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“The Bluest Eye” is Toni Morrison’s first novel. In it, the Nobel Prize winner tells the story of a young girl convinced that her blackness makes her ugly and worthless. If only she had blue eyes, she thinks, her life would be different. Published in 1970, the New York Times praised Morrison’s prose and called the novel a work of “history, sociology, folklore, nightmare and music.” Today, the book has become a controversial staple of high school English classes, with some objecting to Morrison’s explicit treatment of sexuality and domestic violence. For this month’s Readers’ Review: a discussion of “The Bluest Eye” and what it contributes to today’s conversation about race in America.
- E. Ethelbert Miller poet; director, African American Resource Center at Howard University; board chair, Institute for Policy Studies.
- Angelyn Mitchell professor of English and African American Studies, Georgetown University
- Ileana Jimenez English teacher at the Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School and founder of the blog "Feminist Teacher"
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Copyright © 1993 by Toni Morrison. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Few authors have explored what it means to be black in America quite like the Nobel Prize Winning author Toni Morrison. In her first novel, "The Bluest Eye," she tells the story of a young girl who believes that blonde hair and blue eyes are the key to happiness. Nearly 45 years after publication, the lessons of the novel still resonate. Joining me for this month's "Readers' Review," Angelyn Mitchell of Georgetown University, Ethelbert Miller of Howard University and Ileana Jimenez of The Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School.
MS. DIANE REHMIf you'd like to join us, send us an email at drshow.org. Also, you can call us on 800-433-8850. If you've read the book and want to share your thoughts, you can do so on Twitter with the hashtag drreads. So, I'll look forward to hearing from you throughout the hour. Please give us a call, and welcome to all of you.
MR. E. ETHELBERT MILLERThank you.
MS. ANGELYN MITCHELLThank you.
MS. ILEANA JIMENEZThank you.
REHMGood to see you. Ethelbert, tell us about Pecola. Who is she, what happens to her and why is she longing for blue eyes?
MILLERIf we want to know about her, we begin with her mother, Pauline. Because when Pecola's born, Pauline looks at her and -- this is the mother, considers her ugly. You know, except for her hair.
REHMLooks at her child and says…
MILLERAnd then I think, right there when I was reading it, that's something to say, wow, this is your first day out and your mother's calling you ugly. I mean, how is she going to raise you? So you can see right there, in terms of the family that she's born into, that she's going to be seen a certain way. And so when I look at, you know, the theme that Morrison's dealing with, it's the whole idea of how we see the world, how the world sees us.
REHMHow about that, Angelyn? How does the world see Pecola?
MITCHELLPecola has internalized that the world sees her as unworthy, unloved, undeserving. And much of her angst is rooted in her racial identity. One thinks about Dr. Dubois' theory of double consciousness. Seeing oneself and seeing oneself as the world sees one. Pecola thinks that if she can have an attribute of whiteness, blue eyes, that she will be worthy, that she will be loved, that she will be deserving. All the signs and symbols around her tell her that all that she is as a young black girl is not good enough. And that's the tragedy. She wants her humanity acknowledged.
REHMAnd she has, or sees, a Shirley Temple doll, Ileana.
JIMENEZMmm. Yeah, there's a scene in the novel where Pecola and Frida and Claudia are actually...
REHMHer friends, so-called.
JIMENEZ...her friends, are drinking out of Shirley Temple cups. And Shirley Temple's image is on these tea cups that they're drinking from. And that's one of the kind of surrounding images, kind of media images, if you will, of kind of the world in which she's immersed in. Images of whiteness, white girls, beautiful white girls, cute white girls. And the ways in which they are actually adored and treasured and idolized and idealized in a world that doesn't treasure or idealize Pecola. So as she's literally drinking in Shirley Temple, she thinks she's going to absorb her in some way, but in actuality, she will never become her because Pecola is not seen. She's invisible.
REHMI think that there are several narrators in this book. Claudia, who you just mentioned, is one of them. And Angelyn, would you read for us from page six to page seven where Toni Morrison, in the voice of Claudia, is explaining what the book will not do.
