A Closer Look at Cholly Breedlove

Today, Doret from Color Online and The Happy Nappy Bookseller tackles Morrison’s controversial depiction of Pecola’s father, Cholly Breedlove:

The first time through Cholly Breedlove was evil. Any man who would hit his wife, set his house of fire and rape is daughter couldn’t be anything but evil. Years later when I reread The Bluest Eye, I paid closer attention and noticed there was more to Cholly. I felt compassion towards him. This was the first time I had to reevaluate my perception towards a particular character after rereading a novel…

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.

On the literary descendants of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

Today, Anika from WriteBlack spotlights several writers who have incorporated themes from The Bluest Eye in their work:

“If I may be so bold: Beyond her contributions to the world of magical realism, in my world the enduring legacy of Toni Morrison will be her poetic destruction of the notion that black American women bear all sufferings quietly, without complaint and without negative result…”

Continuing reading this post and join the conversation!

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

Survivor’s Guilt: Claudia and The Bluest Eye

This post is part of a continuing series celebrating the 40th anniversary of Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye. See the full list of blogger roundtable participants here.

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Quiet as it’s kept, not every character in Toni Morrison’s fiction is haunted. Or mad. Some of them stumble through their lives like the rest of us do, a little lost at times, but with both their legs, all their fingertips, and most of their sanity intact. I think of Denver at 124 Bluestone Road or Nel, Sula’s better half, or the sisters Milkman takes for granted in Song of Solomon. Having witnessed unspeakable trauma in their families and communities, these women are the survivors who live to tell the tale and reflect upon its meaning. They may not command as much attention as a mother who kills her own child, but they are among Morrison’s most extraordinary characters. We know their voices, even their mistakes and insecurities are familiar to us, because they are our own.

The survivors in The Bluest Eye are Claudia MacTeer and her older sister, Frieda.  The blurb on the back of my book declares that this is “the story of eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove – a black girl in an America whose love for its blond, blue-eyed children can devastate all others” and really, who can argue with that? But The Bluest Eye belongs just as much to the MacTeer sisters. Claudia’s voice – her inquisitiveness, her vulnerabilities and fears – give shape to the narrative. Readers often forget that the story’s unfolding is based on her recollections of the year when the marigolds did not grow. In a passage that could easily be applied to the novel as a whole, Claudia observes:

But was it really like that? As painful as I remember? Only mildly. Or rather, it was a productive and fructifying pain.

Of course, Claudia is not merely an observer. Hers is a mediating voice that remains reflective and mature even as she recalls her years as a child. While Pecola descends into madness, broken by sexual abuse, neglect, and society’s disdain for her so-called “ugliness,” Claudia is also coming of age. She, too, is caught up in the “cultural engine that seems to have been designed specifically to murder possibilities” and, more importantly, she recognizes her own complicity in this cycle of racial self-loathing. Like Pecola, like every child in this Ohio town in the 1940s, Claudia negotiates an understanding of beauty and wholeness through popular culture; she is urged to consume the Dick & Jane Primers as easy as Mary Janes, to drink from Shirley Temple glasses and worship Clark Gable and Jean Harlow at the cinema.

How, then, does Claudia manage to survive while so many others do not? After all, isn’t her brutal desire to dismember blue-eyed baby dolls merely the inverse of Pecola’s desperate craving for love through self-mutilation? Confronted with the toy every grown person insisted was “her fondest wish,” Claudia tells us,

I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me. Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs – all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured.

Claudia goes looking for the secret of the doll’s power and finds only absence. She cannot “love” the hollow plastic and metal and yarn, but she can’t help but be deeply conscious of its allure in a society that renders her blackness deviant, unstable, inconvenient.

But knowing this (and it’s nearly impossible to live in this country and not know this) does very little to prepare us for Claudia’s self-incriminating revelations at the end of the novel. There Morrison’s narrator acknowledges the extent to which her survival, and that of her entire community, was predicated on Pecola’s disintegration:

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.

All. All of us. All who knew her. I remember when I first read this, how resentful and unwilling I was to appreciate Claudia’s confession. Why should she shoulder any blame? Isn’t Cholly responsible? Or folks like Pauline, Geraldine, and Maureen Peal? And those damn Shirley Temple movies!

Now I marvel at how Morrison’s use of language, so cruel and repulsive at times, allowed me no room for self-serving pity.  Claudia’s final thoughts, in particular, have forced me to consider the deeper, more lasting costs of what Morrison’s refers to as the “psychological tricks you have to play in order to get through.” We might survive the absurdities of racism, but at what cost?

We were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life.

This kind of honesty is what I find most empowering about Claudia (as well the unconditional love of her “braver” sister Frieda). Forty years later, her message about living authentically continues to hit home – I’m “licensed,” but am I free? Am I being compassionate, or just polite? Because it is only by sharing stories like The Bluest Eye that we can begin to dismember oppressive belief systems in our own communities, to know that “there ain’t no hiding place” when it comes to life, and to never lose sight of the fact that the way we value ourselves also determines how we treat one another.

Morrison once remarked in an interview, that “everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book — leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, revisitation, a little ambiguity.” Do you agree with Claudia’s assessment about the way that she and the entire community contributed to Pecola’s undoing? What are your thoughts about Claudia as the narrative voice of The Bluest Eye?

Celebrating Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye: Blogger’s Roundtable 2010

“Nobody was going to tell me that it had been that easy. That all I needed was a slogan: “Black is Beautiful.” It wasn’t that easy being a little black girl in this country – it was rough. The psychological tricks you have to play in order to get through – and nobody said how it felt to be that. And you knew better. You knew better inside. You knew you were not the person they were looking at. And to know that and to see what you saw in those other people’s eyes was devastating. Some people made it, some didn’t. And I wanted to explore it myself.” ~ Toni Morrison (1985)

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At the Roundtable:

The Bottom of Heaven: “Survivor’s Guilt: Claudia and The Bluest Eye”
WriteBlack: “On the literary descendants of The Bluest Eye”
Color Online (and THNP): “A Closer Look at Cholly Breedlove”
Xavier Passvant: “Human Rights and The Bluest Eye’s Global Reach”
Zetta Elliott: “The Bluest Eye and the Legacy of Colorism”
Evelyn N. Alfred: “Claudia’s Poetry Notebook: Celebrating The Bluest Eye”
Cold Spaghetti: “Poverty, Invisibility, and Dignity: Thoughts on 40 Years of The Bluest Eye”

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TBoH is pleased to host a celebration* of the 40th anniversary of Toni Morrison’s first novel,The Bluest Eye, from June 28-July 9. Over the next two weeks, we hope you will engage the fine group of bloggers listed above in an ongoing conversation about this story, a wrenching parable of race, beauty, and self-worth in America that Morrison published in the summer of 1970 as the Civil Rights Movement was being eclipsed by the fire and exuberance of black nationalist pride. (See an original ad for the novel below.)

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Is The Bluest Eye still relevant after four decades, does it still have something left to teach us in the Obama era? What moments in the story continue to touch and trouble you as you read? What scenes, characters, and passages have the most lasting impact? How would a little girl like Pecola fare in today’s society? We’d love to heard your thoughts on our posts and if you haven’t read the novel, perhaps now is a good time to start.

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*While the term “celebration” here is obviously meant to suggest praise, it doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t be afraid to be critical and put forth dissenting opinions!

Coming Soon!

Overdue Books (and Zombies)

When I was organizing my bookshelves a couple weeks ago, I gathered together all the books I own that are half-finished and unread, some still unopened with that “new book” fresh paper smell. I bought many of these books during their first week of release in a rush of excitement to support a friend or after hearing a review on NPR. (Plus, it is hard not to get excited when  Carleen, Zetta, or Color Online have a new recommendation!) The books, over a dozen, now have their own shelf in my home. And then there’s another shelf, one hidden in a back room with older classics that I always meant to finish, but didn’t. Top of this list: Melville’s Moby Dick and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Now is the time to read them – and if I feel the urge to “1-Click” my way to a new Amazon.com order – to get reacquainted with my local library. I’m particularly excited about these overdue books: Black Water Rising by Attica Locke, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Nalo Hopkinson’s New Moon’s Arms. I also have A Wish Before Midnight on my iPhone Kindle (for when I’m in the doctor’s office waiting room) and Jabari Asim’s A Taste of Honey.

