Note: This post is written as if you have already read the book, but does not contain major spoilers that will prevent you from reading it if you haven’t. In fact, I hope that after reading this you order yourself a copy – it will be worth the read, trust me.
Toni Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye, was first published 50 years ago. Set in Ohio during the Great Depression, the novel tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a dark-skinned Black girl who is made to believe that she is so ugly that she wishes for her eyes to be blue. Of course, that is a very simplistic summary. The novel explores themes of poverty, class and sex, among others. But what makes The Bluest Eye stand out for me is the way Morrison deftly demonstrates how white supremacy underpins all of these. When we think of white supremacy, we may be likely to first think of examples of institutional racism: police brutality, the racial pay gap, underrepresentation across industries and so on. The Bluest Eye, however, explores the way white supremacy manifests at an individual, almost microscopic level. Morrison shows its pervasiveness, how it exists in every single aspect of our society, in ways we may not even notice.
The Pinnacle of Whiteness
In the early stages of the novel Claudia, who narrates most of the novel, talks about the white dolls she is given to play with, why she destroys them, and the fact that she wanted to do the same to little white girls.
“But the dismembering of dolls was not the true horror. The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls. The indifference with which I could have axed them was shaken only by my desire to do so. To discover what eluded me: the secret of the magic they weaved on others. What made people look at them and say, “Awwwww,” but not for me?”
At such a young age – Claudia is only nine here – she can see the pedestal that white girls are placed on. She can see the sense of beauty, of innocence and perfection afforded to them by virtue of their skin colour – a beauty, innocence and perfection not afforded to little Black girls like her.
By showing how society places whiteness at the top of the racial and social hierarchy and how Black children are made acutely aware of this from an early age, we are able to understand how a story as tragic as Pecola Breedlove’s can occur. From the very beginning of her life Pecola and her family have been branded as ugly and, as Morrison tells us, they have come to accept it. Pauline Breedlove, Pecola’s mother, was led to this acceptance in part by the white film stars she’d see in the cinemas. She began to ascribe levels of beauty to every face she saw – including her own – using those film stars as a barometer. She fixes her hair like Jean Harlow’s and is devastated when she loses her tooth. Eventually she becomes disillusioned, realising that she will never achieve ‘beauty’ as she sees it, and accepts her ‘ugliness’.
It is clear then that Pecola had no one at home or elsewhere to tell her she was not ugly, to see her for the sweet, innocent, introverted little girl she was. Instead, she was seen as ugly. Black, poor and ugly. As I write this I am reminded of Celie from The Color Purple – another dark-skinned Black girl made to internalise this narrative of ugliness and misogynoir – when she is told by her husband ‘you black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddam, you nothin’ at all.’
Toni Morrison paints for us society’s hierarchy of beauty – the same hierarchy that exists 50 years later – with whiteness at the top and dark Black skin, dark Black women skin specifically, at the bottom. Morrison then shows how this white supremacist hierarchy has birthed another, arguably more dangerous one – that of colourism.
Colourism and Internalised Anti-Blackness
Through the characters of Geraldine and her son Junior we see how proximity to whiteness enables some Black people to distinguish themselves in terms of colour and class. It is a system originating on the plantations: slave owners would place lighter-skinned slaves in the house, while dark-skinned slaves were field workers. House slaves were deemed to be treated ‘better’ than field slaves – they were closer to the master and his wife and were sometimes given hand-me-downs and other ‘privileges’ not given to field slaves. It was a divide and conquer tactic used to create a social hierarchy based on skin tone amongst slaves to sow discord and discourage rebellion and is a system that was maintained during the colonial era and has had a lasting impact to this day.
With whiteness as the pinnacle of beauty, class and civilisation, proximity to it naturally garners some advantage in the way that you are seen and treated. When such a system is embedded into every layer of society it is inevitable that the constant equation of Black with undesirability, lack of intelligence and general fecklessness would be internalised by the community and would reproduce itself in such a destructive way. Of course, that is exactly what it was designed to do. So, it is unsurprising then that Geraldine draws a distinction between “coloured people” like herself who are “neat and quiet” and “n***ers” who are “dirty and loud.” The way Geraldine raises Junior – only letting him play with white children as “she did not like him to play with n***ers,” thereby drilling that distinction into him, is even less surprising. This distinction is what contributes to Junior growing to become a misogynistic bully who lures Pecola into his home and then lies to his mother that she killed their cat. It is this distinction that frames the way Geraldine views Pecola – the scorn with which she looks upon her as she calls her a “nasty little black bitch” is, in many ways, white supremacy at work. As Black people like Geraldine aspire to whiteness, try to detach themselves from Blackness and perpetuate anti-Black bigotry in doing so, whiteness remains at that aforementioned pinnacle. White supremacy remains intact.
For such a short novel, The Bluest Eye is incredibly complex. Even though, by Morrison’s own admission, Pecola’s story is quite singular, as readers we pick up on the all too familiar indications of white supremacy: the references to films, white dolls, colonialism, Jim Crow. We then see the consequences of these: internalised anti-Blackness and colourism.
Morrison made the right decision in not wanting to dehumanise the characters that led to Pecola’s downfall. It would have been very easy to hate Pauline Breedlove (and Cholly, who I haven’t discussed here), to feel contempt and disgust for Junior for being such a vile lying bully, to feel the same (even more so) for his mother Geraldine and so on. But by exploring their stories, while we may not like those characters, we understand their history, how they came to react to and treat Pecola in the way they did, and how the forces and inherent violence of white supremacy underpins it all. And when you look at it like that, you see why Pecola Breedlove never stood a chance.
Morrison shows how, when a system is created that holds whiteness as the pinnacle of beauty and civility, those who are deemed “inferior” can internalise that narrative and in turn fight to free themselves from said “inferiority” and the societal shackles that accompany it. Thus, a hierarchy of beauty and civility is created that puts dark-skinned Black people – particularly girls – at the very bottom. Pecola Breedlove’s story is indeed singular, but it is also tragically reflective of our society. 50 years after first publication, that tragic reflection is what makes The Bluest Eye a timeless tale.