While many texts in American literature engage with the legacy of slavery and the years of deeply-imbedded racism that followed, Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye focuses specifically on the lingering effects through commentary on internalized racism and black self-hatred. Set in Lorain, Ohio during the 1930s, this book explores the series of abuses that the main character Pecola Breedlove, an eleven year old child, is subjected to, which includes living in harsh poverty, moving from one home to another as a foster child, experiencing rape by her own father, and being ridiculed at school for being an “ugly schoolgirl”. While Pecola is the protagonist of the novel, this story is told through the eyes of Claudia MacTeer, a nine year old child whose family takes in Pecola after Pecola’s father, Cholly, burns down their home. Morrison presents her central character as the inevitable target of Lorain’s deeply ingrained and multilayered racism, of a community that has absorbs and now replicates destructive dominant cultural myths about beauty and value. This is witnessed very vividly in Pecola’s very household. Pecola’s mother, Pauline, feels isolated and disconnected from her community. Her dysfunctional and violent relationship with her husband Cholly reaffirm her belief that she is ugly and that romantic love is reserved for those who are beautiful and valued in society. Ideas that her blackness is marked by ugliness and worthlessness get reproduced to her daughter, from the moment that Pecola war born. In the novel, she reflects back to the moment that Pecola was born and was breastfeeding her. She characterizes Pecola as a “right smart baby” who knew “right off what to do...[she] knowed she was ugly. Head full of pretty hair, but Lord was she ugly” (Morrison, 126).
As Pecola grows up, she longs for blue eyes, a yearning for whiteness, which symbolizes beauty and worth. Blue eyes signify universal beauty. To possess blue eyes is to possess whiteness. Many of Pecola’s encounters with people throughout the novel validate her perception of her ugliness- schoolboys ridicule her appearance, the grocer ignores her when she tries to purchase candy, and a light-skinned girl, Maureen, who befriends her temporarily, makes fun of her. In the beginning of the novel, we learn that Pecola adores Shirley Temple, which represents pure beauty and innocence. Her love for Shirley Temple and drinking milk is part of her desire to internalize values of white culture, foreshadowing her yearning for blue eyes. She believes that if she had blue eyes, she would not only be “different” and beautiful, but that she may find love and belonging in her family and community. People would look at her and say, “Why look at pretty eyed Pecola. We mustn’t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes” (Morrison, 46).
In this paper, I intend on examining Pecola’s body and her hunger for blue eyes as possibilities for redress and resistance, rather than self-destruction. While Pecola’s desire for blue eyes may be translated as a desire for whiteness and feelings of worthlessness defined by her blackness, I argue that longing for blue eyes constitutes black youth redress. It is through these moments of “contentment” or “enjoyment,” that we can begin to understand subjection/subjectivity. Blue eyes represent a remedy for the structural violence that she experiences – poverty, domestic violence, and hunger. I hope to use Pecola’s character to expand on my understanding of redress, utilized by Saidiya Hartman in Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Does Pecola’s desire for blue eyes have ramifications for the possibility of political resistance to racial oppression? Can this desire serve as not just self-destruction, but a means to articulate extreme violence and subjection?
Redress constitutes not only as a form of grieving or healing, but an articulation of violence that the subject has encountered. Where there is subjection, it is important to examine possibilities of intervention, resistance or transformation. As a black female child, the most powerless character in Morrison’s novel, as she states in her Afterward, this yearning for blue eyes constitutes a way where Pecola’s character exercises agency and challenging the forms of violence, to the point where she actually believes by the end of the novel that she has acquired blue eyes. As a child, it is difficult to articulate experiences of extreme violence, such as rape. Through Pecola’s character, Morrison brings a subjectivity (a returned “gaze”), through Pecola’s character, to bear upon white literary figures that have often constructed blacks as victims, who are incapable of critical thought and subjectivity. I argue that exploring the concept of redress, through Pecola’s character, can help see this returned “gaze” towards the white world. The Bluest Eye “pecks away at the [white] gaze that condemned [Pecola]” (Morrison, 210). According to Hartman:
Redressing the pained body encompasses operating in and against the demands of the system, negotiating the disciplinary harnessing of the body, and counterinvesting in the body as a site of possibility. In this instance, pain must be recognized in its historicity and as the articulation of a social condition of brutal constant, extreme need, and constant violence; in other words, it is the perpetual condition of ravishment (Hartman, 51).
