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The Radicalism of Toni Morrison
How the debut novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author changed the way we think about American literature
By Courtney Suciu
“There can’t be anyone, I am sure, who doesn’t know what it feels like to be disliked, even rejected, momentarily or for sustained periods of time,” Toni Morrison wrote in forward to the 2007 reprint of her seminal 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye*.
With these words, she opened up the world she created to all of us who have ever felt ugly, unwanted or unloved. But in particular, she was describing the experiences of African Americans who were at worst despised and abused by the dominant culture; who at best were simply invisible or ignored.
And even more specifically, Morrison was writing about young African American girls whose stories were conspicuously absent from American literature.
Speaking with Terry Gross on Fresh Air1 in 1996, the author said in the 1960s, when she started The Bluest Eye, “putting an African American girl at the center of a novel felt like a radical act.”
In memory of Toni Morrison, we take a closer look at the radicalism of her debut novel and its profound impact on American literature – and American consciousness.
The radicalism of representation
In the 1994 documentary Four Girls and Toni Morrison2, Morrison revealed that “her first impulse to write was about curiosity.”
“What was central in the literature I read was never me,” she explained:
A female, young, Black – those characters didn’t exist in the major literature I read and when they did, they were on the edges, on the margin somehow… But I was interested in what kind of book or what reading experience could be the consequence of shaping a piece of art around that kind of person, me or someone like me, or someone I knew.
Here, the seeds for her first novel were planted: out of “a lot of questions I had, memories I had, a lot of painful experiences I had witnessed or been privy to. All of that sort of collected around an idea, shaping The Bluest Eye,” Morrison said.
The central figure of The Bluest Eye, Pecola Breedlove is a young Black girl who the reader quickly discovers has not only been neglected and abused by her parents, but whose whole family has been shunned by the close-knit African American community in Lorain, Ohio.
While the novel’s narrator Claudia McTeer, also a young Black girl, is more insulated from the poisonous psychological effects of racism because she is nurtured and supported by her family and community, Pecola is vulnerable to the messages of the dominant culture that associate whiteness with beauty and being loved.
Morrison said she wondered “what it must be like to grow up without that nurturance and be the victim of racism. How devastating that must be.”
She elaborated further in the forward of the book: “Couple the vulnerability of youth with indifferent parents, dismissive adults, and a world, which in its language, laws and images, re-enforces despair, and the journey to destruction is sealed."
To illustrate the ruinous impact of such an environment, the author juxtaposed the broken character of Pecola with the other little girls around her, like Claudia, who grow up loved and protected; and who, therefore, “are very different, who are feisty and curious and investigative and sort of funny,” Morrison explained in the video.
“I wanted the two kinds of responses to social devastation to be in the first book I wrote,” she added. “But it’s through the view of little young Black girls.”
In telling the story from their perspective, Morrison undermines notions of childhood innocence, but also, as we’ll see, subverts popular symbols of American cultural innocence, revealing the depths of damage wrought by family dysfunction, poverty and institutional racism.
The radicalism of place
Like many of Morrison’s subsequent novels, The Bluest Eye is set in the suburbs of Lorain, Ohio, the author’s own hometown.
This location is significant according to scholar Lisa Long3, who pointed out that prior to the publication of Morrison’s first novel, the setting for most African American literature was in the South or urban landscapes.
In having the novel take place in the Midwest – the region often referred to as “America’s Heartland,” associated with images such as quaint small towns with white picket fences and wholesome idioms like “mom’s apple pie” – Morrison “recast[ed] Midwesternism” in way that “reject[ed] traditional, colonist notions” and presented a “less-sanitized, but more worldly and inclusive view of the Midwest that hews closely to its historical roots,” Long wrote.
The historical roots, of course, involve the migration of African Americans from the South, seeking employment opportunities in the industrialized North, which is what brought Pecola’s family to Ohio in the novel.
Morrison’s attention to ethnic identity in the region exposes how the expansive “middle” of the country is narrowly imagined as monolithically white, a misrepresentation that limits the opportunities afforded non-white residents and keeps African Americans on the hem of Midwestern regional identity.
In contrast to stereotypical white-washed associations with the Midwest, Long argued that Morrison “typifies a new Midwesternism,” one that both belongs to African American communities, and one that also dismantles the notion of the Midwest as a mythological safe space.
In The Bluest Eye, it’s not just the suburban African American community that is inhospitable to the Breedloves, who came from the rural South, but also the Midwestern climate itself.
Long noted how the novel “reconstruct[s] the South as a site of color and joy for emigrant characters, including the Breedloves…Such memories of the South’s sensual pleasures serve as stark contrast to the numbing, gray Midwestern winters,” she observed.
