Table of Contents
1. Racialized Beauty
3. Everyday Racism
4. Internalized Racism
The theme of race is one of the most recurrent and controversial themes in literature. It occupies a huge proportion in the African American literary heritage. Moreover, it is a common theme for almost all the writers of color. The theme of race went through different phases throughout the history of the African American literature. At its early stages especially during the time of slavery, blacks used to write about their experiences as slaves such as Fredrick Douglass’s Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass1. Douglass’ descriptions of the horror of slavery arise feelings of pity in the reader. Throughout the narrative, masters harshly whip and lash their slaves until blood reddens their bodies. They even shoot them in the fields since killing a slave is legal. There is no doubt that slaves are treated this way because they are black and all what is black is regarded as inferior. As time passed by, African American writers were inspired by the nature of their race. They wrote a myriad of literary works. Thus, they reached the mainstream in literature and gained several literary awards. For instance, Toni Morrison is the first African American laureate of the Nobel Prize for literature. She is one of the leading figures of the African American literature.
In her novel The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s tells the story of a young black girl named Pecola Breedlove who becomes insane by her strong desire to have blue eyes, blonde hair and a white skin. At any rate, the following research paper tends to cover several issues that concern the black race in the light of The Bluest Eye. It consists of four major chapters. The first chapter is about the racialization of beauty. In other words, it shows how the notion of beauty is culturally constructed. The white dominant culture creates standards of beauty, which do not allow African Americans to consider themselves as beautiful because of their dark of skin. The second chapter further explains how some of the characters in The Bluest Eye long for whiteness because it stands for beauty, purity as well as cleanliness. It also tries to uncover the veil on the issue of whiteness in various fields including the apparatus of the cinema and the American literary canon. The third chapter explores the abusive interactions between black and white characters and shows how a small variation in the color of skin can strike some people of their human nature. It also examines the role of capitalism in giving rise to racism and classism. The fourth and the last chapter examines the issue of internalized racism. That is to say, to what extent all the issues that were mentioned in the previous chapters can affect the psyche of the main characters throughout the novel.
1. Racialized Beauty
The characteristics of beauty are mobile, in the sense that they change with time and place. It is a common knowledge that beauty is one of the qualities that makes people proud of themselves. However, this is not always possible. Sometimes, a hindrance like race, as in the case for Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, does not allow some characters to consider themselves as beautiful. Carmen Gillespie comments, “The novel addresses the social forces that drive understanding and definition of cultural constructs such as beauty, normalcy, family, and sexuality. These constructs are a particular issue for African-American communities that are often excluded from representation.”(Gillespie, 2008, p46). This runs in harmony with the postmodern notion of discourse. In his Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault defines discourse as “the general domain of all statements, sometimes as an individualizable group of statements, and sometimes as a regulated practice that accounts for a number of statements” (Foucault quoted by Sara Mills, p 53). Discourse builds its antagonism on binary oppositions for instance black/white, East/West, left/right, men/women and so on. Besides, discourse is a social construct based on language. The construction of discourse may include the examples femininity and racism. Beauty is a central focus in Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye. Besides, it is culturally constructed according to race. Therefore, several non-white characters including Pecola Breedlove, Pauline Breedlove, and Claudia suffer from the racialization of beauty. Thus, they are marginalized and not represented at all.
In the Encyclopedia of Themes in Literature, Antonio Maurice Daniels states, “In ‘The Bluest Eye’ , Toni Morrison’s first novel, the reader encounters Pecola Breedlove—the protagonist of the novel who has to confront the dominant culture’s oppressive standard of beauty.” (Daniels, 2010, p797). It seems that beauty is based on oppressive and unfair standards of the dominant culture. In other words, the white culture creates standards of beauty that must be respected in order to measure somebody else’s beauty. For example, throughout the world of the novel, everybody agree on the fact that beauty means blue eyes, white skin and blonde hair. Therefore, the protagonist, Pecola Breedlove prays for blue eyes every single night for a whole year: “Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes. Fervently, for a year she had prayed. (The Bluest Eye, p46). In her mind, Pecola believes that blue eyes will gain her love, respect and even power. Having blue eyes will make her change the way she sees the world. They will take her pain away from the abhorrent hatred and violence she encounters inside and outside her house.
Because she is black, Pecola Breedlove becomes invisible. The notion of Pecola’s invisibility here is quite reminiscent of Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man 2. In a prologue to Ellison’s Invisible man, the narrator emphasizes the fact that he is not a ghost. He is a man of flesh and blood. Yet, he is invisible because people refuse to look at him for the reason that he is black. The same thing goes with Pecola Breedlove. Her blackness and ugliness make her invisible in the eye of the beholder. For instance, her classmates and teachers ignore her inside the classroom simply because she is not beautiful or rather, she does not possess the dominant culture’s standards of beauty as the following quote shows: “Long hours she sat looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike. She was the only member of her class who sat alone at a double desk.” (The Bluest Eye, p45) Pecola’s confrontation with Mr. Yacobowski, a white shopkeeper, is another real example of her invisibility: “At some fixed point in time and space, he senses that he need not waste the effort of a glance.”(The Bluest Eye, p48) Mr. Yacobowski’s refusal to look at Pecola illustrates “the total absence of human recognition” (The Bluest Eye, p48) Furthermore, he exemplifies the way whites perceive blacks as unworthy. Her ugliness makes him think that she does not deserve a glance.
At any rate, Pecola Breedlove is not the only one who undergoes the unfair standards of beauty. On the other hand, her mother, Pauline Breedlove, suffers from the racialization of beauty as well “unlike her brothers and sisters, Pauline was not noticed or made to feel special. She attributes this invisibility to a deformed foot that manifests after she steps on a rusty nail at the age of two.” (Gillespie, 2008, p68). Like Pecola, Pauline’s ugliness makes her invisible. When she was two years old, Mrs. Breedlove stepped on a rusty nail, resulting in a deformity that will make her psychologically and physically wounded for the rest of her life “the wound left her with a crooked, archless foot that flopped when she walked… this deformity explained for her many things that would have been incomprehensible.” (The Bluest Eye, p110). Because of this deformity, Pauline could not easily grasp the standards of beauty, especially when she moves to Ohio. In her book “Toni Morrison’s fiction”, Jan Furman states:
Pauline’s lame foot makes her pitiable and invisible until she marries Cholly. But pleasure in marriage lasts only until she moves from Kentucky to Ohio and confronts northern standards of physical beauty and style. She is despised by snooty black women who snicker at her lameness, her unstraightened hair, and her provincial speech. (Furman, 1999, p15)
Pauline’s relocation with her husband, Cholly, from Kentucky to Ohio makes her review her own standards of beauty. Apparently, Pauline misses her own people. Besides, she is alienated because things in Ohio are different. Consequently, she must adopt and adapt to the way of life in the north. Her first interaction with some women shows how hard it is to submit to the oppressive standards of beauty in Ohio “Pauline felt uncomfortable with the few black women she met. They were amused by her because she did not straighten her hair. When she tried to make up her face as they did, it came off rather badly” (The Bluest Eye, p119). Under these hard circumstances, that distort her self-image, Pauline seeks consolation in the beauty of the Fisher’s house as a servant “eventually, Pauline gives up on her own family and takes refuge in the soft beauty surrounding her in the Fisher home.” (Furman, 1999, p16). For Pauline, the Fisher’s house is a haven. It keeps her safe from the world outside and her husband in particular. Therefore, she gives up on her family and prefers to serve the Fishers instead. Pauline could not manage to have new friends with a common understanding in such a new environment. Therefore, she eventually surrenders to the standards of beauty: “Money became the focus of all their discussions, hers for clothes, his for drink. The sad thing was that Pauline did not really care for clothes and makeup. She merely wanted other women to cast favorable glances her way.” (The Bluest Eye, p118). Her interest in money, clothes and make up demonstrates Pauline’s submission to the standards of beauty. She really wants to draw the attention of others.
