Over a decade ago I remember hearing about Toni Morrison’s book THE BLUEST EYE. I only have faint memories of seeing her on Oprah and thinking this was a book I needed to read. But for whatever reason I never got around to it–until now.
There are probably a million reviews from literary critics praising the book so I’m not going to get into why: “Toni Morrison is not just an important contemporary novelist but a major figure in our national literature.” — The New York Review of Books. I don’t have to sociological background to discuss why this book is such an important piece of history, but I do want to explore the things reading it made me feel as an Asian American.
One of the most powerful lines, and probably what compelled me to buy the book, was from the foreword. Morrison writes: The assertion of racial beauty was not a reaction to the self-mocking, humorous critique of cultural/racial foibles common in all groups, but against the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze. What a powerful statement.
The opening is brilliant. A young narrator, Claudia, whose name we do not learn for several pages, is talking about her friend Pecola Breedlove and how they all came to lose their innocence.
An intricately woven story, the narrator takes us on a journey through the history of Pecola’s family so that we understand how she came to be. Choosing to specifically highlight the most vulnerable and delicate member of society, a young black female, Morrison takes us on a journey of “how.” How it is that Pecola Breedlove came to end up where she did.
What I like about the story is that although she is critiquing our society at large she also is quick to point out the cultural flaws within the African American community. The way that I relate to this as a non-African-American is by acknowledging that within my own cultural community we share similar flaws of blaming the victim and drawing absurd conclusions for the sake of dramatic retellings of gossip, when what we should be doing is lending a helping hand as Claudia and her sister Freida attempt to do.
It dawns on me now as I’m analyzing all that can be taken away from Morrison’s beautiful work of fiction that I didn’t so much forget to read it as maybe I was afraid to. For I, too, longed for many years for the bluest eye. I have 22/20 vision but for years I wore a blue-green blend of contacts (which boasted the title of being “the most natural” looking kind) unaware of social consequences of my actions. I had no idea that by altering the color of my eyes I was telling everyone around me that I wanted to be someone other than myself. As much as it pains me to write this I feel encouraged by Morrison: I wanted to be white.
In Morrison’s forward she writes: Implicit in her desire [for the bluest eye] was radical self-loathing. And twenty years later, I was still wondering about how one learns that. Who told her? Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was?
Like Morrison, I too have no idea where this ideology stems from except to say that perhaps it was ingrained in my worldview in subtle ways like barbie dolls, baby dolls, and and in the way others looked at me. THE BLUEST EYE has important cultural and historical information, which makes it a must read for everyone. Through Morrison’s story of Peccola I learned things I never would’ve known because I would’ve felt uncomfortable asking. Yet, I feel this information is important if we as a society plan to successfully move toward true acceptance of one another.