The Breedloves’ struggle with the bleak, “capricious weather and hard land detailed in The Bluest Eye” also reflect the social struggles of African Americans in the region, according to Long.
While the Midwestern landscape described in the novel is familiar to readers, “the way that Morrison’s African American characters related to the environment foregrounds matters of personal safety and survival, especially questions about the visibility and persistence of African American families and non-white culture in this place.”
Out of such a depiction of the Midwest, the damaged character of Pecola Breedlove embodies these contradictions and the debunked mythologies of the region. In this way, Long argues, she “emerges as a new kind of Midwestern protagonist.”
But this argument could be taken a step further. Arguably, with its setting in Ohio, The Bluest Eye also emerged as a new kind of Midwestern literature.
The radicalism of time
In addition to being set in a location that conjures up mainstream symbols of a wholesome, homogenous culture, The Bluest Eye takes place in 1940, an era that often inspires a sense of national nostalgia, or “the good old days.”
Scholar Debra T. Werrlein4 wrote, “Morrison situates her narrator, Claudia, and her protagonist, Pecola, on the cusp of the ‘mythical’ post-war period…[to] explore the contrast between oppressed local culture and innocent national ideal through the friction that erupts between Pecola’s life and 1940s models of childhood,” she explained.
One of the novel’s most prominent images childhood ideal appears in the primary school books popular during this time period: William Elson and William Gray’s iconic “Dick and Jane” stories. Werrlein described how these primers “characterize safe American childhoods that thrive in families that defy depression-era hardships.”
The books’, rosy-cheeked, white, middle-class characters represent a depiction of childhood that hardly reflected experiences of children like Claudia or Pecola. In creating this contrast, Morrison demonstrated how this pervasive representation of a “normal,” ideal childhood not only leaves out, but erases the reality of childhood for African American children. Werrlein even went so far as to argue that the Dick and Jane stories “treat American childhood as abstraction that excludes all but white middle-class children.”)
Unlike Claudia, whose sense of self-worth is fortified by her family and community relationships, Pecola internalizes such representations of the ideal child, and the bombardment of such images cumulates in her belief that her family’s dysfunction – and her ugliness and unlovability – are the result of her Blackness.
But it’s not just the school books that foster Pecola’s devastating worldview. She drinks quart after quart of milk so she can use a cup bearing the cherubic picture of her idol Shirley Temple, whose blue eyes she – and the mainstream culture – associate with beauty and value.
In contrast, Claudia proclaims her hatred of Shirley Temple. To her, the child star is an interloper “because she danced with Bojangles,” a rare Black public figure who Claudia identifies with as “my friend, my uncle, my daddy, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing it and chuckling with me.”*
Additionally, the novel shows us how white baby dolls are meant to be treated as prized possessions, lovingly cared for the way mothers are supposed to care for their children. But Claudia and Pecola also have different responses to these toys. While Pecola longs to look more like the dolls and prays for her eyes to turn blue, Claudia essentially performs an autopsy on the doll – “[examining] it to see what it was that all the world said was lovable.”*
By showing us these 1940s icons of childhood innocence – small Midwestern towns, “Dick and Jane” stories, Shirley Temple, white baby dolls – from the viewpoints of two young Midwestern Black girls, Morrison’s subverts the symbols’ meanings and recasts them as emblems of racial dominance that erased the experiences – and humanity – of marginalized people.
In doing so, Morrison illustrated the invisibility of young African American girls – a radical act in its own right – through the radical act of making them visible.
But The Bluest Eye was just the beginning of Morrison’s extraordinary literary career.
Thank you, Toni Morrison, for telling stories in voices and from perspectives that had previously been left out, for giving us an American literature that looks more like America.
- 'Fresh Air' Remembers Toni Morrison with 3 Conversations Over 4 Decades. NPR, Philadelphia, 2019. Available from Global Newsstream and ProQuest One Academic.
- Helander, L. (Producer). (1994). Four Girls and Toni Morrison [Video file]. Landmark Media. Available from Academic Video Online and ProQuest One Academic.
- Long, L. A. (2013). A New Midwesternism in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Twentieth Century Literature, 59(1), 104-125,189. Available from ProQuest One Literature and ProQuest One Academic.
- Werrlein, D. T. (2005). Not So Fast, Dick and Jane: Reimagining Childhood and Nation in The Bluest Eye. Melus, 30(4), 53-72,194. Available from ProQuest One Literature and ProQuest One Academic.
*Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. (May, 2007). Penguin/Vintage International.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu