How Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ shatters myths about Black girlhood
In this exclusive essay from a new edition of 'The Bluest Eye', Candice Carty-Williams celebrates Toni Morrison's masterful portrayal of Black girlhood.
02 Feb 2022
Black girlhood is hopelessly fragile, but so rarely understood or accepted as such. From a young age, Black girls are exposed to a life that is raw, unrelenting and unaccepting. So rarely do Black women get the chance to experience childhood. There’s something about the so-called strength of a Black woman that supposedly judders to life when we’re old enough to talk.
We end up clinging helplessly to this myth of indestructibility, often burying our own fears, our own voices and our own vulnerabilities, instead covering the soft parts of ourselves that need to grow and be nourished with some sort of impenetrable emotional armour. The way that this world works, we never have the time to sit with what it was to be a child. To understand what it is to be carefree. To be able to grow, slowly, into a version of ourselves that knows what it is to be beautiful, to have the space and the support to be fragile. From birth, it seems that our function is to be strong, and to be a set of shoulders to carry the burdens of those around us.
“From birth, it seems that our function is to be strong, and to be a set of shoulders to carry the burdens of those around us”
The idea that Black women are strong is a mistruth. That we know and believe in, resolutely and firmly, of our own beauty, our value, our virtues and our abilities, is a mistruth. At its core, The Bluest Eye is a novel about the mistruths that we internalise. It is about many things thematically – poverty, Blackness, sexual violence, racism – but its fragmented style and its refusal to be chronological or easy to read builds a richer picture than the one we could see if any of these themes were apart from each other.
What this is saying to us, really, is that we, as people, are made up of just as many parts. We wouldn’t be who we were if not for our traumas, our dark thoughts, our fears. Of course there are lighter parts to us. There is joy, and there is happiness. There is love, and there is care. But often, all of these parts of us are grappling with each other, fighting for space in our tired minds. And more often than not, fear wins out.
“At its core, The Bluest Eye is a novel about the mistruths that we internalise”
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s debut novel, first published in 1970 and set in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio, was not a commercial success at the time. In fact, talking to Interview magazine, Morrison noted that the Black community hated it. Is this because Morrison holds nothing back when it comes to shining a light on the ways that Blackness, and the ideals within it, can eat itself up? Is it because she was unafraid to present Blackness as a twisted, complicated and painful thing, rather than celebrate it? Is it because Toni Morrison, in The Bluest Eye, dared to explore Black hate, as opposed to Black love?
“Morrison holds nothing back when it comes to shining a light on the ways that Blackness, and the ideals within it, can eat itself up”
Colourism, discrimination based on skin tone, is one of the biggest disappointments within the Black community. It takes us way back to the days of slavery, which weren’t as long ago as the history books would have us think. The lighter you were in skin tone, the more likely you were to be favoured by your white owners.
This concept of being Black, but still being close to whiteness, is one that has been passed down through decades of inherited trauma, and is still as alive and as pervasive today. It made its way into how we see each other as Black people, and the value we place on ourselves. A higher price for a lighter tone. It’s through this ideal that Percola Breedlove, the central character of The Bluest Eye, operates. Percola is a young dark skinned Black girl who longs for blue eyes. These blue eyes, she says, set against her dark skin, will make her more beautiful.
This is the first mistruth Percola understands, and one that she lives by. This lack of understanding of her own value, this fundamental disruption of her ego and shattering of her self esteem, leaves her wide open for the internalised rejection that marks her life. So insidious, so deeply entrenched is this idea that proximity to whiteness will ‘help’ her, it eventually drives her to madness, living deep in her soul and permeating her psyche.
“So insidious, so deeply entrenched is this idea that proximity to whiteness will ‘help’ her, it eventually drives her to madness”
The second mistruth that The Bluest Eye shatters is that the family home is a place of safety, and of love. The family home that Percola comes from does not exist. It was burned down by her alcoholic and abusive father. The family structure that Percola comes from also does not exist. Her parents would fight, verbally and physically. The innate safety and love that a family should give Percola especially does not exist, which we understand early on in the novel when the father of young Percola’s child is revealed to us, cruelly and almost casually.
Percola’s family home is not the only one we see. Percola is taken in by the MacTeer family after her own home is destroyed, sent up in flames along with her childhood and innocence. Fostered by their parents, Percola shares a bed with sisters Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, both as young, but both only slightly less exposed to the mental, physical and sexual violence that will irrevocably change her. The MacTeer family life is also not perfect, and Claudia and Frieda, aged nine and ten respectively, quickly lose a view of life through childhood eyes along with Percola. The conversations around poverty and its repercussions in the home leave them with a feeling of helplessness and impotence.
A third mistruth Morrison tackles is that hard work equals success, and that the African-American dream is a real thing. In this novel, each day is a small battle as the characters live in poverty, exchanging hard manual labour for a pittance, or trading sex for enough money to keep a roof over their heads. Alcoholism is an escape. The abhorrent crime that comes from this need to dull the pain of life is swept under the carpet. Life continues. No reports are given, no arrests are made.
“A third mistruth Morrison tackles is that hard work equals success, and that the African-American dream is a real thing”
What Morrison asks us to do, in The Bluest Eye, is to never judge. Instead she requests that we observe the person, we observe their upbringing, we observe their surroundings, and we take in the fragmented and painful lives that have forced them to settle in their final, sometimes destructive form. What the characters in The Bluest Eye are doing is surviving.
Morrison is a master when it comes to identity. When we think about the ways that we have to bend and contort ourselves, sometimes quite literally, into the mould that society has set out for us, is it not horrifying? Is it not truly frightening to have to go back into ourselves, to look at that inner child, and to see what she was exposed to? What are the pieces of life that formed our identity? What mistruths were we told? Were we told that we shouldn’t wear our hair in certain ways, for fear of standing out? Or were we told that the more coarse our hair was, the less pretty it was? Were we told that the lighter our skin was, the better looking we were? Were we told that it’s better to have a cute, button nose, rather than a broad one? Were we told that the slimmer we were, the more we might be found attractive, or that somehow, we would simply be a better person if we had curves, but only in all the right places?
“When we think about the ways that we have to bend and contort ourselves, sometimes quite literally, into the mould that society has set out for us, is it not horrifying?”
Living in Western society, a horrible imprinting happens to Black women as we grow older. Unseen scars are left on us every time we’re shown, and told, that we aren’t beautiful. These unseen scars are re-opened when it comes to love, friendships, relationships. Add to that in this modern age of social media, where false and uniform ideals of beauty are forced down our throats daily. How does one grow up being told how ugly, how undesirable, the mainstream finds them, and not reject themselves? What kind of internal work is constantly being done so as not to wish for blue eyes, for lighter skin, for straighter hair, for a slim, small physique?
Morrison forces us to think about the unattainable and unfair ideals of beauty, and how they reign supreme, even in today’s society. What is beauty? What does it mean? How does it add to our value? What Morrison is asking, through Percola, is how the idea of finally attaining what we have been told is true beauty can remove us, by elevation, from a life that doesn’t seem to be enough. Percola Breedlove believes that if her eyes were blue, she would then finally be beautiful. That she would then finally be loved. That her troubles would go away, and that her identity would be unshaken, true and accepted, in a life that had refused to be kind to her.
And the main mistruth here is that life is ever kind. It’s not. But there is kindness within it, and within acceptance of self, even when the world is telling you that there is always a way for you to be better.
This introduction by Candice Carty-Williams is taken from The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, new edition published by Vintage Classics on 3 February 2022.