Black Identity in Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2009

22 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. Autobiographical influences

3. Genesis of The Bluest Eye

4. The Bluest Eye

5. Primer

6. A definition of social identity

7. Unique identity: The self

8. Concept of beauty and its consequences

9. Blackness opposed to Whiteness

10. Black identity
10.1 Sages of identity development
10.2 [Black] identity in The Bluest Eye

11. Conclusion

12. Bibliography


The purpose of this thesis is to show the destruction of identity in The Bluest Eye. In order to find out how far Toni Morrison digests her own experiences in her first piece of work, it is important to have a closer insight into her biography. First of all, I will provide the reader with some basic information about the author and genesis of the work in order to find out how far Toni Morrison dwells on her past. It is necessary to reflect on the underlying reasons why Toni Morrison started writing The Bluest Eye, as her motivation reveals the emotional attachment she has to her work. Hence, The Bluest Eye is introduced. The primer depicts the main aspects around the Bluest Eye and how it deals with identity formation and the tremendous problem with the context of beauty. Subsequently, I will give a definition of social identity to lay the foundation and back my argumentation. In this context, the concept of beauty plays a major role. I will illustrate the difficult situation of black people in a dominant white culture and how some black characters in The Bluest Eye are developed as a result of this. After that, I will present a sociological view of this problem and describe how Morrison’s characters developed their identities by classifying them into categories. In my conclusion, I will discuss the main character’s identities and highlight the differences between the MacTeers and the Breedloves.

2. Autobiographical influences

Morrison’s biography reveals the importance of class identity and racial identity in the first 25 years of her life. For middle-class white America, blackness seems to be connected to poverty. The poorer one is, the blacker they appear. Therefore, Morrison welcomed the “black is beautiful”[1] and the Black Aesthetic Movement and started writing in 1965. The 1970s was an extremely politically active dacade during which time the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement were in full blossom. “Morrison works in the space between a modernist desire for authentic identity and a postmodern understanding of the constructedness of all identity” (Duvall 18).

Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on the 18th of February 1931 in the Midwest, Lorain, Ohio. She was educated at Cornell University and Howard University. At first, she taught English and humanities at Texas Southern as well as Howard University. In 1960 she married the Jamaican architect Harold Morrison and gave birth to their two sons Slade and Ford, but separated four years after their marriage and got divorced subsequently.

Being born Chloe Anthony, Morrison explains her name change was due to problems of pronunciation at University, which seems a bit far-fetched, as there is a certain similarity to Claudia concerning the sound.

Toni Morrison states her book is not generally to be regarded as autobiographical: “People ask, ‘Is your book autobiographical?’ It is not, but it is, because of that process of reclamation.” (Naylor 199). In another Interview with Bessie W. Jones and Audrey Vinson Toni Morrison admits that in writing she is re-doing the past (cf. Jones & Vinson 171).

Furthermore, Ferguson describes Morrison’s writing as a rediscovery, and even a reinscription of a part of Morrison’s self which seems to be dead (cf. Ferguson 26).

Nevertheless, the content of The Bluest Eye is based on personal experiences and sentiments:

I used to love my company and then I didn’t. And I realized the reason I didn’t like my company was because there was nobody there to like. […] all I needed was a slogan: ‘Black is Beautiful’. It wasn’t that easy being a little black girl in this country-it was rough. The psychological tricks you have to play in order to get through-and nobody said how it felt to be that. And you knew better. You knew inside better (Naylor 199).

In her first book Toni Morrison chose to use her hometown Lorain, Ohio for the setting:

[…] [I] used literal descriptions of neighborhoods and changed the obvious things, the names of people, and mixed things all up, but the description of the house where we lived, the description of the streets, the lake, and all of that, is very much the way I remember Lorain, Ohio, […] (Jones & Vinson 171).

Toni Morrison never lived in a black neighborhood in Lorain. There, black people were rare at that time. Thus, Morrison lived next door to white people and grew up with both, black and white people, just like Claudia and Frieda do. Another similarity is embodied in Frieda, Claudia’s younger sister. Toni Morrison herself has an older sister, but their relationship is very different from the one portrayed in The Bluest Eye. Morrison admits that she was a cheery and clever girl who disagreed quite often and detested “white plastic celebrities of white culture”. As a result, she hated all that concerned Shirley Temple (cf. Dowling 50).

