugly and is perceived as hideous by her own community. She believes that if she were to have blue eyes, she would be pretty. If there is anyone more vulnerable than a black girl in our society, it is an ugly black girl.
But how exactly do we define ugliness? Eurocentic standards of beauty have been touted as ideal as a result of widespread colonialism and people who don’t live up to those ideals are conditioned to believe that they are inferior:
“You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, ‘You are ugly people.’ They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. . ‘Yes,’ they had said, ‘You are right.’ And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.”
Claudia feels anger towards the image of Shirley Temple, the quintessential pretty American child, staring at her from a blue and white cup and in a fit of rage, she dismembers her white doll. To be white is to be beautiful is the message screaming at her from billboards and magazines. There are very few white characters in this novel and they only appear in the periphery. The racism Morrison describes is internalized racism emanating from self-loathing. The book was inspired by a conversation she had with an African-American girl at elementary school who wished for blue eyes.
What prompts an Indian girl to stay out of the sun, a Nigerian girl to use skin whitening creams, a Chinese girl to consider eyelid surgery or an African-American girl to hide her naturally textured hair and go for hair straightening treatments? They have internalized all the messages of hatred they have heard throughout their lives. Even actress Lupita Nyong’o confessed that as a child she wished that she were not so ‘unbeautiful’! It was not uncommon for me to see a dark-skinned girl in India treat someone who was darker with the same disdain she faced from someone who was lighter skinned. It is a vicious circle and this issue of ‘colorism’, ‘shadeism’ or ‘whitewashing’ or whatever else we may call it is far from black and white and is prevalent world wide across all races and cultures.
There is a character named Geraldine who calls herself colored as opposed to black as if color were on a spectrum. She thinks she is more cultured than other people of her race. Her son is not allowed to play with other black children. She unjustly accuses Pecola of killing a cat and calls her by a nasty racist epithet. A picture of Jesus on the wall looks down on this scene with sad and unsurprised eyes. Even God is helpless and unable to intervene. You would expect her to commiserate with people of her own race but her inferiority complex makes her treat with condescension people who are less powerful than she is.
One unforgettable scene that will stay with me forever is Pecola’s mother consoling and comforting the white child of her employer with affectionate words while she beats her own daughter for a minor accident. She is projecting everything she hates about herself on the little girl. In fact, just about everyone in town is guilty of doing it:
“All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us–all who knew her–felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used–to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.”
The inexorable passing of the seasons marks the progression of the plot but the narrative structure is disjointed as the point of view shifts continuously from character to character. There are different third person narrators and narrative insets by other characters in the first person. For me the most compelling part of the narration was observing the story through the eyes of another innocent child, Claudia. I wish Morrison had retained this structure for the entire story but the shifts in perspective may be to make us comprehend the behavior and motivations of the characters. She is not condoning their actions but wants us to understand what makes people who they are. In the afterword to the novel, she remarks in hindsight:
“My solution–break the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader–seemed to me a good idea, the execution of which does not satisfy me now. Besides, it didn’t work: many readers remained touched but not moved.”
Pecola’s parents led terrible lives too. Her mother escapes from her loneliness and her poverty by cleaning a white woman’s house. Vendors respect her when she shops for her white employers but she is invisible as a black woman. Pecola’s father was abandoned as a child and experienced sexual humiliation at the hands of white thugs. There is no excuse whatsoever for sexual assault and violence but could society have prevented this rape? If only the world had been kinder to these people dehumanized by society, maybe..just maybe Pecola wouldn’t have ended up being raped.
The Dick and Jane reading primer used in the forties and fifties in classrooms to teach students to read serves as a framing device to show the difference between what is considered the ideal family in America and the chaotic and uncertain world the girls live in. The Dick and Jane booklet of a happy and financially stable white family contrasts with Pecola’s dysfunctional family. Morrison uses the simple words of the text to show how a family disintegrates. As she shares passages from the texts through the course of the novel, the words are strung together in a smaller font, without punctuation and then without spaces between words. Eventually the grammar and sentence structure fall apart.
This is an excellent and hard-hitting first novel but it is definitely not for the faint of heart. I can see why it was banned in schools but I think it would fit well in the curriculum with To Kill A Mocking Bird and Why the Caged Bird Sings and can engender powerful conversations on race with older and more mature students. Through the intersectional prism of class, race and gender, we understand the complexities of power imbalances. Frieda is a black girl too and has an experience with someone touching her inappropriately but her parents who belong to a higher economic class protect her and throw the lecherous man out of the house.
I was curious about what happened to Pecola after the disaster. The girl who so yearned to be noticed is noticed alright but not in the way she wants and with devastating consequences. In her desperate longing for blue eyes, she seeks the assistance of the creepy Soaphead Church, a con artist and pedophile masking as a man of God, and eventually retreats into her own private world.
Children are the most powerless members of society. Pecola’s parents had failed her, her friends had failed her and the entire town had failed her. The novel ends on a note of despair. The soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers which will never bloom. But despite the despondent tone, one hopes that some progress has been made over the decades and that we can confidently state that maybe some marigolds will bloom after all in spite of the unyielding earth.