Let me start with a couple of confessions: The Bluest Eye is not my favorite book. Beloved was the first Toni Morrison novel I ever read, and with the exception of Song of Solomon, nothing else she has written even comes close to that masterpiece (for me, anyway). So the second thing I need to admit is that when Claudia from The Bottom of Heaven invited me to join this blogger roundtable, I wanted to decline. Reading The Bluest Eye is sort of like digging in an unhealed wound—pulling off the scab and probing the sore, raw flesh beneath. And most days, I don’t want to go there. In part, because most days I already AM there…when am I *not* worried about white supremacy’s devastating effects on black girls? How often do I wrap up an author presentation, ask if there are any questions, and hear a black or Latino girl say, “I like your eyes, Miss.” I tell myself that looking like “the problem” actually enhances my ability to be part of the solution. But some days I’m not so sure…
On Saturday night I forced myself to watch a Shirley Temple movie (The Little Princess) because I thought it might help me write this post; it only annoyed me further, however, and I wondered how many girls of all races were damaged by the construction of Temple as a dear, dainty, devoted angel. I’m with younger sister Claudia when it comes to Shirley: “Frieda and [Pecola] had a loving conversation about just how cu-ute Shirley Temple was. I couldn’t join them in their adoration because I hated Shirley.” What Claudia really hates, of course, are the privileges arbitrarily assigned to cute little white girls; Claudia wants to dance with Bojangles, to be the object of his affection, but such an honor is reserved for that darling girl, Shirley Temple. Little black girls don’t take center stage…
As a child, I eagerly consumed the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, and that diet wasn’t so healthy for a plump black girl like me…like many others, I pinned a towel over my Afro and pranced around pretending I had silky hair flowing down my back. It didn’t help that almost all my cousins were blond-haired and blue-eyed, or that my mother always bought me white dolls. I did have a black Barbie; her eyes were like mine, but her hair and body were not. Claudia caught on to the white-doll scheme long before I ever did:
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.
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:
…it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question. The master had said, “You are ugly people.” They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie, every glance. “Yes,” they had said. “You are right.” And they took the ugliness in their hands, threw it as a mantle over them, and went about the world with it.
It wasn’t until I started graduate school that I began to understand the history and ongoing impact of colorism. I could see the signs of self-loathing in my family and in myself. The Bluest Eye was certainly a big part of my education, and I hope it continues to enlighten readers who aren’t aware of the insidious messages embedded in nearly every aspect of US popular culture (including the children’s publishing industry). When Claudia posted a video of Toni Morrison discussing the self-esteem of black girls today, I was stunned; does she really think today’s girls are more confident and self-assured? (has she seen Kiri Davis’ film?) As someone who works with kids, I’d have to say I’m not as optimistic. But that lack of optimism also takes its toll, and perhaps that’s one reason I turn sullen thinking about The Bluest Eye. Can we live in this country—anywhere in this world—and be free of this brutal legacy of yearning and loathing? I teach Dael Orlandersmith‘s Yellowman in my Black Women Writers class; in this play set in the South there are no whites, no Mary Janes, no Shirley Temple—just two young lovers trapped by their parents’ pain and prejudice. Colorism is a conversation that never ends, but we have to keep calling it out…here at home and abroad.