The tragedy in the end is not only Pecola’s destruction due to her subscription to white ideals and her own self-hatred; the other tragedy is that at times Claudia, as strong of a family as she comes from, succumbs to institutional racism and to a blind consumption of mass culture in America. The fate of the reader of this novel and even of all those that we know have not or will not read this novel because they don’t have access to it is also tragic. And yet, Morrison offers us hope in Claudia’s figuration in the novel; she is an adult looking back on her childhood and her reflections on that childhood, her reflections on Pecola’s fate and the fate of her baby, and her reflections on the Thing is Morrison’s way of showing that we, as people of color, can contend with the Thing and still be left standing.
Leroi Jones argues in his famous essay, “Black is a Country,” that African Americans should draw strength and inspiration from seeming marginality. “The struggle is for independence, not separation”, he writes. “And we must now, in what I see as an extreme ‘nationalism,’” recognize the true image and name of a nation, one that is bound together by skin color, common experience, tradition, and a rich cultural heritage—“i.e. in the best interest of our own country, the name of which the rest of America has pounded into our heads for four hundred years, Black” (qtd. in Joseph, p. 120). The MacTeers seem to be able to embrace their blackness and the precepts for Black nationalist thought. They are members of a tight knit African American community. They participate in the storytelling that so characterizes Black culture and the African American narrative form. Claudia is one that resists the barrage of white images. She destroys the white dolls she receives at Christmas time. She hates Shirley Temple, or, at least, she says she does. However, after Maureen assaults Claudia and Frieda with the words, “I am cute! And, you black and ugly,” Claudia and Frieda sink “under the wisdom, accuracy, and relevance of Maureen’s last words” (p. 74). The girls go onto realize that:
We were lesser. Nicer, brighter, but still lesser…What was the secret? What did
we lack? Why was it important? And, so what? Guileless and without vanity,
we were still in love with ourselves then. We felt comfortable in our skins, enjoyed the news that our senses released to us, admired our dirt, cultivated our scars, and could not comprehend this unworthiness…And all the time we knew
that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us (p. 74)
This is a moment where Claudia reflects on a moment when she clearly fell prey to the Thing. She also admits that she grew to love Shirley Temple, which can leave the reader wondering whether rebellious, strong-spirited Claudia is going to be able to resist white hegemony in America, after all. For Claudia says, “we were still in love with ourselves then,” when she is describing Maureen Peal’s assault on her and her sister, which implies that, at some point, Claudia and Frieda were no longer in love with themselves. The “Thing,” then, becomes a powerful entity to contend with for all of us—but mostly, for people of color. After all, if Claudia could succumb to it, eventually, couldn’t any of us? And, what do we need to do to protect ourselves from this “Thing,” once and for all?
Black Power ideology, particularly around self-love, self-determination, knowing one’s cultural and historical roots, and the idea of “closing the ranks,” before all else, seems to be the answer—and the only thorough and complete answer ever offered by any social movement—to the “Thing” as Morrison casts it in The Bluest Eye. It is the only answer ever offered for how one can break down the psychology and ideology of racism in America. Professors and historians like to discredit the Black Power Movement. Students of political science and history have heard again and again that it “didn’t accomplish anything”. There is no Civil Rights Act or moment when a school became integrated to point to as a concrete success of this movement. However, the way the Black Power Movement sought to genuinely raise the consciousness of people of color in this country, to teach them their history, and to encourage them to fight to love their own blackness, makes it a very successful movement. Further, the radicalism, the separatist and nationalist ideology, and the calls to defend oneself with weapons, was needed, one could argue, as radical fringes are needed in almost any movement for human rights—to show society just how far a group of people will go to secure rights, to redefine themselves, and to present viable alternatives to American myths and negative representations of Blackness. It is exciting that new and exciting research has been conducted on the Black Power Movement over the past two decades. William Van Deburg contends that although the movement did not always employ the best tactics and gains were often short-lived, the Black Power Movement did succeed in making a revolution of culture and of consciousness. This revolution has had a profound impact on America and on current conceptions of race in America (Van Deburg, p. 306-308). Peniel Joseph continues to redefine and re-present this movement as an extremely important movement that worked alongside the civil rights movement in the United States: “Civil Rights struggles are rightfully acknowledged as having earned Black Americans a historic level of dignity. Black Power accomplished a no-less-remarkable task, fueling the casually assertive identity and cultural pride that marks African American life today” (Joseph, p. 303). Joseph acknowledges not only Black Power’s influence and importance in the 1960’s and 70’s in America and around the world, but also points to the legacy of Black Power—political messages espoused in modern day rap lyrics, hip-hop culture, etc. The presence of Black Power ideology and concerns cannot be denied in Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye, which was written in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
I would argue that Toni Morrison leaves us with a figuration of Black Power ideology, embodied by Claudia, which is still intact and quite powerful by the end of the novel. It was Claudia who “thought about the baby that everybody wanted dead, and saw it very clearly” (190). Morrison imbues the child that Claudia imagines with Black beauty: It was in a dark, wet place, its head covered with great O’s of wool, the black face holding, like nickels, two clean black eyes, the flared nose, kissing-thick lips, and the living, breathing silk of black skin” (190). This scene stands in stark contrast to the scene earlier in the novel when Pauline looks at Pecola as a baby and only sees “a ball of black hair” and thinks “Lord, she was ugly” (126-7). Morrison rewrites the earlier scene, of Pecola as “ugly” to Pauline, through her characterization of strong, self-loving Claudia MacTeer who engages in a project similar to Morrison’s: reclaiming Black beauty and personhood.
