had disintegrated by the end of May. Fluffy sweaters the color of lemon drops
tucked into skirts with pleats so orderly they astounded us. Brightly colored knee
socks with white borders, a brown velvet coat trimmed with white rabbit fur, and
a matching muff (p. 62).
Thus, Maureen Peal and her family represent the way institutional racism served some members of the African American community (lighter skinned Blacks) in terms of political and economic empowerment, at the cost of the darker skinned Blacks, who were often workers for light skinned or white business owners. Dark-skinned Blacks were often subordinated twice—once to whites and white hegemony and again to light-skinned Blacks.
Maureen Peal also represents the “cultural strangulation” that characterized the African American experience in America for the past two centuries. When Claudia Macteer receives white doll, year after year, for Christmas she knows that these dolls are things that she is supposed to (that she is expected to) love, but she can’t. She destroys the dolls instead, in an attempt, to destroy the institutional racism that she can’t quite put a name to but has definitely felt the effects of. However, white hegemony is not present only in the fact that Claudia only receives white dolls every Christmas. It is clear too in the “honey voices of parents and aunts, the obedience in the eyes of [her] peers, the slippery light in the eyes of [her] teachers when they encountered the Maureen Peals of the world” (p. 74). Morrison’s best use of Maureen Peal as a representation of this cultural strangulation is when Morrison has Maureen Peal first defend Pecola, when boys are teasing her because of her Blackness, and then turn on Pecola, Claudia, and Frieda, by degrading them for their Blackness, just as the boys had so viciously done to Pecola only moments before. When four Black boys surround Pecola after school and sing: “Black e mo. Black e mo. Yadaddsleesnekked. Black e mo black e mo ya dadd sleeps nekked. Black e mo,” the boys represent the internalized racism that was (and is) so prevalent in the Black community (p. 65). The boys make fun of Pecola for her Blackness because she is dark-skinned. The fact that Pecola’s Blackness could even be an insult for the boys to launch at her (and who hasn’t, in their own time at the playground, witnessed a similar victim being insulted for his/her Blackness?) is proof that Blackness is seen as being inferior to whiteness, in Pecola’s world (and in the juxtaposed world of the reader). Blackness is seen as undesirable, especially in comparison to a lighter skin complexion, and it is seen as ugly, to many Blacks and whites in America.
Maureen defends Pecola at first but as soon as Claudia insults her later, after they’ve gotten away from the boys and their taunts, Maureen assaults all three girls with: “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos. I am cute” (p. 73)! Again, Maureen Peal raises herself above the girls because of her partial whiteness and lowers the girls to a position of inferiority because of their Blackness. This position of inferiority, especially in terms of how Pecola positions herself, could not be so readily accepted if Pecola’s larger community did not also adopt the view that to be Black is to be less than someone who is white.
Carmichael asserts, “Born into society today, black people begin to doubt themselves, their worth as human beings. Self-respect becomes almost impossible” (Carmichael, p. 29). Carmichael continues to make the point that there are various tragic effects of American racial prejudice by quoting Kenneth Clark as he describes this process in Dark Ghetto:
Human beings who are forced to live under ghetto conditions and whose daily
experience tells them that almost nowhere in society are they respected and
granted the ordinary dignity and courtesy accorded to others will, as a matter of
course, begin to doubt their own worth. Since every human being depends upon
his cumulative experiences with others for clues as to how he should view and
value himself, children who are consistently rejected understandably begin to
question and doubt whether they, their family, and their group really deserve no
more respect from the larger society than they receive. These doubts become the
seeds of a pernicious self- and group-hatred, the Negro’s complex and debilitating
prejudice against himself.
The preoccupation of many Negroes with hair straighteners, skin bleachers, and
the like illustrates this…Negroes have come to believe in their own inferiority (Carmichael, p. 29).
Pecola, again, is our most tragic example of the effects of institutional racism on Black individuals. When Pecola goes to Mr. Yakobowski’s candy store, he cannot see her: “She looks up at him and sees the vacuum where curiosity out to lodge” (p. 48). Pecola cannot hold onto her anger though at how Mr. Yakobowski degrades her with his “phlegmy” voice. Her anger quickly turns into shame. She wonders, “What to do before the tears come. [But then] she remembers the Mary Janes. Each pale wrapper has a picture on it. A picture of little Mary Jane, for whom the candy is named. Smiling white face. Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort…To Pecola they are simply pretty. She eats the candy and its sweetness is good” (p. 50). Not only does Pecola’s anger dissipate and transform into shame, but Pecola gains strength and comfort only through the process of devouring a white image—a white ideal: the Mary Jane. The image of Mary Jane is one of ideal beauty and shows, again, Pecola’s unrelenting subscription to white beauty ideals. However, the image of Mary Jane is also one of comfort and of perfection. After all Mary Jane’s blue eyes look at her “out of a world of clean comfort.” Pecola relishes the image and becomes Mary Jane through the act of eating her: “To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane” (p. 50). Pecola’s ultimate fantasy is to become a white girl who is also “swaddled in care.” For Pecola, whiteness is beauty, love, financial stability, luxurious outings, comfort, and protection. Whiteness is everything Pecola’s life is lacking. So, clearly the way to achieve happiness, to feel loved, to enjoy financial stability and to be able to go on luxurious outings, feeling comforted and protected, is to become white. Pecola seeks whiteness by asking for blue eyes. And, it is the achievement of this outrageous goal that becomes her downfall.
