The Sunlit Playpen

Perhaps life is not the black, unutterably beautiful, mysterious, and lonely thing the creative artist tends to think of it as being; but it is certainly not the sunlit playpen in which so many Americans lose first their identities and then their minds.

I feel very strongly, though, that this amorphous people are in desperate search for something which will help them to re-establish their connection with themselves, and with one another. This can only being to happen as the truth begins to be told. We are in the middle of an immense metamorphosis here, a metamorphosis which will, it is devoutly to be hoped, rob us of our myths and give us our history, which will destroy our attitudes and gives us back our personalities. The mass culture, in the meantime, can only reflect our chaos: and perhaps we had better remember that this chaos contains life – and a great transforming energy.

James Baldwin, 1959.

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I read this quote today and was struck by how prophetic Baldwin sounded, both then and now. I can think of no better way to remind everyone to vote, to rally for reasonableness, and to buy this terrific book.

Breeding Love & Gratitude

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There is really nothing more to say – except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.

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As our celebration of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye comes to a close, I’d like to express my thanks to everyone who participated by writing a blog post, reading and leaving comments, or by promoting the series on the web. This was my first time experimenting with a blog “meme” and I’m so pleased with how many people joined the conversation or expressed an interest in picking up The Bluest Eye for the first time. I hope that honoring this transformational novel will also encourage us to seek out black writers that challenge their readers in innovative ways with complex characters and meaningful stories. I’ll leave you with this wonderful clip from the stage play of The Bluest Eye, performed at the Hartford Stage in 2008:

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Poverty, Invisibility, and Dignity: Thoughts on 40 Years of The Bluest Eye

In this last guest post in our series, Holly from the blog Cold Spaghetti, reflects on how the lessons of Morrison’s novel can be applied to her experiences as a New Orleans resident and Hurricane Katrina survivor. See the full list of bloggers participating in the 40th anniversary celebration of The Bluest Eye, here.

Hurricane Katrina Bus Tour

The Bottom of Heaven kindly invited me to blogging event around the 40th anniversary of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I was thrilled to participate. It is one of my favorite books. I had wonderful experiences with it as a student and later as a TA, teaching it to undergraduates in a women’s studies course. Although I am not a literary scholar, I deeply appreciate the symbolism and metaphors used in this book. It was where I first experienced quality classroom learning on issues of race, class, and gender; and the first time I learned to facilitate those discussions. Without question, I wanted to celebrate this with Claudia and the other bloggers.

At the end of The Bluest Eye, Claudia describes Pecola as a contrast:

“All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. 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. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used – to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.”

I think a lot about this passage because, to be frank, I just don’t know.

Let me tell you what I mean. I have this colleague or friend or relative who lives in another U.S. city. It can be anyone of those gleaming metropolises far away from The Deep South, a place that already feels a bit superior simply for not being a slave state 150 years ago. Maybe New York. Or Providence. Boston, San Francisco, Chicago or Philadelphia. Like many, these folks from Minneapolis or Seattle or Bangor are caring and giving. They were shocked when New Orleans was devastated. They click their tongues in worry about people on rooftops and trapped in attics. They try not to show their disgust when they see the grunge and filth around the edges of those images. It’s not that they are being, you know, judgmental; it’s just that they, personally, couldn’t imagine living that way. But they do care, so when their church started gathering supplies to send, they gave. And when that same church brought down a group of do-gooders to rebuild homes, they came. “We came and built a house on a street that was just terrible,” she or he or they will tell me, “there wasn’t anything left on that street, it was just a mess.” And then, the surprise, “but you know, I recently saw a picture, and that house we built? Well, know there are four more and you wouldn’t even know it’s the same street!”

They tell this story with pride and surprise at what can happen when do-gooders get together. “It’s really an example of the power of people, you know?” Also, they watch “Treme.” So between the show and that house they built, well, they really get New Orleans.

“Her poverty kept us generous.”

That passage sticks with me because when I’m faced with those situations from my story above, I don’t know what to do. I am thankful, without question. Please don’t doubt for a second that I am so, so thankful to each and every person who thinks about New Orleans. The people who watched those days unfold with us just as sick and angry as we were, and were so thoughtful and kind. I am grateful that folks are monitoring the oil spill and wondering about the coast. That is for sure.