It is this last book, a short story collection, that I’m reading now and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s hilarious in places, contemplative in others, and very well crafted. Asim has a lighter touch than Colson Whitehead, but is just as perceptive. In some of the stories, the narrative voice of nine-year-old Crispus Jones reminds me of a late 1960s version of the TV show, “Everybody Hates Chris” (or maybe “Good Times” from Michael’s point of view?)

Take this paragraph:

Soon after my mom finally agreed to let me cross the street by myself, I forgot to look both ways while returning home and was nearly blindsided by a fast-moving Ford Fairlane. I escaped harm, though, until I reached our front proch. That’s when Pristine pulled me inside and commenced to clobbering me with the closest thing handy – a flip-flop that seconds before had been dangling from her foot. For a brief, merciful moment I was able to break free. I wrenched open the screen door and lunged for the porch, but Mom caught me by the ankles. Across the street, Petey and Choo-Choo bore astonished witness to the strange sight of me disappearing backward through the front door, an invisible force sucking me in like I was one of those anonymous doomed crewmen in a Star Trek episode. They got a final glimpse of my tear-streaked, horrified face frozen in midyell before it vanished behind the screen door.

Afterward, Petey told me that all he could make out through the mess was the dim outline of my mother and “that flip-flop going up and down, up and down.”

I love that this passage comes at the start of a story called “Zombies” with Crispus at the center of his own version of The Night of the Living Dead. And what begins as a comical scene about buttwhippings moves into a wonderful story about the relationship between brothers and about being curious, vulnerable, and young. Let’s hope that all my overdue books are as enjoyable as this one! Read an interview with the author of A Taste of Honey at Carleen’s blog.

What are you reading this summer?

Mercy, Mercy Me: Marvin Gaye’s Wisdom and the Gulf Oil Spill

Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana - Photo by Brentin Mock

The Gulf is filled with oil and I am filled with despair.  Marvin Gaye’s lyrics in 1971 have never resonated so clearly:

Mercy, mercy me….things ain’t what they used to be….oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas…fish full of mercury…

As I listen to this song, an image comes to mind—my father driving and singing along to Marvin’s lyrics as they blared through our car stereo.  Whenever Marvin came on, my father would pass through the bounds of time and space, taken away by the words and sounds of one of the greatest artists of all time. “Marvin,” he would say, over and over again, shaking his head. At 8 years old, I didn’t know the details of Marvin’s death, except that my father would explain that he’d died “before his time.”  It was clear to me then, that my father’s love for Marvin wasn’t just about the music, but rather the messages that came forth through his lyrics.  I learned at an early age, that there was so much power in simply asking, “What’s Going On?”

Marvin Gaye

As I grew older, I realized that Marvin’s lyrics had this same profound effect on others, like my father, who lived in a distinctive era of poverty, war, and resistance and who carried in their hearts, the names and faces of those who’ve experienced incomprehensible violations of human dignity.

Which leads me to the reason why I searched through my music library to find “Mercy, Mercy Me” in the first place: the Gulf Oil Spill.  Perhaps, Marvin had the foresight to see where this oil story ended.  There is no cure in sight for our latest Gulf tragedy, produced by the cancers of greed and deliberate indifference.  The livelihood of entrenched fishing communities along the Gulf are forever threatened.  The sea has turned into a toxic cesspool. And the long-term side-effects of chemical ‘cleansing’ dispersents remains to be seen.

We, the survivors of Katrina, feel helpless. Another man-made disaster complete with the all-too-familiar cast of characters and story lines: 24-hour coverage on cable news, Anderson Cooper, and Katrina metaphors.   The oil isn’t the only thing floating to the surface. That old disaster anxiety and post-traumatic stress has returned, filling each new day with dread and hopelessness about the future of our region. Once again, we remain captive to the will of those tasked with fixing such problems. Is it the government? Is it BP? Who knows. This problem feels far more unfathomable and beyond our reach.

Some of us may proudly proclaim, “But this is New Orleans!”—a city and a region where people know how to get things done with a little hard work and determination. We’ve invented the playbook on how to organize communities and rebuild neighborhoods. We know how to recruit volunteers from around the world to gut houses and lay sheetrock. And though our efforts might fall upon deaf ears, we even know how to persuade our nutty politicians to push for stronger levee protection. Our spirit is undeniable.

But how—how on earth do you rebuild the sea?

Mercy, mercy me.

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