Unlike Pecola and Pauline, Claudia rejects the white dominant’s standards of beauty. She is a symbol of rejection. She rises against racialized beauty on behalf of the African American women: “The primary narrator of the novel, Claudia stands in distinct contrast to Pecola and Pauline. Rather than coveting the blue-eyed, blonde-haired white baby dolls that she receives every Christmas without asking or wanting, Claudia harbors a desire to dismember them.” (Nerad, 2006, p98) This quote illustrates how Claudia refuses to obey the standards of beauty while other characters rejoice them. Claudia hates the white baby doll she receives for Christmas. She does not understand why others find it charming. For her, the white doll is ugly. Moreover, Claudia destroys the baby doll since nobody asks her what she wants for Christmas: “I did not know why I destroyed those dolls. But I did know that nobody ever asked me what I wanted for Christmas.” (The Bluest Eye, p21) Claudia tears apart the white doll. By doing so, she refuses the distorted images that the white dominant culture draws about beauty. Therefore, she celebrates her own beauty: “Claudia, whose voice closes the novel, cannot see Pecola’s blue eyes but does finally understand that Pecola is ‘all the beauty of the world.’ Claudia thus rejects the white stereotype of beauty and celebrates her own embodied identity as a young black woman.” (Nerad, 2006, p98) At the end of the novel, Claudia seems happy with her own beauty. She compares herself with the sad ending of Pecola’s life. Subsequently, she finds herself less ugly than Pecola. Ironically, she is luckier than Pecola. She does not end up mentally crazy because of the oppressive standards of beauty: “And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us—all who knew her—felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness.” (The Bluest Eye, p205) Claudia finds beauty in Pecola’s ugliness. Due to that, the racialized beauty no longer enslaves her. She liberates herself from the ideas that the white world impose on blacks. Claudia exemplifies the celebration of the black body.
The African American literature is very rich when it comes to the celebration of black beauty. Since the dominant culture neglects and marginalizes the African American women from the realm of beauty, black women writers decided to reconstruct the concept of beauty by taking into consideration their special black features (Olson, p.51). In fact, throughout the history of the African American literature, several black female poets wrote inspirational poems for black women especially Gwendolyn Brooks and Maya Angelou.
Bloom suggests that Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem To Those of My sisters Who Kept Their Naturals and Toni Morrison’s novel “The Bluest Eye” deal with the same issue that is the racialization of beauty:
You have not bought Blondine.
You have not hailed the hot-comb recently.
You never worshipped Marilyn Monroe.
You say: Farrah’s hair is hers.
You have not wanted to be white
(Gwendolyn quoted by Bloom, p. 15)
Bloom claims that in this extract from To Those of My sisters who kept Their Naturals poem, Gwendolyn Brooks praises and encourages African American women for the reason that they resist the widespread notion of beauty in the American media, advertising and movies.
The African American poet, Maya Angelou, is also one of the black female writers who highly praises black beauty. The theme of black beauty’s pride predominates much of Angelou’s verse and prose volumes. Throughout her poems, she tries to neutralize the white standards of beauty and celebrates her own African American features (Olson, p. 51). For instance, in her Phenomenal Woman, Maya Angelou writes:
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
(Angelou, p. 130)
Throughout the poem, Angelou reveals her own secrets of beauty. The first four opening verses illustrate the white world stereotypes about beauty. Then, Angelou challenges those stereotypes by celebrating her own black features. Angelou’s poems embody powerful images of black beauty. For example, when she says in her poem Black Ode, “Your beauty is a thunder” (Angelou, p41) Angelou tries to convince black women that they are naturally beautiful. Moreover, she shows them that the power of black beauty is unconquerable.
Apart from poetry, multiple slogans and movements emerged, as a reaction to the racialization of beauty such as Black is Beautiful slogan and the Afrocentric movement. In her essay, The Bluest Eye and Sula: black female experience from childhood to womanhood Agnes Suranyi writes: “even though the setting for the story is 1940–41 – the beginning of World War II for the United States – it is also “presentist” in concept, ideologically grounded in the 1960s when “Black is Beautiful” entered into the popular, if more militant, discourse.” (Agnes, 2007, p11). In this way, the novel views the past with a present-day perspective. The real meanings of Black is Beautiful slogan are relevant to the novel. The slogan tried to hearten the black community particularly women to be proud of their dark skin, curly hair and thick lips. Although many black people used the catchphrase, Black is Beautiful; it was not associated with any political movement. (Craig, p. 23). On the other hand, the Afrocentric movement sprang out from Africa and soon it inspired the African American community in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The Afrocentric movement focused on the African and African American cultural legacy. By doing so, the Afrocentric movement challenged Eurocentrism. Besides, the Afrocentric movement took into account black beauty. For instance, new hairstyles came into appearance such as dreadlocks, braids and naturals (Knight, pp. 41/42).