But also? When I hear those stories above? I sort of want to be sick. I want to serve back their superiority on a plate of snappy come-backs. I don’t want to be in a place that is pitied. And frankly, after all I’ve seen, done, heard, and lived in this place, I know that it is not a place to be pitied, period.

“And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt.”

When something terrible happens, something so awful that our common humanity compels us to act on it – why does this become a source of pity? Before September 2005, no one cared of the poverty and inequalities that existed in the Lower 9th Ward, in Gentilly, in the Treme — places that now hold the collective imaginations as symbols of endemic and systematic disparity. The poverty set the stage for the disaster, yet did not compel true action until it became a spectacle. And then, it became a place of pity.

Why?

Claudia (the blogger) discussed this with me as I was struggling with ending this piece. In an email, she wrote:

How can we assist people and populations in need with mutual respect (and empathy? openness?) right now, in 2010, without using their suffering to affirm our own sense of virtue and self worth? And perhaps, more controversially, how do those of us whose way of life has been weakened and is in need of repair, accept help appreciatively, but in a way that makes pity and contempt unwelcome? (That line – “and she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt” – is arguably one of the most haunting and most troubling in the book! How did Pecola “let” them? Through silent acquiescence?) Maybe the answer begins in breaking silences, naming these awful, awkward moments, and how much of our well-being is based on the illusion of “us” vs. “them.”

Within this context, part of the legacy of The Bluest Eye is in this complex issue of giving and receiving. Disasters of unthinkable proportions will continue into our future, compelling people to act. Is there a line between curiosity over an event so monumentally catastrophic that it must be seen to be understood – and respect for those who are living through it?

As for naming those silent, awkward moments… I agree that it is important. But then what do we do? Breaking the illusions of “us” and “them” means that we all take some responsibility for the inequalities in the world… and then make the hard choices required to address them. And this, unfortunately, seems like something we will still be discussing when The Bluest Eye celebrates another 40 years.

What do you think?

(Thank you, Claudia, for the invitation to participate!)

Claudia’s Poetry Notebook: Celebrating The Bluest Eye

Today, Evelyn N. Alfred honors Toni Morrison’s novel with creative poetry fragments written in Claudia’s voice.

I imagined what Claudia might write in a notebook about her experiences, if she felt that poetry was the only way she could express her thoughts. The idea was plausible, given how children and adults communicated with each other in her household, “We didn’t initiate talk with grown-ups; we answered their questions” (23).

Continuing reading this post and join the conversation!

See the full list of bloggers participating in the 40th anniversary celebration of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, here.

The Bluest Eye and the Legacy of Colorism

Today, writer Zetta Elliott explores her own experiences with Shirley Temple, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and the impact of colorism.

Of course, what every girl really wants is to be treasured for who she is. But that can’t happen when those around you have swallowed the messages of worthlessness that society sends to those who are poor, of color, and/or obese. The Bluest Eye reminds me that “hurt people hurt people,” and children are especially vulnerable to adults who have surrendered to this relentless assault…

Continuing reading this post and join the conversation!

See the full list of bloggers participating in the 40th anniversary celebration of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, here.

TBoH Poll: Have You Read The Bluest Eye?

As we move into our last week of discussion on Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, I thought it would be interesting to get some figures on how many of our readers have picked up this novel in the past 40 years. And for those who haven’t read it, why not?

Human Rights and The Bluest Eye’s Global Reach

In this guest post, Xavier Passavant, a writer in northern California (and friend of the blog), reads Toni Morrison’s novel in relation to human rights law and, noting the story’s global reach, even discusses what it’s like to see The Bluest Eye become a “cult classic” in the Czech Republic.

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“Give Me a Black Novel or Give Me Death”

by Xavier Passavant

Tranquille comme c’était*… The Bluest Eye, I think, is one of those novels that can help improve flawed justice systems—like those in the United States and in the international sphere. If I ever find myself accused of a crime, innocent or guilty (talking with an accent in Arizona, entering my house late at night in Boston), I’d prefer my fate be decided by the reading of a novel rather than the findings of a court. As a Native American character in the novel Love Medicine points out, courts only work for white people because only they consistently have the intangibles, “names, addresses, social security car numbers, and work phones,” and access to recognition and dignity necessary for the court to work fairly.