Geraldine is another character who represents self-hatred and whose portrayal outlines the crippling effects of white hegemony in America. She is a light-skinned Black woman who represents the educated, clean, well-kempt member of the Black bourgeoisie. Morrison introduces this character by describing entire towns—entire strands of the Black experience—which Geraldine clearly represents. The narrator states that, “They come from Mobile. Aiken. From Newport News. From Marietta. From Meridian. And the sound of these places in their mouths make you think of love” (p. 81). The narrator continues:
Such girls live in quiet black neighborhoods where everybody is gainfully
employed. Where there are porch swings hanging from chains…These sugar
brown Mobile girls move through the streets without a stir…They wash
themselves with orange-colored Lifebuoy soap, dust themselves with Cashmere
Bouquet talc, clean their teeth with salt on a piece of rag, soften their skin with
Jergens lotion…They straighten their hair with Dixie Peach, and part it on the
side…They do not drink, smoke, or swear, and they still call sex “nookey” (p. 82).
Morrison spends the time to detail the specific products that these women from Mobile and Aiken—women like Geraldine—use. She lists the specific products because she knows the names will resonate with some of her readers. Her readers may, in fact, see themselves in the description of “such girls.” These women are living the American dream—at least the idealized version of that dream. These women are also suffering from the problem that Kenneth Clark outlined: “[They] have come to believe in their own inferiority.” They have subscribed to white beauty ideals and have elevated themselves, in terms of socioeconomic status, and in terms of utilizing or possessing certain material things, which serve to show how they are just as good (and just as well off) as white folks. Women like Geraldine are also so alienated in white America that they deny the body and the “funk” of the body (Willis, 35). Geraldine, and Polly when she fantasizes in the movie theater, consume white beauty ideals and strive to achieve the bourgeois social order (Willis, 35). On the other hand, “To break through repressed female sexuality, Morrison contrasts images of stifled womanhood with girlhood sensuality. In The Bluest Eye the author’s childhood alter ego, Claudia” also our symbol (our embodiment) of Black Power in my reading of The Bluest Eye, “is fascinated by all bodily functions and the physical residues of living in the world. She rebels at being washed, finding her scrubbed body obscene due to its ‘dreadful and humiliating absence of dirt’” (21, qtd. in Willis, 35).
Morrison shows us that Geraldine is a problematic and tragic figure in the novel by imbuing her with a certain level of sterility, a propensity to deny her body, and with some sexually deviant behavior. Geraldine loves her cat more than her son and her husband (often restricting her husband’s touch to certain body parts and faking orgasm with her husband) and experiences sexual pleasure with the cat alone. She also does not allow her son to play with black boys. The narrator describes Geraldine’s tenacity when seeking to protect her son from the common “nigger”: “Even though he was light-skinned, it was possible to ash. The line between colored and nigger was not always clear; subtle and telltale signs threatened to erode it and the watch had to be constant” (p. 87). Junior’s mother, Geraldine, does not allow her son to play with “nigger” children (dark-skinned, loud and less “cultured” then they). She only allows him to play with certain colored or white children that are “good enough” for him to play with. Geraldine’s internalized racism and the way she isolates her son, Junior, from the Black community, leads to a dysfunctional family, violent and sadistic behavior on the part of Junior, and sexually deviant, perverse behavior, on the part of Geraldine. Geraldine co-opts white ideals. She straightens her hair and clings to western notions of materialism and progress. This co-optation and Geraldine’s internalized racism is the reason for her unhappiness in life and her portrayal as a deviant character. Geraldine also may serve as a symbol of co-optation and tokenism, in general. In other words, she may represent Blacks who are in “supposed” leadership positions, widening the gap between the Black bourgeoisie and the masses; these symbols of co-optation or “token” Blacks are not sources of positive leadership or catalysts for change. Carmichael writes, “The process of co-optation and a subsequent widening of the gap between the black elites and the masses is common under colonial rule. There has developed in this country an entire class of “captive leaders” in the black communities…For the most part, they are not sources of positive or aggressive community leadership” (Carmichael, p. 13).
