Don’t Pity the Subject Being Smashed, Rage at the Object Doing the Smashing
Every year, PEN America asks PEN Members and supporters—writers and editors of all backgrounds and genres—to celebrate the freedom to read by reflecting on the banned books that matter most to them. This is our way of taking part in the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, which brings together the entire book community in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.
Pecola, the central character in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), is black. Not passing black, but black black. The kind of black that afflicts an 11-year-old girl with skin the color of dried concord blueberries in a world bent on crushing the self-regard of black girls before it blooms.
Unable to escape what others have conjured as a curse, Pecola is jinxed. Ugly. Her midnight blue cannot be found on the palette of pastels used to tint Dick and Jane pinkish white. She does not resemble the innocent and bashful white girl adorning the wrapper of the Mary Jane candy she devours as if it is an elixir for her blackness. No bountiful curls like Shirley Temple. No cobalt eyes like everyone’s favorite baby doll. She is deprived of virtue. Her life evidences what it means to live in the position of the identified other.
She is a girl who is said to have resembled a “black ball of hair” as a baby. Coon. Nigger. Tar baby. Black children—girls, especially—have some sense of how heavy a burden it is to love self, skin, hair, eyes, intellect, ass, breasts, and heart through a not-so-veiled system of racialized violence masked as self-hatred. We weren’t born detesting ourselves. It was only after other variously hued black kids jokingly began referring to me as “blacky” that I started loathing my reflection. But who taught my black classmates the lies they came to know as truth?
She masterfully creates a character who signifies the complexity of black girlhood and black-girl-becoming in an anti-black world.
The Bluest Eye is a story about a black girl’s flesh, blood, tears, laughter, desires, pleasures, and violations. And no one wants to discuss, read, and think about black girls’ realities and pains, not when stories centered on white girls’ triumphs and courageous movements through precarious lives seem to make better tales. Yet, Morrison is gifted at raising otherwise dead, concealed narratives. She masterfully creates a character who signifies the complexity of black girlhood and black-girl-becoming in an anti-black world.
Morrison describes the intricate, interior lives of black girls and the thorny external powers that try to harm them in The Bluest Eye. Incest and rape, poverty and social alienation, strange men and familiar intimates are forces appearing in the lives of the black girl and woman characters, some of whom maneuver through the story despite the ruins.
At the heart of The Bluest Eye is an important thesis. In the forward, Morrison notes, “…centering the weight of the novel’s inquiry on such a delicate and vulnerable character could smash her and lead readers into the comfort of pitying her rather than into an interrogation of themselves for the smashing.”
Young people in U.S. educational institutions need to encounter Pecola so they can inevitably confront themselves.
Pecola is not a girl lacking agency and power. Readers should not feel sorry for the black characters as if their dances with pain were somehow a product of their blackness. No. If the book prompts emotion, which it does, it should be the type of fury aimed at the two racist white men who force a young Cholly Breedlove (Pecola’s father) to rape Darlene, the first black girl he likes, in their presence while they call him “coon.” It is rage targeted at Dick, Jane, and Shirley Temple and an American advertising machine that turns white faces and blue eyes into fetishized commodities and blackness into an abject no-thing. And that is why The Bluest Eye is dangerous and always situated on a banned books list. It exposes the violence that besets the human condition as a result of white supremacist lies, misogynist thirst and the greed that extracts every ounce of goodness out of American life.
Young people in U.S. educational institutions need to encounter Pecola so they can inevitably confront themselves. There is nothing to hide but the magicians’ hands. Americans have all, already, been cursed by the enchanted powers of white infallibility. We need the strong medicine of the type of truth found in Morrison’s work to now heal us.
Darnell L. Moore is a senior editor at Mic and co-managing editor of The Feminist Wire. He is at work on his first book, a narrative non-fiction exploring black queerness and urban space in the age of hip-hop.