MITCHELL"Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father's baby, that the marigolds did not grow. A little examination, and much less melancholy, would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout. Nobody's did. Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year. But so deeply concerned were we with the health and safe delivery of Pecola's baby, we could think of nothing but our own magic.
MITCHELLIf we planted the seeds and said the right words over them, they would blossom and everything would be all right. It was a long time before my sister and I admitted to ourselves that no green was going to spring from our seeds. Once we knew, our guilt was relieved, only by fights and mutual accusations about who was to blame. For years, I thought my sister was right. It was my fault. I had planted them too far down in the earth. It never occurred to either of us that the earth itself might have been unyielding.
MITCHELLWe had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt, just as Pecola's father had dropped his seed in his own plot of black dirt. Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair." What is clear now is that of all of that hope, fear, lust, love and grief, nothing remains but Pecola and the unyielding earth. Charlie Breedlove is dead. Our innocence, too. The seeds shriveled and died, her baby too. There is really nothing more to say, except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.
REHMWhat do you think she means by taking refuge in how?
MITCHELLI think here, she wants to make space for the reader to be able to enter into this text. Because the subject matter is incredibly difficult, on every possible level. What happens to Pecola is heinous. What she is also asking us to think about, in terms of Pecola's aspirations for whiteness, that's very difficult as well. Because, whiteness, you know, historically, has not been marked. So there are so many topics that she wants us to be able to enter. And so she wants the reader to be, I'm using this term, comforted, a bit, in order to come in.
MITCHELLSo she invites with this conspiratorial saying, quiet as it's kept. I'm about to give you inside information. Please trust me that it won't pain, but will be illuminating.
REHMIt's so interesting, because Toni Morrison writes in the foreword that she doesn't want us, the readers, to pity Pecola. Yet you can't help but pity her.
JIMENEZWell, I think part of it is that when I teach this particular novel, the students actually have varying responses to Pecola. They either will see themselves or they won't. Or they go on a journey where they begin to kind of move towards understanding where she's coming from if they don't understand her. One of the things that Toni Morrison writes in the foreword is that she wanted readers to be touched. She says in the foreword, "many readers remain touched, but not moved." Excuse me, she wanted them to be moved, but they wind up only being touched.
JIMENEZAnd I talk a lot about this line with my students, which is are you actually touched by, or moved by, Pecola's story? And a lot of the students that I teach, particularly students of color, immediately connect to Pecola's story, because they do see the ways in which our world, our media, is saturated with images of white women, white skinny women who are kind of put on a pedestal of beauty. And then beyond that, this is also about cycles of violence and abuse, which our students also see every single day.
JIMENEZEither, whether it's at home or on the street or in their own particular kind of intake and imbibing of the media, the violence is everywhere. We saw this -- we see this in Ferguson. We see this in so many recent domestic violence cases. We see this in violence against women and girls of color all over the place. So it becomes an immediate connection to Pecola through these kind of ways in which to see how they can be moved by a story that happened so long ago but is still immediate today.
MILLERSee, I'm gonna switch this, because it's talking about Pecola. For me, when I look at this book, it really begins with Pauline. This book is almost structured like Baldwin's "Go Tell It on the Mountain." You begin with the young people in the house and then, what Baldwin does, is he gives you the backdrop of how cool the parents are. When you look at Morrison giving the back of the parents, let's look at Pauline, who begins to deal with the whole thing of being ugly in the Dreamland Theater, okay? So, movies as a backup.
MILLERNow let's look at the people that are in the book. Along with Shirley Temple, Jean Harlow, Betty Grable, Hedy Lamarr, who was someone who was the most beautiful woman on the screen. I was not born yet, so I didn't know. Anyway, Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, all these people.
MILLERShe's in the movie theater, and what happens? Her tooth comes out. Okay? Now, before we get into color and beauty and bluest eye, let's deal with white teeth. Okay? I grew up when it was commercials like, you know, brush with this toothpaste and if you had to have -- you either couldn't get a date if you didn't have any teeth and they weren't white. Okay? Here is Pauline feeling ugly.
MILLERIdentifying with the people on the screen, and she's not going to be like them. She can't smile anymore. How many young, black women I know walked around with their hand over their mouth, okay, because of how their teeth were crooked or they didn't have any teeth at all?
REHME. Ethelbert Miller. He's poet and director of the African-American Resource Center at Howard University. Short break here. I hope you'll join us as we talk about Toni Morrison's novel, "The Bluest Eye."
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about Toni Morrison's first novel "The Bluest Eye" for this month's Readers' Review. Here in the studio with me Ileana Jimenez. She's an English teacher at the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City. She's founder of the blog "Feminist Teacher." Ethelbert Miller is a poet and director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. And Angelyn Mitchell is associate professor of English and African American studies at Georgetown University, the author of the book "The Freedom to Remember: Narrative, Slavery and Gender in Contemporary Black Women Fiction."
REHMAnd I do hope you'll join us. You can send us an email at drshow.org. If you've read the book, you want to share your thoughts you can do so on Twitter with the hash tag drreads. So from your perspective as a teacher, Ileana, tell us how students look, read, react to this book.
JIMENEZWell, one of the first things that I do with the novel is actually bring in the primers. The first two pages of the novel is a pastiche of the kind of 1940s style primers...
REHM...Dick and Jane.
JIMENEZ...Dick and Jane, the readers that were used...
REHMYeah, I can remember the...
JIMENEZ...to teach children how to read.
JIMENEZBut they weren't only used to teach children how to read. They were used to teach children certain values and how to read the world. And what I do is actually read a few pages of the primers to my students. And I kind of make believe we're having children story time. But then they actually begin to understand what it is that the pages actually reveal. So for example there's -- in one image there's -- the mom is jumping rope with her children. And the dad is standing on the side with a suit on and a newspaper under his arm.
JIMENEZAnd I have the students do a close reading of just the image and not necessarily the text. And they pick up right away, dad is coming from the external world of business, of white men, of corporate kind of jobs. Mom is being mom. She's playing with the children and dad is kind of just observing this particular world. And what students pick up on is the fact that this is the so-called American Dream. This is the dream of kind of white America that students, children were being taught still today.
REHMAnd Toni Morrison runs some of the text in those Dick and Jane books.
JIMENEZShe does. She does a kind of pastiche of that but then it kind of becomes -- you know, the punctuation disappears, the words collapse together.
REHMOf course. Right.
JIMENEZAnd the students pick up on that right away and begin to do a close reading of that. And they say, wait a second. What she's doing here is distorting this. This is not the American Dream that we've been promised. Instead what we're going to get in the part that was read earlier that's italicized is like the inversion of that world, the world of abuse, the word of violence and the world of internalized racism.
MILLERYeah, the structure is key because what you see here now is the politics of Toni Morrison. And this is what I feel makes her a great novelist. Because what happens instead if you look how she deals with whiteness, you know, where it's out there, okay. When you read these texts you're brought into it. And if you now have someone to correct it, you absorb it. That's why the character on Claudia who's supposed to be nine years old, she's a very wise nine-year-old.
REHMYes, she is.
MILLERBecause she's not buying into any of this, you know, less that -- she must've went to a private school or, you know, one of those little charter schools or something like that. But what happened, she has a different perspective. And when I was reading and I said, you know, she sounds a little older. She seems definitely older than Frieda her sister. And she's the wise spirit in here.
REHMWhat about the little girl who comes in who has light black skin, who dresses beautifully, whose mother drives her up in a car? How does she affect Pecola, Claudia and her sister?
MITCHELLWell, she's another example of the internalization of whiteness. When I teach this novel I teach it as a novel about whiteness. The primer, for example, becomes a pedagogy of whiteness. It teaches what it means to be in this world. And it means that you are a white person, right. And so Maureen Peal, she reifies that in many ways. And we also have to keep in mind it's not only about race, it's about class as well because Maureen is also affluent. So there is a particular type of whiteness that is being, you know, valorized, right, by society.
