Every year, PEN America asks PEN members, supporters, and staff—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. Check out this year's Banned Books feature here.
Every night, Pecola Breedlove prays for a miracle: she wants blue eyes. If she had blue eyes, she believes, then everything would be different. She would be beautiful. She would finally be worthy of her parents’ love, deserving of the local grocer’s respect, and visible to all those who do not see her. That Pecola is black only makes her wish more poignant. But why would an eleven-year-old black girl want blue eyes? That question is at the center of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye. In it, Morrison explores how we form our ideas of beauty, how we develop particular aesthetics, and how those preferences affect the choices we make and how we treat others.
Little Pecola is a watchful girl. When she reads Fun with Dick and Jane, or drinks milk from a blue-and-white Shirley Temple cup, or eats Mary Jane candies, she notices blue eyes peering at her, symbols of achievement and talent and beauty. The narrative that Pecola absorbs from the world around her is simple. It tells her that to be beautiful is to be white. It shapes her identity at the same time as it threatens it.
I read The Bluest Eye many years ago, and it hit me with a revelatory power that has remained with me. When I was eight, a family friend gave me a doll as a birthday gift. Ordinarily, my parents bought my brother, my sister, and me the same toys: trucks and cars and puzzles that we could play with together. But this doll was mine and mine alone. She had straight blonde hair, and blue eyes that closed when you tilted her head back. I spent hours brushing her hair or smoothing down her white sailor dress, though I don’t recall ever giving her a name. What I do recall, with a clarity that surprises me even today, was that I thought she was pretty and that I wanted to be pretty like her.
Since its publication in 1970, The Bluest Eye has been frequently challenged or banned from classrooms. The most recent challenge occurred last year, when the novel appeared on a Common Core Standards reading list for 11th grade students in Ohio. The president of the board of education deemed the book inappropriate for high school students because it uses explicit language and depicts rape and incest.
But on any given day the front page of the newspaper is a compendium of horrors: war, torture, shootings, rape, racism, and misogyny are described, often graphically, and illustrated with gruesome pictures. By the time teenagers are in the 11th grade, they have heard plenty of offensive language and seen plenty of sexually explicit or violent material—and all they had to do was turn on the radio or the television.
I wonder if the deeper reason for the ban is that The Bluest Eye makes some people uncomfortable. It says plainly what many among us refuse to admit: that our aesthetics are not entirely our own, but are at least in part a function of the racist culture in which we live. White skin, straight hair, and blue eyes are considered more beautiful and therefore more valuable than brown or black skin, curly hair, and dark eyes. Rather than “protecting” high school students from The Bluest Eye, educators can use the novel to start discussions about body image, self-esteem, and the power of cultural narrative.
Laila Lalami is a Moroccan-American novelist and essayist. Her 2014 novel, The Moor’s Account, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, won the 2015 American Book Award, and was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014. She is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2016, a Fulbright Fellowship, and the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. She holds an MA from University College London, and a PhD in Linguistics from University of Southern California.