The Bluest Eye Through a Black Power Framework

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Natasha Trivers

American Encounters

Prof. Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman

Fighting to Love Blackness:

Reading The Bluest Eye Through a Black Power Framework
Let us decide not to imitate Europe; let us try to create

the whole man, whom Europe has been incapable of

bringing to triumphant birth. –Frantz Fanon

The Black Power Movement arose in the late sixties out of the growing discontent in the African American community with oppressive systems in America, continued disenfranchisement, and the “turn the other cheek” ideology of the Civil Rights Movement. The increased militancy of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) coupled with the rhetoric of Malcolm X, a major leader in, and orator of, the Nation of Islam, planted the seeds of a movement that was extremely successful in terms of raising the consciousness of Blacks and allowing for a redefinition of Blackness through the validation of Black beauty, Black traditions and Black values. “If the movement’s confrontational posture quickened the pace of racial change, it also provoked a visceral reaction in white Americans who could more easily identify with civil rights activists than with Black Power militants” argues Peniel Joseph in his latest book, Waiting Til the Midnight Hour. “Ultimately, Black Power,” Joseph continues, “accelerated America’s reckoning with its own uncomfortable, often ugly, racial past, and in the process spurred a debate over racial progress, citizenship, and democracy that would scandalize as much as it would change the nation” (p. xiv). By exposing white power—as exerted through the media, literature, economic and political systems of oppression, as well as through tokenism and co-optation—and by outlining the main tenets of Black Power: self-determination through self-definition; proponents such as Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael), Charles Hamilton, Larry Neal, Leroi Jones, and Addison Gayle facilitate a powerful reading of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

In this important American novel, Morrison shows us the crippling effects of racist institutions and values on the various characters in the work—which represent various strands of the Black experience—and on the reader herself. Morrison’s prose draws the reader in at times and creates distance at other times through passages that are intentionally ambiguous or decontextualized, forcing the reader to bring her own socially conditioned knowledge and experience to the text. Thus, the reader makes meaning within racist institutions and a Westernized value system as do the characters in the novel. Therefore, the novel exposes white hegemony and how powerful its control is in the lives of the characters, specifically, Pecola, Pauline, Cholly, Maureen Peal, Geraldine, and Soaphead Church. But, it also shows how powerful this control continues to be over the reader as well. In addition, the novel shows how the absence of Black values, the lack of recognition of Black traditions, and the inability to see Black as beautiful, in the case of many of the characters, has caused their unraveling and has led, ultimately, to their extreme unhappiness or destruction. One can only assume that the Black Power Movement was extremely influential in Toni Morrison’s life—as it was in the lives of many African Americans coming of age during that time period—and may have greatly informed her agenda, in this work. But, clearly, no matter what the degree of influence, the main tenets of Black Power are meant to work in direct opposition to “the Thing” as Morrison casts it, in The Bluest Eye.

Claudia MacTeer, who serves as one of the narrators in The Bluest Eye, explains, to the reader, early out that, “The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us” (p. 74). Claudia is referring to Maureen Peal, a light skinned biracial character that is deemed cute by everyone. Morrison creates Claudia as a character that must struggle with why Maureen is beautiful. Morrison uses the child version of Claudia, the narrator, to make sure that from the outset of the novel, the reader understands that there is a force at work in this novel that is controlling these characters’ lives. Claudia wonders what makes it impossible for her and her friends to destroy the “honey voices of parents and aunts, the obedience in the eyes of…peers, the slippery light in the eyes of…teachers when they encountered the Maureen Peals of the world”? “What is the secret” (p. 74)?

This Thing, this force, this secret that is being kept from Claudia, becomes a presence in the novel that is larger than the characters. Even Pecola’s downward spiral into insanity becomes a backdrop to this Thing. And, what is this Thing? What could hold such power over the characters of this novel, and really, over all of us, as readers? As the Thing manifests in the lives of characters like Geraldine and Soaphead Church, it becomes more than an undefined force that makes light skinned girls like Maureen Peal beautiful. This Thing has socioeconomic ramifications. It has sociohistorical and cultural ramifications as well. This Thing becomes the most destructive entity in the novel—more powerful than Cholly (and his raping of Pecola) or Soaphead Church (even as he commits the most horrendous and disastrous act against Pecola: using his magic to make her believe she has blue eyes). An analysis of Black Power ideology shall illuminate the various characteristics of this Thing. And, more importantly, proponents of Black Power will propose solutions to the problems that this Thing embodies and creates. Further, Black Power offers concrete ways to break down the Thing, and, ultimately, to destroy it.