In order to understand subjectivity, there must be an understanding of subjection and subjugation. Appeals for redress to the state, as well as modes of radical performativity, are always embedded in the structure they would escape. Pecola’s yearning for blue eyes, stems from her position as a black 11-year old girl and the conditions of violence that she was born into. The “pain” that Pecola experiences, might be described as “the history that hurts,” and redress might be a means to minimize that violence (Hartman, 51). The first time the reader encounters Pecola’s desire for blue eyes, was after we learned that her father raped her. By longing for blue eyes and yearning to be not only beautiful but “different,” Pecola is able to articulate that the pain she experiences – her parents fighting, being raped by her father and feeling isolated – is associated with her blackness. She understands that the characteristics of whiteness – purity, innocence and beauty- is defined by everything blackness is not – ugly, worthlessness, and alienation. These moments of longing for blue eyes, admiring Shirley Temple, or purchasing candy do not serve to overcome her conditions of poverty, physical and sexual violence, and abuse, or provide remedy, but create a “context for the collective enunciation of this pain, transforming need into politics and cultivating pleasure as a limited response to need and a desperately insufficient forms of redress” (Hartman, 52). Redress “concerns the articulation of needs and desires and the endeavor to meet them” (Hartman, 77).
The first time Morrison characterizes the structure of the white gaze is through Pecola’s encounter with the grocer, Yacabowski, to purchase candy. As she goes to buy candy, Morrison describes the white gaze in the literal sense: “[Yacabowski] looks toward her. Somewhere between retina and object, between vision and view, his eyes draw back, hesitate and hover...He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see” (Morrison, 49). Although he is an immigrant, he has attained the category of whiteness, which Pecola notes by his “blue eyes”. During this encounter with the storekeeper, Pecola makes it clear that this is not her first experience with white people. Morrison notes that there is:
An absence of human recognition- the glazed separateness.... Perhaps because he is grown or a man and she a little girl. But she has seen interest, disgust even anger in grown male eyes. Yet this vacuum is not new to her. It has an edge, somewhere in the bottom lid is the distaste. She has seen it lurking in the eyes of all white people. So. The distaste must be for her, her blackness. All things in her are flux and anticipation. But her blackness is static and dread. And it is the blackness that accounts for, that creates, the vacuum edged with distaste in white eyes (Morrison, 49).
This passage indicates several things. For one, it isn’t so much that the white storekeeper does not see her because she is a child, but that he recognizes her as belonging to a particular racial classification: Black. She is immediately racialized and defined by her blackness. She is recognized, yet unrecognized- visible in her invisibility. Her visible blackness marks her invisible to Yacobowski. This encounter is shaped and mediated by his whiteness, which is defined in opposition to blackness.
This encounter where Pecola’s body is marked both visible and invisible due to her race is discussed at length in Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. In this seminal text, Fanon is concerned with how race and racism is constituted at a psychological level, both in the individual consciousness and through collective/community practices. In his confrontation with a white child, who cries out: “Look Mama, A Negro...[he’s] going to eat me up,” Fanon confronts his race- his black body in a white world (Fanon, 114). It is through this moment where he positions himself under the gaze of whiteness- “I am being dissected under white eyes, the only real yes. I am fixed (Fanon, 116). The black man can only see himself in relation to the white man. He cannot escape from his race. Fanon argues that the as long as the black man is under the white gaze, he can never be able to structure himself apart from the white man. Under the white gaze, he is erased- recognized by his visible blackness, yet dehumanized and marked invisible through his objectification. Through the engagement with the child, Fanon subjects his body and finds, “I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics; and I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slave ships and above all else, above all: ‘Sho good eatin’” (Fanon, 112). This encounter creates two things: Not only did the white boy’s reaction to Fanon affect Fanon’s perception of himself, but race has already infused the white boy’s perceptions that will continue to be reproduced.
