It was a Saturday afternoon and I was riding the El into Austin on Chicago’s West Side. The train was quiet as it rumbled down the Pink Line tracks and I hae never been more self-conscious. If you’ve never been to Chicago, then you won’t really understand the starkness of the racial borders in this town, but I can tell you I was the only white person on that train. When I got off at Central Park Avenue and walked north, I was burningly aware of the stares I received as I walked the three blocks to the apartment where I was headed on assignment. Once I stepped into the apartment, though, I felt the racial barriers soften a little as I spoke with a black family who lived in the area. I realized that my discomfort was of my own making, and on the way back to the train station, I spoke to several people who stood on the sidewalk with no awkwardness. We are all Chicagoans.
For Banned Books Week, I broached into Tony Morrison’s classic novel The Bluest Eye. The disjunction of the story from myself made me feel uncomfortable at first until I was able to slip into the main character’s world and finally feel that she was one of us. The novel is purportedly about racism and beauty, but in honesty, it is more about how we as a society treat our most vulnerable members, be they children, minorities or poor. Pecola Breedlove was all three.
Set in mid-20th century Lorain, Ohio, a town bordering on idyllic Lake Erie, the novel tells Pecola’s story from the outside. She is essentially a social outcast, both at school and at home, but by no fault of her own—her family is poor, she is considered ugly and “too black” and her father was in prison. She doesn’t speak much, but terrible things keep happening to her completely out of her control, and nonsensically, she is shunned for them.
We watch Pecola’s life through the lens of stories told about her and her neighbors, the plots and scenes that play out in their lives. She is bullied, teased, mocked, abused and left alone, and still is somehow at fault. People are merely looking for something to hate about her, and in the process, make her so downtrodden that they finally find something, nevermind that they caused it.
One of the most poignant examinations is on the topic of female sexuality as it relates to beauty. At one point in the novel, Claudia, the narrator, and her sister Frieda are discussing the family’s lodger in Frieda’s room. Frieda is crying, saying that Mr. Henry, the lodger, touched her breasts. Instead of being revolted or frightened, Claudia’s first reaction is jealousy. She says she wishes she had breasts for someone to find attractive, nevermind that Mr. Henry had no right to touch her sister and it was sexual assault.
This confusion, this contradiction, is a theme throughout the novel. Claudia is given a baby doll at the beginning of the novel and begins to dissemble it, looking for the “inner beauty.” Of course, all she finds is stuffing, and that’s beside the point. The point is that we tell our children that beauty is inside, but so much rides on the physical facade that we leave our girls confused in the dark, particularly girls that do not conform to the white, middle-class Dick and Jane standard.
Every chapter leads with a jumbled excerpt of the children’s primer Dick and Jane. It has little actual relevance to the story other than to assert the drumbeat that Pecola has been hearing all her life: “This is normal, you are not. This is normal, you are not.” American standards have been changing in the last few years to be more diverse, including minority children in advertisements and shows almost to a mocking point, but the actual standards for how we expect our lives to be end with the same tradition: Mother and father, boy and girl, middle class, white.
Toni Morrison has taken many critics to the cleaners over the years about the content of the novel. It is still the second most challenged book on the American Library Association’s list, and not surprisingly: Many of the descriptions of sex between a husband and wife are extremely graphic in nature. There is one rape scene describing a man having sex with a child that is shocking in its detail and coolness. Of course, these things are offensive, but the discussion is important.
In many ways, The Bluest Eye can bring out the worst in us. It forces us to consider the worst things we have done and why.