The life and violent death of Malcolm X served, in some ways, as an impetus for the Black Power Movement as well as for its sister movement, the Black Arts Movement (BAM). Malcolm X was a powerful orator, a Black nationalist, and a very public figure that was advocating for a complete rejection of, and refusal to work with, white America as well as for a complete redefinition of Blackness—as beautiful, powerful, and rich in culture and history. Of course, within Malcolm’s oration as well as within the words of later proponents of the movement, one can also hear an echo of the “back to Africa” ideology of Marcus Garvey and the “power through self-determination and self-definition” philosophy, which characterized the New Negro Movement in the 1920’s.

Throughout The Autobiography of Malcolm X, As Told to Alex Haley—and this remarkable phenomena is best dramatized in Spike Lee's film X—captivating, beautiful images of masses of black faces, strong united stances, and/or uniform black bodies are presented. As Malcolm becomes a Black Muslim minister for the Nation of Islam, he describes how the "all-black atmosphere" would fall silent as speakers came up to the podium—in temples or other public gatherings. He continues, "The balcony and the rear half of the main floor were filled with black people of the general public. Ahead of them were the all-Muslim seating sections—the white-garbed beautiful black sisters, and the dark-suited, white-shirted brothers" (Haley, p. 249). If the image alone that Malcolm presents—of masses of beautifully dressed Black Muslims who are neat, uniform, and proud—were not enough to grab the reader’s attention, and, perhaps, incite action, Malcolm goes on to call together African Americans based solely on their blackness and their shared experience: "My black brothers and sisters—of all religious beliefs, or of no religious beliefs—we all have in common the greatest binding tie we could have…we all are black people (Haley, p. 251). Malcolm's words serve to present a new image of Blackness. Malcolm presents Blacks that are well-dressed, beautiful, and united in purpose as well as due to a shared experience. This unity and apparent power that the Black Muslims exhibited must have been a strong antithesis to the many images of Blacks as docile, stupid, dirty, ugly, and criminal that had been bombarding Blacks through various mediums for centuries.

In an early scene in Haley’s autobiography, Malcolm describes his very first conk and what it reveals about his own self-hatred: "This was my first really big step toward self-degradation: when I endured all of that pain, literally burning up my flesh to have it look like a white man's hair. I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America who are brainwashed into believing that the black people are 'inferior'—and white people 'superior'—that they will even violate and mutilate their God-created bodies to try to look 'pretty' by white standards" (Haley, p. 54). Malcolm must have spoken to so many people here, on various levels. Many Blacks in the 1960’s were trying to “look pretty by white standards.” Many Blacks still try to subscribe to white beauty ideals even today. Although, self-hatred is too simple of an explanation for the kind of self-degradation the conking scene symbolizes. The white standard is the only standard that is available to “look pretty by” in America. In film, the media, literature, and popular television shows during the sixties, all one can see is image after image of white faces, white bodies, white culture, and white history. Stokely Carmichael’s discussion of white systems of oppression and how deeply they inform every fiber of the nation’s social fabric, serve to complicate Malcolm X’s attention to self-hatred, on the part of Blacks.

In the opening chapter of Black Power, co-written with Charles Hamilton, Carmichael and Hamilton define racism: “By “racism” we mean the predication of decisions and policies on considerations of race for the purpose of subordinating a racial group and maintaining control over that group” (Carmichael, p. 3). The authors go on to distinguish individual acts of racism from institutional racism. They argue that while the former generally receives more publicity, as it can be recorded on television, the latter “is no less destructive of human life. The second type originates in the operation of established and respected forces in society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than the first type” (Carmichael, p. 4). Thus, defined as a system, institutional racism is postulated as a force that can be just as violent and destructive as individual acts of racism; often it is more so. For, “it is institutional racism that keeps black people locked in dilapidated slum tenements, subject to the daily prey of exploitative slumlords, merchants, loan sharks, and discriminatory real estate agents” (Carmichael, p. 4). Therefore, racism is not only a system of coming to decisions and enacting policies for the purpose of subordinating a racial group in terms of the collective psyche of that group: “Institutional racism relies on the active and pervasive operation of anti-black attitudes and practices. A sense of superior group position prevails: whites are “better” than blacks; therefore blacks should be subordinated to blacks” (Carmichael, p. 5); but it is also a system that enacts domination of one group over another in very real and physical ways, economically and politically. The superior group position that Carmichael describes is also articulated in America’s definition of beauty, which Morrison’s omniscient narrator asserts is “probably [one of the] the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought” (122). Ed Guerrero argues that “we must push our analysis…further when it comes to Morrison’s novels and explore how “the look” of the dominant social order is internalized by her black characters; that is, how they construct themselves and others through, and in a few instances against, the gaze of the Master” (p. 28). Carmichael and Hamilton describe how the master-slave or supra-race-sub-race phenomenon continues into the 1960’s due to the positioning of blacks as colonial subjects in America.

Carmichael and Hamilton complicate the notion of institutional racism by introducing the idea of colonialism within America’s democracy: “Black people are legal citizens of the United States with, for the most part, the same legal rights as other citizens. Yet they stand as colonial subjects in relation to the white society. Thus institutional racism has another name: colonialism” (Carmichael, p. 5). By renaming racism, colonialism, the authors make the argument that much of the Black representation in politics and in society, more generally, is in the form of “token” Blacks: “This process of co-optation and a subsequent widening of the gap between the black elites and the masses is common under colonial rule…It is crystal clear that most of these people have accommodated themselves to the racist system. They have capitulated to colonial subjugation in exchange for the security of a few dollars and dubious status” (Carmichael, p. 13-14).

Through integration and the process of co-optation, Black integrationists and token leaders are forced to try and assimilate and to strive to become white (Carmichael, p. 31). The only way these Blacks can succeed in America—as far as achieving the “security of a few dollars and a dubious status,” that is—is to deny their African heritage and subscribe to everything white. “Suffice it to say, that precisely because they are required to denounce—overtly or covertly—their black race, they are reinforcing racism in this country” (Carmichael, p. 31). Racism here, for Carmichael and Hamilton is dangerously and inextricably linked to capitalism—thus, even as Blacks attempt to achieve the American Dream and work to achieve economic stability, they are inevitably forced to subscribe to white hegemony in order to be successful. Therefore, some Blacks, even as they try to “fit in” to the dominant culture and be successful within the paradigm this dominant culture has set up, are reinforcing racism through their full, blind, uncritical subscription to white ideals, white values, and white standards of beauty. Carmichael and Hamilton, further articulate: “At all times, then, the social effects of colonialism are to degrade and to dehumanize the subjected black man” (Carmichael, p. 31).

Pecola, the main character in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, clearly serves as a symbol of the degradation and dehumanization that individuals (and groups of people) suffer due to colonialism and institutional racism. Pecola’s whole family, the Breedloves, believe that they are ugly. They have accepted this ugliness. In fact, they “[wear] their ugliness, put it on, so to speak, although it [does] not belong to them” (p. 38). In

“Tracking the Look,” Ed Guerrero calls our attention to the fact that we must explore how “the look” of the dominant social order is internalized by Black characters (27-31). Toni Morrison probably offers the best example of this in The Bluest Eye. The omniscient narrator describes the ugliness of the Breedloves as a profound case. The narrator explains that the ugliness is due largely to their conviction, stating that, “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” (p. 39). This “all-knowing master” is clearly the colonial power in America—whites. Carmichael would argue that it is clearly white hegemony in America that has forced the Breedloves, and so many other Blacks in America, to see themselves as ugly and as inferior to whites. Slavery, political disenfranchisement of Blacks, and political hegemony for whites depended upon Blacks donning the “cloaks” of inferiority in America, and really, throughout the world.

Jennifer Gillan argues that it is especially important that Morrison chose to set this story during 1940-41, because this is the year the United States finally decided to enter World War II and begin the “initial positioning of [itself] as the crusader against racialized forms of nationalism abroad” while “the United States’ own conflicts over race purity were displaced, and receded into the background” (284). The Black Power Movement as well as Black writers like Toni Morrison sought to expose the contradictions inherent in the new image of the United States as “defender of democracy and staunch critic of racialized nationalism abroad” and the racist institutions that existed in America that made American citizenship “racially determined” in the 1970’s and 1980’s (Gillan, 284). By naming the three prostitutes, China, Poland, and the Maginot Line, by using particular metaphoric descriptions like Maureen Peal’s “long brown hair” braided into “two lynch ropes” down her back, and by “depicting Pecola as scapegoat,” Morrison “constructs her novel as a subtle interplay between its foreground history of the Breedlove family and its background history of the racial determination of American citizenship” (Gillan, 284).

Morrison displays her genius in this novel and her commitment to exposing American hypocrisy and white hegemony by using the watershed moment of 1940-41 as the setting for her novel as well as through her careful development of the “Thing.” This “Thing,” this “all-knowing master” is a major force in the novel. All those that fully subscribe to the “Thing” live wretched lives—like the Breedlove family. Cholly and Pauline Breedlove have a dysfunctional marriage, in which Cholly is extremely abusive and Pauline acts as the martyr, who will wait for the everlasting life with her Lord to finally find peace and goodness. Morrison paints each member of the Breedlove family as abusive, cowardly, or invisible. Sammy, the son of Pauline and Cholly, is a pretty one-dimensional character. He doesn’t appear except to show the paralysis that he and his sister, undergo, in order to survive the fights that the parents often engage in. He also expresses a desire to kill his own father, over a fight that Mrs. Breedlove initiates because Cholly won’t fetch her some coal. Sammy cries, “Kill him! Kill him!” But, his mother turns incredulous eyes on him and simply says, “Cut out that noise, boy.” And, in true form of a martyr she solves the problem of having no coal on her own: “She put the stove lid back in place, and walked toward the kitchen. At the doorway she paused long enough to say to her son, ‘Get up from there anyhow. I need some coal’” (p. 44). Pauline serves to effectively emasculate poor Sammy—he isn’t able to kill his father or to even convince his mother that this is the right thing to do. Pauline Breedlove renders her son, Sammy, ineffective and invisible.

But, perhaps the character living the most painful, most wretched life is Pecola Breedlove. She is eleven years old and wants nothing more in the world than to have blue eyes. For, “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different” (p. 46). Pecola subscribes completely to the white beauty ideal. She is eternally trapped in the “look” of the dominant culture, which renders her both invisible and simultaneously marks her as an unrepresentative citizen (Guerrero, Kuenz, 422, Gillan, 283). Pecola wishes to completely erase herself and step into the white girl body which really represents an ideal American citizen. Pecola believes that if she only had blue eyes, her parents would behave differently, she might have more friends, and her station in life would be much improved. Morrison uses words reminiscent of the popular Dick and Jane reader, used in classrooms across the country throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, to encapsulate Pecola’s desire for blue eyes. Pecola chants:

Pretty eyes. Pretty blue eyes. Big blue pretty eyes. Run, Jip, run. Jip runs, Alice

runs. Alice has blue eyes. Jerry has blue eyes. Jerry runs. Alice runs. They run

with their blue eyes. Four blue eyes. Four pretty blue eyes. Blue-sky eyes.

Blue-like Mrs. Forrest’s blue blouse eyes. Morning-glory-blue-eyes. Alice-and

Jerry-blue-storybook-eyes (p. 46).
Because Morrison uses language similar to that employed in the popular Dick and Jane reader and because she continues to draw the reader’s attention to the billboards, popular movies of the day, the magazine images, the beloved Shirley Temple, Mary Jane candies, and all the other examples of white hegemony throughout the book, the reader realizes that Pecola’s wish for blue eyes is not just about becoming beautiful and it is not solely the strange wish of one misguided child. The image of the perfect, nuclear white family, with a handsome white father, a beautiful blond haired white mother, and two beautiful, well-dressed, happy children, with blue eyes that dance and play across the glossy, bright pages of the Dick and Jane reader does not merely represent white beauty ideals. This nuclear family represents perfection, stability, love, and happiness—all of which are unattainable entities for Pecola Breedlove, because it is precisely due to the fact that her family has been so “brainwashed” and so “subordinat[ed] as a racial group” that they are living such pitiful lives (Carmichael, p. 3). Morrison’s use of language remniscent of the popular Dick and Jane readers seems to also point to a “theorizing narrative” that is critical of even the most taken for granted entity—one of the first texts that many Americans, Black and white, would have come across in the 40’s and 50’s, a symbol of their immersion into literacy in the American school system—the Dick and Jane primer. In addition to the presence of the Dick and Jane readers, the fact that images of whiteness and “perfect” white families are looming from billboards and being plastered across the television set attests to the legitimacy, potency, and ubiquity of institutional racism in its many incarnations in America. The thing becomes inextricably linked to consumption in America of mass culture and it’s ideallyic images of clean, stable, beautiful, representative whiteness (Kuenz, 422). The “Thing,” as Morrison casts it or the “colonial power” as Carmichael describes it is alive and well in The Bluest Eye and it effectively destroys virtually everyone it encounters in its path—including poor Pecola (I say virtually everyone because Claudia and the Macteer family certainly don’t go untouched by the Thing and, indeed, various members may succumb to it to some degree at times but Claudia as the adult looking back on her childhood seems to be successful at fighting against the Thing.) Morrison shows the tragedy of internalized racism, white hegemony, and the uncritical devouring of white images in three other important characters: Maureen Peal, Geraldine, and Soaphead Church.

Maureen Peal is, “A high yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back” (p. 62). Maureen Peal is the beautiful, light-skinned, child that serves as a polar opposite to Pecola. However, she is not simply Pecola’s opposite because she is very light-skinned and because all those living in Pecola’s small community (Black and white, teachers and children) find Maureen to be strikingly beautiful and Pecola to be strikingly ugly. Maureen Peal also represents the light skinned Black population that was able to “get ahead” in important ways in American society, from the days directly following the Emancipation Proclamation to the 1960’s, due to their lighter skin complexion and their obvious white ancestors, who may have played a role in their upbringing—or, at least, have helped, in terms of financial support. Maureen Peal is not only mesmerizing to Frieda and Claudia because she is deemed cute by everyone. She is also mesmerizing because she had the means to dress in clothes that only those with considerable financial means could afford. Maureen Peal and her family clearly, then, enjoy a higher socioeconomic status than the MacTeer family:

The quality of her clothes threatened to derange Frieda and me. Patent-leather

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