Junior enjoys bullying girls, which thoroughly appalls his mother, Geraldine. Junior also commits violent acts against the very cat his mother loves because “he discovered the difference in his mother’s behavior to himself and the cat. As he grew older, he learned how to direct his hatred of his mother to the cat, and spent some happy moments watching it suffer” (p. 86). Geradine and Junior’s self-hatred is dramatized in the final scene and the victim of the manifestations of their self-hatred is, of course, Pecola. Junior kills the cat, blames it on Pecola, who he lured into his house as she was walking innocently by, and Geraldine sees everything that is wrong with the Negro race in Pecola:
She had seen this girl all her life. Hanging out of windows over saloons in
Mobile, crawling over the porches of shotgun houses on the edge of town, sitting
in bus stations holding paper bags and crying mothers who kept saying “Shet up!”
Hair uncombed, dresses falling apart, shoes untied and caked with dirt…The end
of the world lay in their eyes, and the beginning, and all the waste in between (p. 92).
Geraldine’s hatred of Blacks (particularly of dark-skinned, poor Blacks) is most pronounced in this scene. She hates these Blacks because they do not fit into the white American ideal. She hates them because they make the Black race “look bad.” It is Geraldine and her hatred (and her son’s hatred) that becomes most disgusting to the reader at the end of this passage though. Morrison has already painted Geraldine as emotionally vacuous, sterile, and deviant. She has painted her son, Junior, as abusive and predatory. So, when Geraldine scolds Pecola and says, “You nasty little black bitch. Get out of my house” (p. 92), the reader sympathizes with Pecola, who truly did nothing wrong, and sees Geraldine and Junior as the evil, abnormal ones. Morrison casts these two as the evil ones in this scene and it is clear that they are so unhappy, so sterile, and so abnormal because they practice self- and group-hatred, and because they co-opt white ideals.
The final character in this novel that epitomizes racial self-loathing is Soaphead Church. Soaphead is a self-defined misanthrope who was “reared in a family proud of its academic accomplishments and its mixed blood—in fact, they believed the former was based on the latter. A sir Whitcomb, some decaying British nobleman, who chose to disintegrate under a sun more easeful than England’s, had introduced the white strain in the family in the early 1800’s” (p. 167). So, again, we have a character whose success (and the success of his family) is due largely to his mixed blood and to a history of lighter skinned Blacks being afforded certain privileges and opportunities, which their darker skinned counterparts were not able to take advantage of. Morrison imbues Soaphead Church with several negative and abnormal characteristics. Soaphead relishes an especially aseptic environment: “He abhorred flesh on flesh. Body odor, breath odor, overwhelmed him. The sight of dried matter in the corner of the eye, decayed or missing teeth, ear wax, blackheads, moles, blisters, skin crusts…disquieted him” (p. 166). Again, Morrison has created a character who is alienated from the Black community, strives for some of the elements of the bourgeois social order, and eschews his own “funk” or any evidence of having lived in the world; this denial of the body is, of course, linked to a denial or hatred of Blackness. Soaphead can’t stand the thought of anything dirty. He is also a sexual deviant, in that he fondles young girls, but does not have sexual intercourse, as the exchange of bodily fluids utterly repulses him. Soaphead is the ultimate representation of self-hatred and is, thus, given the most eccentric and abnormal characteristics of all the self-loathing characters.
Pecola comes to Soaphead Church, one who has often taken money in exchange for granted wishes (wishes that he did not actually grant), a “witch” doctor, or fallen man of the cloth, for blue eyes. Soaphead is touched by her request. He is touched by, “A little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes” (p. 174). Soaphead Church sees Pecola’s wish as the most natural, most reasonable thing for a girl like Pecola to ask for. Why wouldn’t she want blue eyes? Why wouldn’t she want to “rise up out of the pit of her blackness” and be offered a world that whites enjoy? Soaphead becomes very angry with God, grants Pecola her blue eyes (which only she can see), and in a letter addressed to God, he proclaims: “I had to do your work for you” (p. 180). Now, the granting of Pecola’s wish is the ultimate atrocity that befalls Pecola in the novel. The fact that she believes she has blue eyes is what leads to her mental unraveling. Soaphead Church, then, becomes a bigger monster than Cholly, who rapes and impregnates Pecola. For, even though the community ostracizes and blames Pecola for being raped and for getting pregnant with her father’s child, it is the “realization” that she does, indeed, have blue eyes—the symbol of her ultimate self-hatred and complete digestion of white beauty ideals and of racist thought—that ultimately leads to her demise.