In Pecola’s engagement with the white storekeeper, his refusal to sell her candy and acknowledge her humanity reinforces ideas of her ugliness and worthlessness defined by her blackness. The white gaze has rendered her ontologically worthless. This is expressed through not only Claudia’s narration of the encounter, but where Pecola expresses anger. Morrison notes: “Anger is better. There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and presence. An awareness of worth” (Morrison, 51). However, I want argue that Pecola’s expression of anger, as well as the choice to purchase candy with Mary Jane on it, can be constituted as redress. Her feelings of anger confirm that she experiences the world differently due to her blackness, living in a white world. While her conditions will not disappear by being angry and buying candy, this moment signifies a temporary redress, a “recognition of the enormity of the breach instituted by...the magnitude of domination” (Hartman, 58). In order for whiteness to signify “being,” completeness, or subjecthood, it must be defined through a racialized Other. The immigrant storekeeper is able to maintain his whiteness through gazing at Pecola’s black body. Fanon notes this relationship between black and white men: “The black man wants to be white. The white man slaves to reach a human level” (Fanon, 9). The white man claims his humanity through dehumanizing the black man. As an immigrant, Yacobowski has probably encountered discrimination, and therefore, his whiteness is mediated and reinforced through his objectification of and denying Pecola candy.
In the beginning of the novel, Claudia brings Pecola some graham crackers and milk in a blue and white Shirley Temple mug, which Pecola drinks ferociously. Claudia witnesses that Pecola “was a long time with the milk, and gazed fondly at the silhouette of Shirley Temple’s dimpled face. Frieda and she had a loving conversation bout how cu-ute Shirley Temple was. I couldn’t join them in their adoration because I hated Shirley” (Morrison, 19). Pecola may be obsessed with Shirley Temple, because she sees something that she does not see in herself- beauty, purity and innocence. Shirley Temple embodied the ideal image of American girlhood. However, what is more significant about that scene is the milk inside of the cup. We later learn in that chapter that Pecola drinks three quarts of milk. Milk has come to represent whiteness. Claudia and Frieda’s mother, Mrs. MacMeer, calls Pecola greedy and claims that her excessive drinking of milk symbolizes her desire for whiteness. If Pecola continues to drink milk, then she will become white – this whiteness will somehow make her more beautiful. I want to intervene and argue that this ingestion of whiteness is actually a means of reversing the gaze. Drinking milk out of a Shirley Temple mug and eating candy with Mary Jane on them is consuming whiteness, not in the sense to become white, but as a form of responding to the black position constantly being under the white gaze for consumption and objectification. Her desire to “eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane” may even be perceived as a form of symbolic cannibalism (Morrison, 50). It through moments of indulgence or “enjoyment,” whether it is through drinking milk or consuming candy, where we can understand redress. While Hartman complicates the notion of agency, since the black subject is defined by fungibility and accumulation. Therefore, drinking the milk and consuming candy, are limited forms of action aimed at “relieving the pained body through alternative configurations of the self and the redemption of the body as human flesh, not beast of burden” (Hartman, 77). This hunger for whiteness is also a proxy for healing.
While whiteness is often perceived as ahistorical, with no historical roots, it actually has a specific historical context. Cedric Robinson, in his seminal text Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition, argues that racism and capitalism did not begin with Africa. The racialization of the proletariat and the invention of whiteness began with Europe itself, long before Europe’s modern encounter with African and New World labor. Tracing back to European roots, racism “was not simply a convention for order the relations of Europeans to non-European people but has its genesis in the ‘internal’ relations of European peoples” (Robinson, 2). The construction of “the Negro” different from the ways that Irish and Slavs were racialized, allowing for the formation of modern capitalism. Constructing “the Negro” meant “wip[ing] out the cultural and intellectual contributions of Egypt and Nubia from European history to whiten the West in order to maintain the purity of the ‘European race’ (Robinson, 4). Constructing “the Negro” allowed Europeans to construct Africans as one homologous entity, who were uncivilized, boorish and savagery. Similar to the way that Britain constructed the Irish to be inferior to English working, it became easier to exploit them, and create a racial hierarchy. Race became largely the “rationalization or the domination, exploitation and/or extermination of non-“Europeans” (including Slavs and Jews)” (Robinson, 27). This history is important to understand how as an immigrant, Yacobowski was able to acquire whiteness. White working class 9and immigrants) gained material benefits in whiteness rooted in anti-Black violence. Robinson’s book focuses on how whiteness as a power emerges, rather than a study on black suffering. This removes the idea of blackness as suffering as something natural to black people and explains the cycle of poverty/racism that exists in Morrison’s novel. This violence is endemic among black Americans as a result of whiteness.