The Bluest Eye demonstrates what happens to human beings living in societies where recognition and dignity are unavailable to them. Pecola Breedlove—scorned at home, school, playground— can’t even find someone to acknowledge her humanity in the candy store. Instead, in her exchange with the white storeowner, she experiences,

The total absence of human recognition—the glazed separateness. She does not know what keeps his glance suspended. Perhaps because he is grown, or a man, and she a little girl. But she has seen interest, disgust, even anger in grown male eyes. Yet this vacuum is not new to her. It has an edge; somewhere in the bottom lid is the distaste. She has seen it lurking in the eyes of all white people. So. The distaste must be for her, her blackness. Al things in her are flux and anticipation. But her blackness is static and dread. And it is the blackness that accounts for, that creates, the vacuum edged with distaste in white eyes.

Morrison’s first novel, like her subsequent work, creates a space for justice and ethical deliberation that includes the recognition of black people as human beings. Courtrooms, laws, statutes, etc, are fundamentally hostile toward black people. If they are written with black people in mind, the intent is to restrict rather than to protect. In those moments when the justice system fails us, we need to find alternate spheres. Black people can find justice in the space of the Morrison novel. Think about the ethical deliberations taking place between Frieda and Claudia in The Bluest Eye or, Nel and Miss Peace, in Sula. It resembles a courtroom where you can say things you usually reserve for church, the barber shop or a powwow.

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Morrison’s first novel, like her subsequent work, creates a space for justice and ethical deliberation that includes the recognition of black people as human beings.

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According to political scientist Melissa Victoria Harris-Lacewell, whose analysis of The Bluest Eye, is required reading (it is best to read political science when there is a novel at the center of the discussion),

Not only have historical circumstances created different forms of discourse for black people, but the complex reality of living in a society where one’s daily communication is stratified and separated by race has serious political consequences for African Americans. The black counterpublic (the life that exists behind the veil) is both a reaction to exclusionary policies of white institutions and an assertion of the value of intragroup interaction that is neither observed nor policed.

The Bluest Eye is a form of a counterpublic, perhaps, but I find it important to point out that the counterpublic sphere has the remarkable feature of being able to replace the discriminatory mainstream sphere and provide justice that is accessible by all. In other words, Morrison’s novel is not merely a tale for discourse about black life that then remains applicable only to black life. This novel is universal, international, global in its reach. I have several translations, including one from the Czech Republic, where the novel was deemed a “cult classic.” The Czech people (no one I know of there is wishing for blue eyes) could identify with the dilemmas of living under an oppressor whose arbitrary laws and bizarre practices led to life as absurdity, a common theme in Czech theater, literature and film.

Ideas about justice are transferable, translatable across culture, but this cannot be done through the law alone. The novel has the capacity to assist in this kind of work. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison describes Aunt Jimmy’s funeral like this:

It was like a street tragedy with spontaneity tucked softly into the corners of a highly formal structure. The deceased was the tragic hero, the survivors the innocent victims; there was the omnipresence of the deity, strophe and antistrophe of the chorus of mourners led by the preacher. There was the grief over the waste of life, the stunned wonder at the ways of the Gods, and the restoration of order in nature at the graveyard.

Thus the banquet was the exultation, the harmony, the acceptance of physical frailty, joy in the termination of misery. Laughter, relief, a steep hunger of food.

After coming across this paragraph, I couldn’t remember if I was reading a novel, Greek tragedy or classical political theory. Morrison is describing a funeral, but she could equally be describing a courtroom (“a highly formal structure”) or a book about international justice (“the restoration of order in nature at the graveyard”). I say that is all of the above.

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Ideas about justice are transferable, translatable across culture, but this cannot be done through the law alone.

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The 40th anniversary of Morrison’s novel comes at a crucial moment in the progression of justice. Elites and powerholders in the United States and most of western Europe are certain that courtrooms, classical Roman and common law will bring about justice in those places around the world where physical violence continues to take the lives of men, women and children. These courtrooms come complete with order, precedents, procedure, trained specialists, and form what advocates see as the ideal space for fair and unbiased deliberations and judgments about crimes against humanity, genocide, murder, rape, ethnic cleansing, etc.

I don’t doubt that these systems of justice have had some impact in improving the world. The fact remains, however, that these very systems have brought great misery to black life.

This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong, of course, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too late.

Forty years after its publication, The Bluest Eye defies itself. It is not too late, if only we can transfer the novel’s wisdom to the political sphere. Tranquille comme c’était…

See the full list of bloggers participating in the 40th anniversary celebration of The Bluest Eye, here.

*Tranquille comme c’était… in French, “Quiet as it’s kept.”

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