MITCHELLAnd if you can fit into that then you too have the privilege of that privilege. And that's what she represents, Maureen Peal, the same type of internalization of it -- of this aspirational whiteness.
REHMAnd Maureen sort of, in the first few paragraphs, seems to be sympathetic toward Pecola. And all of a sudden turns her wrath against her.
JIMENEZYeah, building off of this idea of whiteness and privilege and class, one of the lines that get an actual definition of privilege from Maureen Peal without her actually realizing that she's defining privilege when she says, it's when you can beat them up if you want to and won't anybody do anything. Our family does it all the time. And what my students and I talk about is, this is the exact definition of privilege. You can do anything you want and no one is going to respond or do anything because you're so entitled. And you won't actually get in trouble for it.
JIMENEZAnd part of what the students respond to is the fact that Maureen Peal, later on Claudia's thinking about it, wasn't exactly Maureen Peal that we hated. It was the thing that allowed her to be so powerful in our society, the line of -- the thing of kind of racism in our culture. Institutional racism is what makes Maureen Peal with her light skin so powerful.
MILLERYeah, and then we're also dealing with how Toni Morrison defines being ugly in this book. And that's being associated with poverty and being black. The other thing I think that when we deal with Peal, we bring in another movie reference in here. That's the imitation of life which is also dealing with passing and also class. So when you look at this book, you know, you're looking at how film operates on it on a level, the actual structure of the book, how it was put together and how these characters interrelate.
MILLERYou know, I mean, you have sisters -- you know, it's just like this duality here, two sisters, you have the parents. You know, there's always these two -- there's two white men who show up and watch, you know, Cholly having sex. And so when you look at that -- and I use Cholly because we haven't talked about him. Here's a person who was abandoned, Cholly.
REHMCholly is Pecola's father.
MILLERHere's a person who goes in search of his father, finds his father and then is rejected by his father. So this whole thing wanting to connect and his inability, okay, that's a concern. Then the thing that might make it negative for African American men is that there's a lot of references to eyes but there's also a lot of references to dogs.
MILLERSo for example, when you see Cholly, you know, committing this act against his daughter, he approaches her on four feet. You know, he crawls and, you know, I mean, that type of thing like being a dog, you know. That can be very problematic in a community in which you're trying to deal with positive images of black men.
REHMAnd there is a point, speaking of dogs, when Pecola goes to presumably someone who can create magic. And she begs him to give her blue eyes. And what does he do? He provides her poisoned meat to give to a dog that he wants to get rid of. It's just so ghastly and yet, again, bringing into the book this theme of how children are manipulated, how they can be used, how they can be, in Maureen's case, treasured, in Pecola's case totally thrown to the trash heap.
JIMENEZThere's an interview that Toni Morrison had with Oprah in the '90s. And we actually have an old video of this that I show to my students. And in the video Toni Morrison talks about the fact that Pecola has no exits. And there are no exits for her. Every single person that she encounters, every single adult, everyone from Mr. Yacobowski to other kinds of adults in the novel, (unintelligible).
JIMENEZThere's no one in the novel that actually loves her. There's no one who actually gives her a sense of affirmation, acknowledgement, visibility, a sense of home. There's that lack of home. There's that lack of true absorbing of her or loving of her in the way that she wants.
REHMLet's open the phones. After all, this is a Readers' Review, not just the three or four we have here in the studio, but all of you as well. And let's go first to Detroit, Mich. Mary Katherine, you're on the air.
MARY KATHERINEYes. Hi. Thank you, Diane.
KATHERINEWhat I wanted to -- I teach this novel at the University of Detroit Mercy to my undergraduates in Detroit. And one of the things that we talk about is how it's really all of the culture that conspires to devalue blackness. It's not just movies and children's books but it's images of the Christian religion, it's candy, it's dolls, it's toys.
