Posts Tagged ‘toni morrison’

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.


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)



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”


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.)


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.


*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!

Creative Freedoms and the Not Now Book

song-of-solomonI’ve been banning books from my daughter’s library since before she was born.

I always encourage family and friends to fill our bookshelves with preschool favorites, and yet I can make certain books disappear in a moment, sometimes to Goodwill, sometimes to the dumpster. Baby Bibles with pink cherub-cheeked Eves and button-nose Noahs. Fairy tales featuring Disney princesses who always need saving. When I’m in a bind, I’ve learned how to redact the troubling scenes of death and loss from bedtime stories so that my 3 year old can sleep better at night.

I’ve always considered myself a champion of creative freedoms. (I still remember how hurt I was in high school when my Stephen King and Anne Rice books began to sprout legs and walk because my mother believed that I was “dabbling in the occult.”) I celebrate Banned Books Week and I often include these controversial texts in my university courses. As my daughter grows, I want to teach her how to become responsible for her own reading choices and ultimately, no book will be off-limits. So, perhaps then, the books I’ve donated to Goodwill aren’t really banned books, they’re not now books.

Continue reading

Happy Birthday, Toni Morrison!


Toni Morrison’s influence on our lives – as African Americans, as women, as lovers of literature – can be felt throughout this blog, from its odd title and the pseudonymous names Frieda and I have chosen for ourselves, to the way we see the word around us. Our eternal thanks and gratitude, Ms. Morrison. Happy 78th Birthday!

”In the beginning, people would say, ‘Do you regard yourself as a black writer, or as a writer?’ and they also used the word woman with it – woman writer. So at first I was glib and said I’m a black woman writer, because I understood that they were trying to suggest that I was ‘bigger’ than that, or better than that. I simply refused to accept their view of bigger and better. I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither. I really do. So it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.” (New York Times)

TBoH Recommends: A Mercy

The Bottom Line:
In A Mercy, Toni Morrison takes a fresh look at familiar themes:
mothers and daughters, self-destructive desire, and as always, the burdens of freedom.

I was surprised by how often, during my reading of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy,my thoughts turned to another novel – The Known World,(2004) by Edward P. Jones.

Both stories offer perspectives on American slavery that depart from the sprawling plantations, cotton fields, and slave cabins of the antebellum era. Jones troubles our assumptions about history and community by depicting the lives of blacks who owned slaves. Now in A Mercy, Morrison further disassembles familiar narratives of racial slavery through the wilderness wanderings of the late-17th century, where white indentured servants work alongside blacks, slave and free.

I only mention Jones here because I am not used to comparing Morrison to other writers in this manner; hers is a pioneering voice. When Beloved appeared in 1987, its moral ambiguity and achingly beautiful prose set her apart from her peers. But in 2008, A Mercy arrives in an environment that is increasingly populated with Morrison’s own literary offspring – Jones, Colson Whitehead,Randall Kenan,Edwidge Danticat, and Percival Everettamong others – who have followed in her footsteps by publishing engaging, complex fiction about race and identity.

Nevertheless, Morrison’s latest contribution remains fresh and inventive. Her work still shines. In A Mercy, Morrison takes a new look at familiar themes: mothers and daughters, self-destructive desire, and as always, the burdens of freedom.

Continue reading

Obama’s Bookshelf

Wow, I just have to share this report on The Root by Keith Josef Adkins about Obama and His Literary Tastes. It’s truly a breath of fresh air amidst all the non-stop election madness and Adkins makes a great suggestion about holding Obama lit and music gatherings of our own. Some of Obama’s favorite authors include Malcolm X, Philip Roth, Ernest Hemingway, Nietzche, and Toni Morrison. (I seem to recall a reference to Richard Wright in Dreams From My Father as well.) What an amazing thing, the idea that we might have a president who knows that, “if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.

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