Morrison’s parents, Ramah Willis Wofford and George Wofford were among the first ones to migrate north because of the racial climate (cf. Jackson 87).

Moreover, Mr. MacTeer is a great deal like Morrison’s own father, George Wofford, who worked in the shipyards, : “ […] could be very aggressive about people who troubled us-throwing people out and so on […]” (Jones & Vinson 172). Her father once pushed a white man down the stairs. But his children were cared for properly and received his love. He always used to tell ghost stories to his children at night (cf. Dowling 50). Furthermore, her mother’s unbreakable habit to moan about troublesome issues for days is taken up in the depiction of Mrs. MacTeer moaning about Pecola’s thirst for milk for instance.

Even the leading motive originates from a conversation with a friend from her childhood:

The conversation was about whether God existed; she said no and I said yes. She explained her reason for knowing that he did not: she had prayed every night for two years for blue eyes and didn’t get them, and therefore he didn’t exist. What I later recollected was that I looked at her and imagined her having them and thought how awful that would be if she had gotten her prayer answered. I always thought she was beautiful (Ruas 95).

Morrison herself is pretty light-skinned. As a result, her outward appearance is much closer to Maureen Peal than to Pecola. But in respect of class, Morrison was closer to Pecola. Furthermore, Morrison experienced her own family breakdown.

3. Genesis of The Bluest Eye

Morrison begins writing The Bluest Eye for the sake of bringing something to a writer’s group in 1962:

Then one day I didn’t have anything to bring, so I wrote a little story about a black girl

who wanted blue eyes. It was written hurriedly and probably not very well, but I read it and some liked it-I was 30 years old then so I wasn’t a novice. Still, I thought it was finished; I’d written it, had an audience, so I put it aside (Watkins 44).

The divorce brought along a state of unhappiness, and that is when Toni Morrison started to change that short story into a novel. In doing so she wanted to give insights into the black point of view, which was neglected in most of the literature of the time: “ […] when I wrote The Bluest Eye, I was under the distinct impression, which was erroneous, that it was on me, you know, that nobody else was writing like that, nobody, and nobody was going to.” (Naylor 212). She describes her motivation in an interview with Charles Ruas: “I was preoccupied with books by black people that approached the subject, but I always missed some intimacy - , some direction, some voice” (Ruas 96). Obviously, Morrison wrote that novel because she wanted to read it herself: “My audience is always the people in the book I’m writing at the time. I don’t think of an external audience” (Tate 161).

4.The Bluest Eye

Ferguson describes The Bluest Eye as a post-Civil Rights Movement work as it deals with a variety of subjects of class during that era. But it is not about class primarily, it is about “[…] distorted, contradictory self-perceptions imposed upon black people by the dominant white culture.” (Ferguson 23).[2]

One main aspect concerns white physical beauty standards and its tremendous impact on black people who are not able to conform to them: “Within the novel Morrison demonstrates that even with the best intentions, people hurt each other when they are chained to circumstances of poverty and low social status” (McKay 138). The story is representative for most people living up North around 1940: “[…] The Bluest Eye (1970), encouraged many of us to speak for the first time about the enormous damage to the psyche that results from trying to adopt an alien standard of beauty (Wilson 129). Morrison did: “[…] write about a girl who wanted blue eyes and the horror of having that wish fulfilled; and also about the whole business of what physical beauty and the pain of that yearning and wanting to be somebody else […]” (Ruas 95). On the very first page she explains what happened. Then, she explains how and what comes from the inability to express love. In the end the first-person narrator Claudia realizes that: “The damage was done total. She spent her days, her tendril, sap-green days, walking up and down, her head jerking to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear” (Morrison 162).

Duvall states that “Morrison’s first four novels [including The Bluest Eye ], which overtly represent identity formation, serve as the writer’s reflections on the fictions of identity” (Duvall 10).


[1] “The intensified black identity and the ‘black is beautiful’ attitude pushed light-skinned blacks from a position of advantage to one of disadvantage within the black community. The awakening of racial and ethnic identity allows people to be proud of their heritage and their distinct racial and ethinc group memberships” (Babad 146).

[2] “The majority culture aims at ‘acculturating’ the minority groups, demanding conformity to its norms and standards – not only through obedience to the law but through the internalization of its values and ways of life as well.” (Babad 156).

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Black Identity in Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye"
University of Wuppertal
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black, identity, toni, morrison, bluest
Quote paper
Patrick Ellrott (Author), 2009, Black Identity in Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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