KATHERINEAnd what strikes me is that the new movement that We Need Diverse Books campaign -- I don't know if you've heard of it -- but sort of a grassroots movement to really say we don't have enough diversity in children's literature, in adult's literature. And this is a political and a social issue that has not changed enough since 1970 when "The Bluest Eye" was published. And I think that this novel really allows us to see why that issue of having characters that children can identify with and children can feel proud of seeing themselves, you know, matters so much.
REHMAnd yet, Angelyn, here we are confronted with this novel being banned in some schools. Tell us about that movement.
MITCHELLWell, I think -- and it's interesting this is Banned Books Week, right -- but I think that grows out of a misunderstanding of the novel often. Now I will say that I think there is a readiness, right, just like we talk about in sciences. For example, in mathematics before one can take calculus, one needs to take algebra. And I think that in the humanities there is also this sense of readiness, particularly when we're talking about young readers.
MITCHELLThe book does have very graphic, right, episodes. And it is heinous what happens to Pecola. So I think a lot of work needs to be done. And I'm going to be generous in thinking that perhaps the banning of "The Bluest Eye" has taken place because that kind of work, preparatory work to make sure we understand what happens is not being done in some respects.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." But there is a movement to get this book off school library shelves and not be taught in public schools. And aside from the general idea of banning books, I mean, this novel is so important. What's been your experience as you think about the banning of this book, Ileana?
JIMENEZI think it would be a tragedy if schools were not allowed to teach this. And it is a tragedy that schools are not allowed to teach this particular text, because it is extremely relevant.
REHMHow -- at what age do you think this book can be taught?
JIMENEZI have actually taught it as young as eighth grade and as old as tenth grade.
JIMENEZIt's a book that I teach in an American lit course to tenth graders who are 15 years old. And I've taught it to students who are 13 and 14 years old.
REHMAnd what about you, Ethelbert?
MILLERWell, you know, I've been a banned author so I sort of understand exactly what sometimes teachers are doing. But at the same time, you know, being a father, you know, I also feel that, okay, where are you going to learn things, you know, if you're not going to learn them in school and you're not learning them at home? And so there is a challenge for teachers to tackle, you know, difficult subject matter presented in such a way.
MILLERWe live in the time of the internet now where a lot of the young people now have more knowledge about "The Bluest Eye" than anything else. And so we can't keep books out. I think if we encourage people to read, we want them to read difficult text, you know. And then also when you find some of those being controversial, as controversial being caused maybe from religion, it's controversial because of sex or it's controversial in terms of language.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Natalie in Raleigh, N.C. Hi there.
NATALIEHey. Thank you, Diane. And hey, Ethelbert Miller, this is Natalie Bullock from Howard.
MILLERWow, how you doing, Natalie?
NATALIEI'm good. It's good to hear all of you. My question or my quick comment and question is this. I've been reading "The Bluest Eye" off and on to my nine-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old son as a bedtime story. And they have been just enraptured with the text, which seems to be very over their heads in terms of the language. But their interest and their desire to continue to read it says something to me about what Toni Morrison -- or the power of what Toni Morrison is doing.
NATALIEAnd so in light of the fact that the book has been banned, it's been banned here in North Carolina, and -- or at least in Wake County public schools where I live -- and in other places, you know, how do you address that? Do you think I'm perhaps exposing my kids too early to the book or what would you say about how to introduce these themes and the power of Toni Morrison's writing to kids at an early age, especially if they're not going to be given the opportunity to be exposed to it otherwise?
MITCHELLI would probably start, if I were starting with a very young reader, with Morrison's short story "Recitatif." You know, my concern in terms of "The Bluest Eye" is this. I don't want to see Pecola abused more. And I think sometimes that can happen without the preparation to understand what her particular circumstance is. That's not to suggest that everyone does it. That's just one of my concerns.
MITCHELLI also think that Morrison would not want to see black folk abused. For example, in looking at Cholly, Cholly commits the most horrendous act to his daughter. But as Ethelbert mentioned earlier, we get to understand him in a way that does not make him a sympathetic character but an understandable character.
