How Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” Busts Myths About Black Youth
The black girl is hopelessly fragile, but so rarely understood or accepted as such. From an early age, black girls are exposed to a raw, relentless and unacceptable life. Black women therefore rarely have the chance to experience childhood. There’s something about the so-called strength of a black woman who supposedly quivers with life when we’re old enough to talk.
We end up clinging helplessly to this myth of indestructibility, often burying our own fears, voices, and vulnerabilities, instead covering the soft parts of ourselves that need to grow and be nurtured. a kind of impenetrable emotional armor. The way this world works, we never have time to sit with what it was like to be a kid. To understand what it’s like to be carefree. To be able to grow, slowly, into a version of ourselves that knows what it is to be beautiful, to have the space and the support to be fragile. From birth, it seems our function is to be strong, and to be a pair of shoulders to carry the burdens of those around us.
“From birth, it seems our function is to be strong, and to be a pair of shoulders to carry the burdens of those around us”
The idea that black women are strong is a lie. That we know and believe, resolutely and firmly, of our own beauty, worth, virtues and abilities, is a lie. In his heart, The bluest eye is a novel about the falsehoods we internalize. It’s about a lot of things thematically – poverty, blackness, sexual violence, racism – but its fragmented style and refusal to be chronological or easy to read constructs a richer picture than we might see if one of these themes was separated from each other.
What it really tells us is that we as people are made up of so many parts. We would not be what we are without our traumas, our dark thoughts, our fears. Of course there are lighter parts for us. There is joy and there is happiness. There is love and there is care. But often all of these parts of us are grappling with each other, fighting for space in our tired minds. And more often than not, fear wins out.
“In his heart, The bluest eye is a novel about the untruths we internalize”
The bluest eye, Toni Morrison’s debut novel, first published in 1970 and set in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio, was not a commercial success at the time. In fact, talking to Interview magazine, Morrison noted that the black community hated him. Is it because Morrison holds nothing back when it comes to shedding light on how darkness, and the ideals it contains, can devour each other? Is it because she wasn’t afraid to present Blackness as something twisted, complicated and painful, rather than celebrating it? Is it because Toni Morrison, in The bluest eyedared to explore black hatred, as opposed to black love?
“Morrison holds nothing back when it comes to shining a light on how darkness, and the ideals it contains, can devour each other”
Colorism, discrimination based on skin color, is one of the biggest disappointments within the black community. This takes us back to the days of slavery, which weren’t as far back as the history books would have us believe. The lighter your complexion, the more likely you were to be favored by your white owners.
This concept of being black, yet still close to white, has been passed down through decades of hereditary trauma and is still so vivid and pervasive today. It has worked its way into how we see ourselves as black people and how we value ourselves. A higher price for a lighter tone. It is through this ideal that Percola Breedlove, the central character of The bluest eye, works. Percola is an aspiring dark-skinned black girl with blue eyes. Those blue eyes, she says, set against her dark skin, will make her look more beautiful.
This is the first falsehood Percola understands, and the one she lives with. This misunderstanding of her own worth, this fundamental upheaval of her ego and the bursting of her self-esteem, leaves her wide open to the internalized rejection that marks her life. So insidious, so deeply rooted is this idea that being near whiteness will help her, eventually driving her to madness, living deep within her soul and permeating her psyche.
“So insidious, so deeply ingrained is this idea that proximity to whiteness will ‘help’ her, it eventually drives her mad”
The second falsehood which The bluest eye breeze is that the family home is a place of safety and love. The family home where Percola comes from does not exist. He was set on fire by his alcoholic and violent father. The family structure from which Percola comes does not exist either. His parents fought, verbally and physically. The innate security and love that a family should especially give to Percola does not exist, which we understand very early in the novel when the father of young Percola’s child is revealed to us, cruelly and almost with casually.
Percola’s family home isn’t the only one we see. Percola is taken in by the MacTeer family after her own home is destroyed, set on fire along with her childhood and her innocence. Taken in by their parents, Percola shares a bed with sisters Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, both equally young, but only slightly less exposed to the mental, physical and sexual violence that will irrevocably transform her. MacTeer family life isn’t perfect either, and Claudia and Frieda, aged nine and ten respectively, are rapidly losing a view of life through the eyes of childhood with Percola. Conversations around poverty and its impact in the home leave them feeling helpless and helpless.
A third fallacy that Morrison tackles is that hard work equals success and that the African-American dream is a reality. In this novel, every day is a small battle as the characters live in poverty, trading hard labor for a pittance or exchanging sex for enough money to keep a roof over their heads. Alcoholism is an escape. The heinous crime that stems from this need to stifle the pain of life is swept under the rug. Life goes on. No report is given, no arrests are made.
“A third fallacy that Morrison tackles is that hard work equals success and the African-American dream is a reality”
What Morrison asks us to do, in The bluest eye, is to never judge. Instead, it asks us to observe the person, we observe their upbringing, we observe their environment, and we become aware of the fragmented and painful lives that forced them to settle into their final, sometimes destructive form. What are the characters in The bluest eye do is survive.
Morrison is a master when it comes to identity. When we think of the ways we have to bend and contort, sometimes literally, into the mold that society has cast for us, isn’t that horrifying? Isn’t it really scary to have to go back inside and look at that inner child and see what it’s been exposed to? What are the pieces of life that have formed our identity? What untruths have we been told? Have we been told that we should not style our hair in certain ways, for fear of being noticed? Or have we been told that the coarser our hair, the less beautiful it looks? Have we been told that the lighter our skin, the prettier we look? Have we been told that it is better to have a nice buttoned nose rather than a wide nose? Were we told that the thinner we were the more attractive we might be found, or that somehow we would just be a better person if we had curves, but only in the right places?
“When we think about how we have to bend and contort, sometimes literally, into the mold that society has cast for us, isn’t that horrifying?”
Living in Western society, a horrible imprint happens to black women as we age. Invisible scars remain with us every time we are shown and told that we are not beautiful. These invisible scars reopen when it comes to love, friendships, relationships. Add to that in this modern age of social media, where false and one-size-fits-all ideals of beauty are forced upon us on a daily basis. How can you grow up being told how ugly, undesirable the mainstream finds them, and not reject yourself? What kind of internal work is constantly being done to not wish for blue eyes, lighter skin, smoother hair, a lean, petite physique?
Morrison forces us to reflect on unattainable and unfair ideals of beauty, and how they reign supreme, even in today’s society. What is beauty? What does it mean? How does it add to our value? What Morrison is asking, through Percola, is how the thought of finally achieving what we’ve been told is true beauty can lift us away from a life that doesn’t seem enough. Percola Breedlove thinks that if her eyes were blue, she would finally be beautiful. That she would then finally be loved. That her troubles would go away and that her identity would be unshakable, true and accepted, in a life that had refused to be kind to her.
And the main lie here is that life is always kind. It’s not. But there’s kindness in it and in self-acceptance, even when the world tells you there’s always a way for you to be better.
This introduction by Candice Carty-Williams is taken from The bluest eye by Toni Morrison, new edition published by Vintage Classics on February 3, 2022.