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