REHMAngelyn Mitchell. She's associate professor of English at Georgetown University. We'll take a short break here. When we come back, more of your calls, your email or you can send us a tweet.
REHMAnd we're back, talking about Toni Morrison's first novel, "The Bluest Eye." She did, of course, become a Nobel Prize winner in literature. Something that I really wanted to mention. If you've read the book, you want to share your thoughts, you can do so on Twitter with the hashtag drreads. And here's an email from Mary, who says a high school in Wake City, North Carolina has just banned "The Bluest Eye" because of a parent complaint that the book was pornography. Please comment, Angelyn.
MITCHELLYou know, I'm not -- I think even the Supreme Court was not clear about its definition of pornography, so I don't want to go down that line, but I would like to suggest something about issues of race and the displacement of whiteness. You know, that's one of the aspects of this novel that makes it incredibly amazing and quite revolutionary, particularly when it was published in 1970. Two of the top novels of the 1970, I think, were "Love Story," and "The French Lieutenant's Woman."
MITCHELLWhich gives you a sense of the reading interest of that moment, right? And then you have this novel that's published that Ms. Morrison has shared -- the manuscript was rejected about a dozen times before she was able to have it published, because very few people were interested in the life of a young black girl. And I say this to say something about this banning, as well. I'm not sure if that's not the case, still. That there are some people who are not interested in the life of a young black girl. And also, not interested in the marking of whiteness in the ways that she does in this novel.
MITCHELLIn the first section, the autumn section, when we meet Rosemary Villanucci, Claudia and Frida make red marks on her white skin. That's very rare that whiteness is marked in such a way in American literature.
MILLERThis is why, you know, you have to give credit to someone who comes before Toni Morrison. And that's Gwendolyn Brooks for her novel, "Maud Martha," which people forget. But that’s also very important. But there's one thing I want to say on your air, and because this is 2014. I remember when Obama got elected, watching television, one of those morning shows, and the reporter asked two young white girls with blonde hair about beauty, and they said they felt that Michelle Obama's the most beautiful woman in the world.
MILLERAnd I said then that wow, I don't know if Obama's going to be successful in anything he does, legislation, whatever. But I think Michelle Obama already has had a significant impact on -- almost like a paradigm shift. Now here are two white girls saying whoa, I want to be like Michelle Obama. That means a dark skinned, young girl growing up is no longer second, okay? She can be the First Lady, too. And that changes the whole thing in terms of beauty. You see, when we go back and look at this book, in terms of beauty, we're looking at the 1930s.
MILLERThe Shirley Temple -- I mean, who died earlier this year. I mean, Shirley Temple was changing everything in terms of being happy. It was a different time. But this is now 2014. Now, you want to talk about beauty? I know I'm saying this on the radio. Let's replace these 1930s movies with maybe some things from BET, okay? I want to have here like Beyonce, or whatever. You've got another set of problems hitting the black community, okay, around issues of beauty, okay?
MILLERAnd that's controversial, okay? But what happens, if you go back and look at young girls who look in all those, you know, why do you want to be like this and shake their little booty and stuff like that? Okay, it may not have been blue eyes, okay, because now, you can get the blue eyes with just a change in contacts. So, but now, it's a whole thing, how you see the world and if you're going to see the world with some of this stuff that's coming through the media, we're going to have a sound set of problems.
JIMENEZI think there's a way to scaffold this, the teaching of this novel in such a way that you're doing anti-racist work. So part of what I do, as a teacher of color, is to share my own story in the classroom, and say, you know, as a child, I was made fun of for my hair. I was called Afro. I was called the N word. And that, actually, opens the door for students in the room to share their own stories, as well. I'll even say things like, you know, I used to sit between my mother's legs where, you know, my hair -- I have very curly hair. And we share our hair horror stories.