WHITE GAZE AND MASCULINITY:
In the Bluest Eye Morrison offers various voices of narration and points of views to show that this self-hatred is not as a result of personal experiences of poverty and hardship, but because of a cyclical and historically based tendency of white culture to promote its own superiority. The reader quickly learns that Pecola’s parents endured difficult lives. Cholly Breedlove, Pecola’s father, was abandoned by his parents at the age of four years and was raised by his Great Aunt Jimmy, who died while he was a teenager. We learn about Cholly in the beginning of the novel through Claudia’s narration: “Cholly Breedlove then, a renting black, having put his family outdoors, had catapulted himself beyond the reaches of human consideration. He had joined the animals; was, indeed, an old dog, a snake, a ratty nigger. Mrs. Breedlove was staying with the woman she worked for; the boy, Sammy, was with some other family; and Pecola was to stay with us. Cholly was in jail” (Morrison, 77).
During a sexual encounter with a teenage girl, Darlene, two white men harass and humiliate him, shining a flashlight at his naked body, yelling “[g]et on wid it, n----r” (Morrison, 148). Similar to Pecola’s encounter with the white storekeeper, Cholly is literally under the white gaze, and is humiliated due to his blackness. This objectification translates into self-hate, which translates into hatred and violence towards Darlene. Helpless in the presence of the white men, Cholly did not direct his anger toward the white gazers, but towards Darlene. Morrison states: “Cholly, moving faster, looked at Darlene. He hated her. He almost wished he could do it- hard, long, and painfully, he hated her so much” (Morrison, 148). Unable to fight the armed white men, Cholly felt emasculated and feminized. Historically, men prove their masculinity and prove themselves through the domination of woman. Another example is the boys at Pecola’s school who ridiculed her and called her ugly; their ritual performance of self-hatred translates in mocking and humiliating Pecola.
Hartman states in her book, that scenes of subjection are not just limited to spectacular moments of extreme violence, but these scenes of pleasure, in this case, Cholly and Darlene’s sexual act, as connected to subjection and subjugation. Both of them are forced to perform for the white men. This performance and entertainment for the two white men is haunted by the experiences of slavery, when slaves were forced to have sex and entertain white slavemasters on the block. Disciplining, objectifying and sexualizing black bodies, as well as their wills, ambitions and desires, allowed for white people to have complete domination. While Cholly is guilty of raping his own daughter and beating his wife, Pauline, Morrison does not demonize him, dedicating an entire chapter to his own experiences of subjection/subjugation under the white gaze as a result of his blackness. He is thrown into a world of rejection and alienation, poverty and anti-Black racism, and he himself has internalized whiteness as normative standards of beauty. Morrison makes it clear that the black man sees white beauty as admirable and worthy, which is why Cholly Breedlove deflects his self-hatred toward his wife Pauline and daughter Pecola, through act of physical and sexual violence.
Morrison’s choice to make Claudia the narrator of the novel is significant for many reasons. She represents an honest voice, being a child, but also reflects back on particular instances after living through certain experiences as an adult. Claudia represents the only character not obsessed with Western standards of beauty through her hatred of white dolls and Shirley Temple. One Christmas, she receives a “blue eyed Baby Doll” and destroys it but cannot articulate why. She acknowledges that she cannot get herself to find its beauty and desirability, like every other child believed. She states: “I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me. Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs- all the world had agreed that a blue eyed, yellow haired, pink skinned doll was what every girl child treasured” (20). Similarly, while Pecola befriends Maureen, a light skinned girl at their school, Claudia despises her and realizes that she hates the thing that makes Maureen beautiful: “and all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not worthy of such intense hatred. The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful, and not us” (Morrison, 58). The idea that her light skin defines her whiteness is what Claudia hated most about Maureen. The decision to make Claudia the protagonist, rather than Pecola, reflects Morrison’s desire to show how self-hatred and racism has been internalized within the black community, through the eyes of someone who has not been brainwashed yet. She and her sister Frieda are “comfortable in [their] skins...and [cannot] comprehend this unworthiness” (Morrison, 57). Claudia is able to narrate how ideas of beauty and feelings of worthlessness are internalized and reproduced within the black community, because she has not conformed to white standards of beauty and worth. Since she represents the youngest character is, there is a possibility that she will internalize these ideas of whiteness eventually.