Throughout the world of the novel, numerous characters have a predilection for whiteness including Pecola Breedlove, Geraldine, as well as Pauline Breedlove. Their obsession with whiteness explains that the white color as opposed to black stands for purity, cleanliness, and beauty. Morrison exposes this tendency to whiteness from the very beginning of The Bluest Eye. Morrison uses and abuses the postmodern technique of intertexuality to dismantle the problematic of whiteness.
Julia Kristiva coined the term Interxtuality in order to indicate that a text is not self-contained and autonomous but rather it is a product of other texts. She claims that there is a network relationship between texts. In this way, the meaning of a particular text depends on other previous texts. The Bulgarian literary theorist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristiva came into appearance in Paris as the interpreter of the Russian Formalist, Mikhail Bakhtin. In his collected essays The Dialogic Imagination, Bakhtin refers to the novel as dialogic because it contains a multiplicity of voices, Heteroglossia. In this way, a novel is not fixed as other forms of literature but rather it is subjected to change because it possess parodies, travesties, and reaccentuates (Edgar and Sedgwick. p. 14). Barthes develops the term of Interxtuality in his famous essay The Death of the Author. Influenced by Kristeva’s work on Bakhtin, Barthes develops the idea of the text as a non-unified authorial consciousness and a form of plurality of quotations of other words, other utterances and other previous texts. As Roland Barthes puts it himself, a text is a “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture.” (Barthes, 146). Morrison starts her first novel by the following intertext taken from an American curriculum:
Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty. Here is the family. Mother, Father, Dick, and Jane live in the green-and-white house. They are very happy. See Jane. She has a red dress. She wants to play. Who will play with Jane? See the cat. It goes meow-meow. Come and play. Come play with Jane. The kitten will not play. See Mother. Mother is very nice. Mother, will you play with Jane? Mother laughs. Laugh, Mother, laugh. See Father. He is big and strong. Father, will you play with Jane? Father is smiling. Smile, Father, smile. See the dog. Bowwow goes the dog. Do you want to play with Jane? See the dog run. Run, dog, run. Look, look. Here comes a friend. The friend will play with Jane. They will play a good game. Play, Jane, play. (The Bluest Eye)
The intertext from the Dick and Jane curriculum is very significant to understand the issue of whiteness in The Bluest Eye. The reader anticipates the unfolding of the novel through a white lens. While reading the epigraph, it sounds as if someone says this is whiteness. It is very pretty, clean, and happy. Moreover, the epigraph provides the reader with an ideal white family. The family consists of father, mother, Dick and Jane, living in a pretty house. In each section of the novel, Morrison starts with a sentence from the epigraph to tell the story of a particular character. By doing so, Morrison uses the epigraph as a juxtaposition in order to compare whiteness with blackness. Linden Peach comments on the use of the Dick and Jane primer “the text brings a particular perspective not only to the impact of white ideologies on the black community, but also to the nature of whiteness and its inappropriateness to determine the contours of African-American culture and lived experience. (Peach, 1995, p38). This shows how the white world and its ideologies are unable to represent the contours of the black world. Besides, the epigraph is a testimony of the idealized whiteness. Thus, blackness is marginalized from the beginning of the novel as Rachel Lister states “the threat of marginalization haunts The Bluest Eye from the beginning. Morrison opens the novel with a generic narrative that will be familiar to many readers: the first words of a child’s primer, introducing the members of a white family. (Lister, 2009, p26).
1 Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass”. Dover Publications, Inc. 1995
2 Ellison, Ralph. “Invisible man”. Prologue. Random House. 1947