JIMENEZAnd once we -- once I, as a teacher, share those stories, it allows for students to also say, oh wait, I can share my story as well. One of the videos that I share with the students is a short video, it's six minutes, "A Girl Like Me." And it's several African-American girls talking about internalized racism, colorism, and kind of their own struggles and challenges with being either light skinned African-American girls or dark skinned African-American girls. And I show that video to students as a kind of the part of the scaffolding for understanding race and colorism and light skin versus dark skin...
JIMENEZ...within the community.
REHMAnd here's a caller in Indianapolis. Alex, you're on the air.
ALEXGood morning, Diane.
ALEXIt's good to have you back.
ALEXMy comment, and then I would just like to hear what your panel has to say about it. I, and my sister both, are multi-racial. My mother's white and my father's black. And I always prided our high school as being very highly diverse. So, both socio-economically as well as ethnically. However, I didn't suffer this so much as my sister, but my sister received a lot of ridicule from predominantly black girls because of a lot of her white features. Mainly her hair. And then I received some ridicule and ultimately maintained a large group of white friends because of this, because I was thought to not sound black enough, not act black enough.
ALEXAnd the same thing with my sister. So we both had a very large group of white friends, because we felt like we couldn't really join any sort of black community or black, you know, social group. So I'd just like to hear what your panel has to say and I'll take that off the air.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Angelyn.
MITCHELLWell, you know, I think what the caller describes is an example of what we see in the novel, this internalization of self-loathing that may happen in the black community. And that Morrison tries to reveal. You know, I think it is a different time, and it's wonderful that, you know, we do have a beautiful black woman in the White House, as the First Lady, but there are still those who don't say that she's beautiful as well. There's still that segment of the population that exists. And I think that in this particular issue of racial identity, again, how one sees oneself and how others see one.
MITCHELLThat is still fraught with complication. And as much as it was in 1903 when Dr. Dubois wrote about this double consciousness and that these images are still very, very potent, in terms of idealizing whiteness.
REHMActually, it seems to me we ought to talk about the language that Toni Morrison uses, because she says she wanted that language to reflect blackness.
JIMENEZYeah, one of the things that I have my students do is actually write down the messages that they received about beauty, according to the gender that they identify with. So, early on in my teaching of the novel, I'll have the students write, just a personal story, and to bring in some kind of photograph that reflects that message. And I remember one year, one student came -- African-American boy, came in and he came in with a photograph of himself with his two brothers. So it was three African-American boys in this photograph.
JIMENEZAnd he said, for me, an image of beauty is black maleness and black masculinity that's not toxic and violent, because I haven't -- he wrote in his piece, I haven't been given those images, but this particular photograph is an image of beauty for me. And so we talk a lot about that in relation to black masculinity in the novel itself, which is what are the ways in which Cholly, who goes through his own kind of rape through the flashlight moment and the white men, you know, pointing that flashlight at his behind.
JIMENEZAnd there's a kind of multiple rapes going on in that scene, and we talk about his emasculation and we talk about how the kind of the hierarchy of race and class and gender are going on there, where there's violence being perpetrated, not only towards Darlene, but also towards Cholly.
REHMHere's an email from D.C.'s, who said this book had a great impact in my life. It was one of the first books I read after I had been sexually abused as a young pre-teen. I have blonde hair and blue eyes and even in my then young mind, I could see that regardless of our physical appearance, the color of our skin or eyes, we can all feel ugly and ashamed. I was told at my mother's second wedding that I was too ugly to be in the wedding party. I wanted so much to be something other than what I was, to look different. It's only now, at age 45, I've been able to start to accept myself.
MITCHELLMorrison makes a wonderful observation here when she talks about two of the most dangerous concepts in human thought. Physical beauty and romantic love. And for women, particularly, this notion of physical beauty can be toxic in ways that I don't think that men struggle with as much. You know, I'm thinking of once, when I taught this novel. It was at another institution. And the class population, let's say it was 25. 20 were white men and five were white women. The men didn't really get it. You know?
