The Bluest Lie

Tony Morrison's controversial novel The Bluest Eye evokes many different feelings in its readers: particularly survivors of childhood abuse and those who grapple with the self-loathing precipitated by colorism and Eurocentric beauty standards. Despite the importance of Morrison’s book, there have been numerous attempts to ban The Bluest Eye due to its explicit subject matter—rape, child molestation, white imperialism, intra-racial discrimination, class, and racism. One thing is certain however; The Bluest Eye is one of the most important works in the American literary canon and should be incorporated on any student's reading list, and they should read having been taught the nuance and context of the source material, what prompted Morrison to write it, and why it’s considered controversial.

Written in the 1970's, The Bluest Eye is set in the racially mixed, working class neighborhood of Lorain, Ohio between 1939-1940 and tells the tragic, third person, omniscient account of the novel's protagonist, 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Following a series of calamitous events—which include sexual abuse by of her alcoholic father, Cholly and a distant and emotionally abusive mother named Pauline, who finds solace working as a domestic for a rich, White family—Pecola is taken in by the MacTeer family. Feeling unloved, unwanted, and constantly told how ugly she is because of her dark skin, Pecola begins to equate white skin and blue eyes with happiness; believing if she possessed those two physical traits her life would be easier to navigate. The novel’s narration is told from the perspective of Claudia MacTeer, one of the daughters of the MacTeer family. 

After its initial publishing, The Bluest Eye was met with moderate success at best. In a republication of the book, Toni Morrison wrote in an Afterword: With very few exceptions, the initial publication of 'The Bluest Eye' was like Pecola's life: dismissed, trivialized, misread. And it has taken twenty-five years to gain for her the respectful publication this edition is. 
So it was with disappointment and dismay that I read about Brookfield, CT's knee-jerk reaction to the book after its addition to Brookfield High School's curriculum. 

Apparently, a week after National Banned Book week, residents began pressuring the Board of Education to ban the book and remove it from the curriculum, after it was assigned to juniors enrolled in an honors level English course. In perhaps the most shameful part of the town outcry, many of the residents haven't even read the book in its entirety... basing the unwarranted criticism on a CliffNotes version of the novel and excerpt sheets highlighting the sexual abuse. One poorly misguided resident and Republican candidate for the Board of Education went on to say: "This is pornography, pure and simple. I don't know why this book is in the high school." 

When a book, by a highly regarded Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning author, detailing the effects of sexual abuse, race, and class inequality is trivialized and regarded as porn, it basically illustrates why a certain segment of our society remains problematic, particularly when it attempts to push its conservative propaganda on the masses.

While it may seem par for the course for residents of an insular town like Brookfield to react negatively to such an honest and important piece of literature, it definitely shouldn’t let them off the hook for their ignorance and failure to understand The Bluest Eye in its proper context; particularly since most of the book's detractors haven't even read it and so can't possibly grasp or even fathom its message. And while students were offered the option of another book in the wake of the furor, to even attempt to begrudge them a look at perspectives and lives beyond their own, isn't exactly offering a well-rounded educational experience. Morrison's contribution to American (and black) literature presents stories from writing voices often ignored or drowned out, particularly when written by women of color.

Dealing with heavy literary material that involves child sexual abuse within the context of race and class disparities, can be overwhelming or even triggering for some, but to deny students the tools they need to be equipped with to help challenge a system that can often be exclusionary if you aren't wealthy, white, or the right shade of black is, well, counterproductive.

Rather than encourage young adults to remain obtuse and perpetuate antiquated and disproportionate ideals, the town of Brookfield and its school board should help cultivate critical thinking skills and healthy and open dialogue about The Bluest Eye. But they'd need to actually read  and work to understand the book first, though. 

1 comment

KohlEyes said...

I agree that it's utterly backwards to attempt to ban this book. Should we also ban books laden with expletives like "Catcher in the Rye", or politically charged titles dealing with race relations like "To Kill A Mockingbird"?