Pecola reflects the many existential realities of everyday black life and symbolizes the black community’s self-hatred. How does Pecola’s desire for blue eyes represent the communities ambivalent relationship to whiteness – they are never actually opposed to it? How is the black family constructed in the novel? How are the characteristics of the family projected onto the social environment? Fanon states that “sickness lies in the family environment” (Fanon, 143). African American family structure/culture has always been deemed as contrary to the norms of heterosexuality and patriarchy (Ferguson, 419). Many African American households are “nonheteronormative” because they violate the image of the traditional nuclear family and “American” household embodied by white. Roderick Ferguson, in Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique, argues that African Americans’ “fitness” for citizenship was measured in terms of how much their sexual, familiar, and gender relations deviated from the nuclear family. “Blackness” and homosexuality are considered the antithesis of citizenship because they are considered “irrational” modes of difference. Ferguson argues that “the sexualized construction of African Americans was both a way of grounding African American racial difference within the so-called called vagaries of the sexual and a way of locating African Americans within liberal capitalism” (Ferguson, 20). Some examples of black nonheteronormativity in the Bluest Eye is Cholly’s rape of his daughter, Pecola, the unstable and violence relationship between Cholly and Pauline, Pauline’s living with a white family, and the incident where Cholly’s first sexual encounter is disrupted and traumatized by the two white men who ridicule him. Not only is black sex/sexuality a performance for white entertainment, as shown in that scene, all acts of blacks sexuality are considered nonheteronormative. Fanon reminds the reader that: A normal Negro child, having grown up within a normal family, will become abnormal on the slightest contact with the white world (Fanon, 143). The hardships and material exclusions are displaced onto African American sexual and familial practices. Morrison constructs his first sexual encounter with Darlene outdoors. Outdoors represents a space occupied by individuals such as Cholly, who exist on the peripheries of society and are deemed nonheteronormative. Ferguson addresses questions of material exclusion that have historically been displaced onto African American’s perceived deviant with sexual and familial practices; “presuming African American violation of [heteronormative] demands became the justification for subordinating African Americans” (Ferguson, 87). This emphasis on black nonheteronormativity creates a shift in blame for poverty and racism from the state/capitalism onto the individuals and makes black suffering inherent to blackness. Fanon states that: The conditions of poverty and anti-black racism that the Breedlove’s and MacMeer’s confront are due to nonheterornormativity and being castrated as sexually deviant.
Community is very central to The Bluest Eye. Nearly all the African American characters in Morrison’s novel are consumed with the constant culturally imposed notions of white beauty, cleanliness, and sanitation, where they have disengaged with themselves and have a disastrous tendency to subconsciously act out their feelings of self loathing on other members of the black community. In Righteous Propogation: African Ameiracns and the Politics of Racial Destiny After Reconstruction Michelle Mitchel argues how black Americans formed a collective whose future existence would be determined by actions of its members. This led to shifts and diversity in ideas of racial destiny and progress, which included policing the most private aspects of black life, gender roles and promotion of moral purity. This obsession with remaining clean, when Mrs. MacMeer yells at Claudia and Frieda for dirtying their clothes or Darlene’s fear that her “Mama gone whup me” for her dirty clothes after being outdoors with Cholly (Morrison, 146). This also led to the black community to make Pecola their scapegoat. Claudia narrates that:
All of us –all who knew [Pecola] – felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humour. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used – to silence our own nightmares (Morrison, 190).
In Morrison’s words, the bluest eye is a “story of female violation revealed from the vantage of the victims or could-be victims...the girls themselves” (Afterward). The young black girls in the novel constitute the powerless and the most vulnerable, but they also pose as a site to understand power, internalized racism and redress. What happens if you center those who have been ex-ec-centric to the normative formation? I chose to focus on the way that Pecola’s body, her yearn for blue eyes, and her longing for community, constitutes means for redress and resistance, rather than internalization of self-hatred. In the position of a black child, drinking milk, purchasing candy with Mary Jane on it, and sipping out of a Shirley Temple mug become ways to articulate not only her identity as a black girl, but an understanding of her position of a black girl in a white society. Blue eyes represent a remedy for the structural violence that she experiences – poverty, domestic violence, and hunger. These different forms of redress may be ways to articulate her blackness in relation to whiteness, a form of temporary relief from the pain of the extreme violence that she endures, and a means to forge a new politics.
Ferguson, Roderick A. Aberrations in Black: Toward a Queer of Color Critique. Minneapolis (Minn.): University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Mask. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Mitchell, Michele. Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Vintage Books, 2016.
Robinson, Cedric J., and Robin D. G. Kelley. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Bayan Abusneineh is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego. Her research broadly considers the relationship between race, reproduction and eugenics ideology in Palestine and Israel.