However, although we are supposed to see Soaphead Church as the man who committed the most monstrous offense against Pecola, through his letter to God, we can also see him as a victim of institutional racism and as a victim in the novel, more generally. Soaphead writes:
Once upon a time I lived greenly and youngish on one of your islands…We in
This colony took as our own the most dramatic, the most obvious of our white
master’s characteristics, which were, of course, their worst. In retaining the
identity of our race, we held fast to those characteristics most gratifying to sustain
and least troublesome to maintain. Consequently we were not royal, but snobbish,
not aristocratic but class-conscious; we believed authority was cruelty to our
inferiors, and education was being at school. We mistook violence for passion,
indolence for leisure, and thought recklessness was freedom. We raised our
children and reared our crops; we let infants grow, and property develop. Our
manhood was defined by acquisitions. Our womanhood by acquiescence. And
the smell of your fruit and the labor of your days we abhorred.
Here Soaphead Church outlines the very problems with the Black bourgeosie and/or the racial caste system in America and elsewhere, which has lead to some of the crippling phenomena that has a character like Geraldine leading such a pitiful life. Soaphead’s people became class-conscious, too materialistic, the women were too submissive, and they spent too little time praising nature and rearing and guiding the children of the future. Soaphead cites the adoption of “our white master’s [worst] characteristics” as the cause of all the subsequent problems. These problems seem so similar to that of Geraldine’s “proper” colored folks and of herself and of her family. Soaphead ends his letter in an almost zealous fury: “I, I have caused a miracle. I gave her the eyes. I gave her the blue, blue eyes…a streak of it right out of your own blue heaven” (p. 182). Soaphead has racialized God here. God is clearly a white man, sitting high above, who never recognized or cared about the plight of Soaphead’s people in the green Antilles, and who allowed an innocent, sweet girl like Pecola to only find a savior, in a perverted, sick man like Soaphead Church. That Soaphead takes the blue from a “streak right out of [God’s] own blue heaven” is his way of finally rebelling against God, and the white hegemony in America, which Soaphead’s God represents.
John T. McCartney states that the Black Power Movement of the 1960’s “was seen by most of its advocates as the latest in a series of efforts to correct the injustices that existed in almost every dimension of life between black and white Americans” (McCartney, p. 1). But, what are the ways to correct these injustices? There are the obvious economic and political ways, which Carmichael and Hamilton outline clearly in Black Power: The Politics of Liberation. There are also the cultural and historical ways (by rewriting history, re-presenting Blackness in novels and other art forms, and by going back to African roots in terms of style of clothing and hairstyles), which Carmichael and proponents of BAM, like Addison Gayle and Larry Neale, advocated for. However, McCartney asks the question in Black Power Ideologies: “Why has America not made it its policy to correct the injustices” (McCartney, p.13)? He goes on to attempt to answer his own question, by stating that there are five theories of causes for imbalance between Blacks and whites and a refusal on America’s part to create policy to correct past injustices. He writes, “As an example of this multicausality and reinforcement, one sees in Prewitt and Knowles the logic that the ideology of white racial superiority present from the beginning in the white man’s dealings with nonwhites has created a psychology of racism that has continued to taint white and nonwhite dealings. Thus, as long as the ideology and psychology exist, human relationships and the society’s institutional arrangements will remain racially biased” (McCartney, p. 13).
It is clear that the tenets of the Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement serve to dismantle the psychology of racism in the minds of the oppressed: people of color in this country. Carmichael and Hamilton held that: “Before a group can enter the open society, it must first close ranks” (Carmichael, p. 44). People can (and have) read this as purely separatist ideology but Carmichael and Hamilton describe the importance of dismantling the psychology of racism/ white hegemony/ institutional racism in the minds of the colonized (Black Americans) before forming Black/ white coalitions for change (Carmichael, p. 217-p. 218).
Morrison begins the narrative of Pecola’s story with the words, “Quiet as it’s kept” (p. 6). Morrison describes her reason for beginning the book this way in the afterword to the book, written in 1993. She said that this phrase “had several attractions for me. First, it was a familiar phrase, familiar to me as a child listening to adults; to black women conversing with one another, telling a story, an anecdote, gossip about some one or event within the circle, the family the neighborhood” (p. 212). So, Morrison attempts to write this book in “race-specific yet race free prose.” She also asserts that she was both “holding the despising glance while sabotaging it” throughout the novel. She is attempting to reorder the western cultural aesthetic while simultaneously working within it. Larry Neale asserts, “Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black America…It proposes a separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology” (Gayle, p. 257). Some of the symbols included in The Bluest Eye, speak most directly to a Black audience, including the “quiet as its kept” phrase, the Dixie Peach hair straightener, and, perhaps, the characters themselves. Morrison is banking on the fact that many educated Black women will see a bit of themselves in Geraldine, and that many Black boys or men, living in middle class America, will see a bit of themselves in Junior or Soaphead Church. She is also banking on the fact that many Americans, Black, white, red, brown, or other, will see some truth and tragedy in the plight of Pecola Breedlove, in an America that is so entangled in a psychology of racism that it fails Pecola, and it fails Claudia—who most of us can relate to.