Together with Medea, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye has always been my favorite piece of literature to teach. They make quite a pair, don’t they? A mother choosing her pride and jealousy over her children’s lives, a child taking on the burdens of society’s racism as well as its other ills. They’re not feel good pieces, but they are both cathartic and important. However, it is the more modern work, The Bluest Eye, that has some bloggers in an uproar because they see it as “smut.” One blogger – Macey France, who writes for politichicks and cites an expert from the Heritage Foundation - has encouraged like-minded folks to pick up the pitchforks and torches to demand the novel be banished to the forbidden forest, far from the reach of innocent minds. However, I believe it is a valuable and enlightening piece of American literature that benefits those who read and study it.
Challenges to literature with difficult themes are nothing new. Apparently, we can send our children to films and let them watch television with extreme violence that encourages laughter or even a cheering section to causing pain in others, but if discomfiting episodes occur in a piece of literature involving sex or abuse, we must protect the children from exposure, as though its victims are shameful and must be hidden away. And Oh my! Nasty language! As a teacher of literature, I believe that context and purpose matter. Providing a historical and thematic context with which to prepare students is the responsibility and aim of a good teacher. Before teaching Medea, we discussed Greek theatre, the mythology behind the play, the cultural significance of characters’ backgrounds, and the known motivations and sympathies of Euripides. As preparation for teaching The Bluest Eye, the political context of the 60′s, the Black is Beautiful movement – during which Morrison developed the novel – Jim Crow laws, and racial attitudes in the South versus in the novel’s setting of Ohio must be discussed. (Many people don’t realize that the novel is set in Ohio!) That is in addition to topics of child abuse, bullying, rape, and parenting styles. It’s all part of a good teacher’s preparation for any in-depth piece of writing.
Does The Bluest Eye have rape? Yes. Child sexual abuse? Yes. Consensual sex? Yes. It even has a scene where a woman and her cat…well, you can go find that scene yourself. However, it also reveals these topics with an eye to exposing the evils of racism and abuse and a society’s hatred, nay disgust, of its most vulnerable members to disinfecting sunlight. In fact, there has been criticism of the novel not just from reactionary bloggers, but also from members of the black community who felt it was overly critical of different communities within black society. There are few characters – black or white – who have redeeming qualities. The one exception is the central character and narrator Claudia MacTeer. And that narrow spectrum of redemption is part of what makes this novel so difficult to take. Readers are forced to see various acts and scenes from points-of-view they may find repugnant. And, in doing so, they often have the unpleasant realization that they recognize themselves – just a tiny bit – in those unpleasant characters. It puts us, as readers, in the position of wanting redemption for heinous acts. Surely a discomfiting experience, especially for those used to identifying with heroes or underdogs who overcome obstacles or ugly ducklings who become swans. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison forces her readers to face that some ugly ducklings don’t grow into swans. Worse, she points an accusing finger at the reader to say, “It’s you who kept her from knowing her beauty.”
I will say, there are some teachers I’ve known that I wouldn’t trust teaching a novel like this. I’m sure there are plenty of people who wouldn’t want me – a white lady – to teach a novel like this. However, I don’t think that means it shouldn’t be taught; the teaching of it must be done consciously and carefully. Just like any novel of great depth. The language is harsh – lots of “N” words and “B” words and other derogatory phrases – and, being the uptight linguist that I am, I asked my students to exchange school-appropriate adjectives or just use the first letter of an offending word when they were reading aloud to the class. Kids are surrounded by casual usage of ugly language all the time; they deserve a break, at least in my classroom. And I do believe there’s a difference between reading a word in the context of a novel and speaking it out loud.
My first time teaching The Bluest Eye was overly careful and overly academic. My students and I worked the themes out together and managed to discover the beauty and hope embedded in the horror. We also confronted the reality of how much the racial prejudices and attitudes toward beauty hadn’t changed since the novel’s publication. If you can’t see the value in that for teenagers, for anyone, there’s not much I can say to convince you otherwise.
Still, what most affected me that first semester of teaching this novel was when a student came up to me after class towards the end of the unit and said, “Miss, thank you. My father did that to me.” She was thanking me for not pinning shame and blame on the girl who was abused and raped. She’d never heard the topic discussed openly and honestly before. She’d always blamed herself. From then on, I knew I’d fight to keep teaching The Bluest Eye. From then on, I knew it deserved, needed, must be taught.