by Georgina Quach. This was originally featured as part of a larger article on representation in publishing in our Young Adult issue, available to purchase from our website.
“I first read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison 20 years ago,” wrote a TLS subscriber from California in a letter to the editor. The subscriber continues: “sorry, but I found her writing anti-white…His naïve daughter felt [that] if she had blue eyes like a white person (though, as we know, there is also, of course, a WHITE minority in the world who have blue eyes!) her life would be much better…” And this – this idea of a white, dominant beauty standard – according to the subscriber’s complaint, had nothing to do with black people’s life aspirations in America.
One of the many perks I experienced whilst interning at the Times Literary Supplement last summer was being able to man the email inbox of the Letters. People from all walks of life wrote in to commend, correct or critique an article in the paper; or even to share their recent discovery of a rare edition of Charlotte Brontë. But I was struck by this one in particular, because it demonstrated the power of a book to forcefully embed itself within a worldview, to represent a community, or bear witness to human atrocity. Whether or not the subscriber’s argument is true of The Bluest Eye, it’s clear that stories – which come in all kinds of colours – interrogate our prejudices, and sometimes upend them completely. As Caryl Phillips, in his essay collection Color Me English, reminds us, “Literature is plurality in action; it embraces and celebrates a place of no truths… and it deeply respects the place where everybody has the right to be understood.” So I made a little note of it.
The letter accusing Morrison of being “anti-white” responded to the TLS issue published in August 2019 – a week after Morrison’s death – which celebrated the American novelist’s achievement in re-centering the dreams and despair of black girls. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s début novel, the young Pecola’s perception of herself is moulded by white Anglo-American standards of beauty. Pecola’s dream is that, one day, someone—God, perhaps—will grant her the gift of blue eyes. The kinds of blue eyes that she sees lighting up the face of the movie star Shirley Temple. The blighted protagonist’s devotion to these standards serves in one way to capture the African-American struggle against the dominant social discourse – the one that shamed blackness, the one that had decided Pecola was ugly long before she could look in a mirror and determine for herself who and what she was.
In The Bluest Eye, Morrison enacts the exclusionary voice of white superiority by lacing the text with the words which do the most violence in the novel: the words of children’s books.
Pretty eyes. Pretty blue eyes. Big blue pretty eyes. Run, Jip, run. Jip runs, Alice runs. Alice has blue eyes. Jerry has blue eyes. Jerry runs. Alice runs…
Children would read these ‘Dick and Jane’ books as primers, to help them in their first steps of reading. As they turned each page, they internalized the hate of the world – its distorted, blue-eyed ideals – which the books project. The words and pictures of the primer are oppressive. But embedded within Morrison’s own words, they sound highly self-conscious of their own artifice. The grammar of the primer excerpts increasingly loses all sense, dissolving into a chain of capital letters: “HEREISTHEFAMILYMOTHERFATHERDICKANDJANE.” By the end of the novel, they are torn down and revealed as inadequate…
…Morrison said that she wrote The Bluest Eye because she wanted to read it. We like to think racism exists only in the fringe minority of society, represented by extremes on the right and left of politics. Yet, as someone who is still spat on, patronised and ignored because of the colour of her skin, I can only hope that eventually, the love will succeed the hate. I hope that we’ll all be allowed the space to explore the deeper parts of our selves – not just one part, but all the parts. Every day, I try to tell my own stories to society, arming myself with the truth – about where I came from and where I hope to go. One way of spreading this humanity, I believe, is through the books we read. These books lead to dialogue, which lead to understanding – and, perhaps, change.
Literature does not change the world on its own. But if our books can change the reader’s world, by opening up their eyes to people’s vulnerabilities, celebrating and challenging our ideas, literature can truly impact the world and the new generations growing up within it.