MITCHELLWhen we talked about why Pecola feels so ugly, they were like, well, what's wrong? I mean, we don't do all of that. We just jump in the shower, towel off, and go. And also, I think, understand that, you know, certainly, society has a different aesthetic for men, right, in terms of this. But it was very revealing to me that there is such a very specific gender, right, component to this notion of the body. And what society writes on the body, in terms of its expectations.
REHMDo you agree with that?
MILLERI want to comment, when you mentioned the thing about romantic love. Because that’s something that I feel, you know, black men really need to embrace. I mean, I grew up, especially when I was in college, you know, that Philadelphia sound. You know, now some of those songs are kind of corny, but they still were sweet. And I feel that one of the things, when I listen to African-American music, especially popular music, that sweetness, that romantic love is missing.
MILLERYou know, and that's a thing that I think if you're going to be a man and you want to date a person, the song that's in your head may have a lot to do with how you treat a woman, you know? I remember during the summer, there always would be a summer romantic song that would come out and you'd want to be with it with someone. And the person was going to be beautiful, no matter what they looked like, because that music was playing in your head.
REHMThat's it. That's it.
MILLERAnd I think we've gotten away from that.
REHMAnd love changes one's image of someone else. And that is what is lacking in Pecola's life. There is no one, really, to love her. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
JIMENEZI was just gonna say that there's a scene in the end of a chapter when Pecola asked a question that had never entered my mind. How do you do that? I mean, how do you get somebody to love you? But Frida was asleep and I didn't know. That particular scene always strikes students, because all of Morrison's novels explore this theme of love. Either wanting love, yearning for love, desiring love, lacking love, chasing love. It's all -- she's preoccupied with this theme of love and this is, from a child's perspective, how do I receive and get love in a world that feels loveless?
MILLERAnd there's one thing we haven't mentioned. I hope this isn't giving away the book. But this is a book, also, if you want to discuss mental illness.
MILLERYou have to bring that into the discussion.
REHMOf course. Let's go to Francesca in Manhattan Beach, California. You're on the air.
FRANCESCAHi there. Yes, I'm calling about -- we're going back to banning books and when too young is too young or not young enough. Or too old. In the eighth grade, I was at a Catholic school and they brought in a English teacher who wasn't a nun. And she had a reading list, and in 1973, this included "The Bluest Eye," and "Catcher In the Rye," and "Separate Peace." And when a lot of us took those reading lists home to our parents, many parents came back the next day just outraged at this list. And as soon as my mother's jaw returned to her face after it came off the ground, she said, you know, I think it's time you read some of these books.
FRANCESCAShe hadn't read "The Bluest Eye." But, my goodness, I've read all of those books throughout my life because at every stage in your life, it says something different to you. And I'm sort of outraged now that parents think that a lot of these things shouldn't be read about, when certainly you can turn the TV on or they can go onto YouTube and see something totally gruesome, but out of context. And really not have any understanding of what drove these actions or the ramifications. I'm thinking of "A Separate Peace," where one person's actions sort of stays with them the rest of their lives.
JIMENEZI completely agree. I think part of what's underlying this whole discussion of banned books is kind of what we've been talking about as a group regarding racism in our country, about curriculum. And I want to say, actually, that it's not just racism. It's also sexism. It's also classism. It's also homophobia. It's also transphobia. So, the intersectional ways in which curriculum design and curriculum content is being banned because people, because communities don't want to address race or class or gender or sexuality. I mean, just look at the case in Arizona where Ethnic Studies in high schools was banned because it was viewed as anti-patriotic.
JIMENEZThat it was viewed as seditious. And here were these Latino students and Latino teachers who were really fighting to keep these -- the program in the high schools that they were teaching in because it affirmed who they were. And I think that's what's really underneath the banning is racism and sexism and classism.
REHMWell, I think that the clear message from this panel, at least, is that we do recommend "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison. Angelyn Mitchell, Ethelbert Miller, Ileana Jimenez. I want to thank you all, so much, for being here. And I want to tell you about next month's "Readers' Review," but I'm going to have to pass that on to you a little later on. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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