The reader can see in Claudia’s self-reflexivity and analysis of what “We” did to Pecola and how “we” honed “our” wholesomeness after “clean[ing] ourselves on her” (205) that Claudia has grown up to be a strong Black woman who is critical of the community and the “entire country” that was “hostile to marigolds that year” (206). Whereas Linda Dittmar argues that the metaphor of the barren earth and dying marigolds is “overwhelmingly pessimistic” and has led to much of the criticism of the novel, as one being “mired in the pathology of Afro-American experience” (140), in my reading of the novel through the lens of the Black Power Movement and all of its concerns, I see Claudia’s attention to the marigolds and the climate in the country as testimony to her success. Her raised consciousness and ability to be critical of white hegemony in America at the same time as she is able to survive and not slip into madness as her counterpart, Pecola Breedlove does, is evidence of Claudia’s ability to battle and overcome the Thing. So, even as Claudia admittedly succumbed to white hegemonic ideals in her adoration of Shirley Temple as a teenager or her ability to see what made Maureen Peal “cute” to “everyone” in her later years, Claudia remains a success in her celebration of her body, her celebration and reverence for Blackness (culture, history, beauty, and lived experience). Claudia as embodied Black Power ideology also rewrites the movement’s goals through the eyes of a Black girl. Thus, Claudia is figured as being critical of mass culture, consumerism and a blind, uncritical consumption of white ideals at the same time that she is figured as being critical of traditional notions of motherhood and womanhood. When Claudia receives white doll after white doll for Christmas she wonders, “What was I supposed to do with it? Pretend I was its mother? I had no interest in babies or the concept of motherhood. I was interested only in humans my age and size” (20). Claudia resists her family’s efforts to fix her, in terms of gender and with regard to traditional gender roles she is expected to play. Claudia also embraces her body and her budding sensuality in a way that complicates or refracts the white male gaze that feminists write about (LaVon Walther, 775-6). Claudia develops her own gaze in the novel and it is distinctly one of a Black female who lived in the 1940’s but who has the power of retrospection and introspection afforded to her by the Black Power Movement, which the older middle-aged Claudia clearly lived through and was greatly informed by.
Peniel Joseph concludes in his impressive historical narrative of the Black Power Movement: “Black Power, beginning with its revision of black identity, transformed America’s racial, social, and political landscape. In a premulticultural age where race shaped opportunity, and identity, Black Power provided new words, images, and politics” (p. xiv). I would add to Joseph’s claims that Black Power continues to proliferate, giving birth to new ways of seeing and being. In particular, using this movement as a lens to study important African American literature of the second half of the twentieth century (and, indeed, literature of the twenty first century as well) equips readers with a proper footing in the historical moment that nourished African American writers and gave them the tools and the new language to insert “theorizing narratives” (Guerrero, 28) into the dominant discourse. Yet more significant than this, the Black Power Movement allows for a richer critical analysis of white hegemony, capitalism, and neoliberalism in America as well as a clearer picture of the unique Black iconography that has been created in recent history by important African American authors, such as Toni Morrison. Through Claudia’s new gaze, her attention to and celebration of Black girlhood and Black female rites of passage, and her love of Blackness in the novel, Morrison is able to represent new Black female subjectivity, to include Black beauty and culture as part of the “scale of absolute beauty” (122), to expose white hegemony in America as a crippling force for people of color, and to re-present Blackness as worthy and as incredibly rich with cultural capital.
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