The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison's first novel. It is a book that is centered around incredibly difficult topics, and is thus appropriately incredibly difficult--emotionally--to read. At its core, it is about internalized racism and how it leads the character of Pecola Breedlove to develop an inferiority complex and end up desperate for the blue eyes that she associates with desirability. Set just after the Great Depression, the book deals with racism, poverty, and many of the additional troubles associated with both of those realities. Most of the book is told from the perspective of the children involved, with portions from a more omniscient third-person narrator.
As with much of Toni Morrison's writing, The Bluest Eye is a book that absolutely should be read, and which very deliberately strikes right to the heart. It is a crying out from a place of pain, and a call to action. What it is not is an enjoyable read; importantly, it is not meant to be. It is a beautifully written depiction of some very ugly facets of humanity. Even the characters who do objectively terrible things have moment which elicit sympathy; all of the characters feel very real, and very much come to life as Morrison describes them.
So it was.
Why is this book being challenged?
The ALA states that The Bluest Eye has been "[b]anned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse." It is true that Morrison doesn't shy away from being explicit, and The Bluest Eye does include a depiction of child sexual abuse. Pecola is raped--and impregnated--by her father, and the book includes the scene where the rape occurs as well as delving into the results of that act. Now, it is important to note that, while Morrison depicts child sexual abuse and other sexual content in The Bluest Eye, she does not at all glorify or excuse it. Pecola's pain and discomfort with herself is so much that she'd like to disappear, and it is only fitting that we, as readers, feel at least some small portion of that pain and discomfort as we read about this character.
"Please, God, "she [Pecola] whispered into the palm of her hand. "Please make em disappear." She squeezed her eyes shut. Little parts of her body faded away. Now slowly, now with a rush. Slowly again. Her fingers went, one by one; then her arms disappeared all the way to the elbow. Her feet now. Yes, that was good. The legs all at once. It was hardest above the thighs. She had to be real still and pull. Her stomach would not go. But finally it, too, went away. Then her chest, her neck. The face was hard, too. Almost done, almost. Only her tight, tight eyes were left. They were always left.
This book is another example of a case where we should feel uncomfortable in the face of what we are reading, and hiding from that discomfort by trying to ban the book that makes us feel that way is an act of moral cowardice. It is also yet another example of a challenged book which depicts horrible situations that many children are forced to live through, and yet which more privileged adults attempt (not always in good faith) to hide away from the view of children. Rather than putting in the work of grappling with the difficult subject matter and figuring out how to really talk about it--with other adults or with children--the impulse is to try to force the book out of view. I'm reminded of the current attempt to ban Critical Race Theory from schools, and to otherwise whitewash history; there is a dangerous trend among many--particularly among many White Americans--to turn a blind eye to racism and pretend that what they don't (what they refuse to) see simply doesn't exist. They'd rather be mad at the depiction of sex and of the sexual assault of a child in a book like The Bluest Eye than be mad at the actual abuse of children, and at the systemic racism and resultant desperation which Morrison is spotlighting, and which are still very much problems today--fifty years after this book was published, and eighty years after the time in which it was set.
In her Author's Foreword for the 2007 edition of The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes the following:
One problem was centering the weight of the novel's inquiry on so delicate and vulnerable a character could smash her and lead readers into the comfort of pitying her rather than into an interrogation of themselves for the smashing. My solution--break the narrative into parts that had to be reassembled by the reader--seemed to me a good idea, the execution of which does not satisfy me now. Besides, it didn't work: many readers remain touched but not moved.
Ever since reading The Bluest Eye, I cannot stop thinking about that final phrase: "many readers remain touched but not moved." It is such a powerful sentiment that grasps much of what I've feared from myself as I read through these Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020. These books have touched me--and many of them are ones I have read before, and which touched me back when I first read them over a decade ago, as well. Yet, it is not enough to simply be touched. The important question is: Have I been moved? What actions have I taken based on the increased knowledge and awareness I have gained? What further actions can I take?
Reading The Bluest Eye is difficult; it is painful. This is a challenging book. I am not at all surprised that it has been so oft-challenged, as this is the fate of all of the best challenging books. However, choosing to challenge and to attempt to ban this book is to choose to turn a blind eye to societal ills which remain to this day--and which will remain indefinitely so long as so many choose deliberate ignorance. Ignorance of racism, of poverty, of the abuse of children, etc. is a privilege. Those who are the victims of these things cannot avoid them, cannot deny them, and cannot insist that they be tucked neatly out of sight. The very least those of us with the privilege not to have suffered so can do it to acknowledge that suffering and try to understand how it feels. Being touched in that way, however, truly is the very least we can do--we must, more importantly, be moved to action.
A Challenged Books Challenge
This is the ninth installment in the series of 10 book reviews I will be doing as part of my challenge to read and review all of the ALA's Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020. Read more about this challenge, including the other books involved, here. The first installment (George) can be found here, the second installment (Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You) can be found here, the third (All American Boys) can be found here, the fourth (Speak) can be found here, the fifth (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) can be found here, the sixth (Something Happened in Our Town) can be found here, the seventh (To Kill a Mockingbird) can be found here, and the eighth (Of Mice and Men) can be found here.
The next book I will be reviewing is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Look for that review here on my blog on September 3.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.