Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Aesthetics of Internalized Racism, As Seen In "The Bluest Eye"

            One of the most striking elements of The Bluest Eye is the sheer number of perspectives; all rounded and fleshed without judgment on the part of the author. As a reader, I am used to a more directed point of view, wherein every character whose point of view we see is either sympathetic or unsympathetic, as guided by the author. Even nuanced characters are ultimately good or bad, and the worse they are, the less we are given to understand them. However, in the case of The Bluest Eye, while the focus is largely on the ‘good’ characters, Claudia MacTeer and Pecola Breedlove, we are also led to understand the ‘worst’ characters, in Cholly Breedlove, Soaphead Church, and the townspeople altogether.

            A larger narrative exists within The Bluest Eye, in that this is a book that deals with racism without repeatedly highlighting a number of overt instances of racism. Aside from Cholly’s first sexual experience and the inability of the grocer to see Pecola, we see very few instances of overt racism. There is no black man accusing of raping a white women or of killing the white men who raped his black daughter, whose trial is then central to the story, as seen in To Kill a Mockingbird or A Time To Kill. There is no beating of a black woman trying to vote, as seen in The Secret Life of Bees, or separate restroom facilities as an example of white supremacy, as seen in The Help. Interactions between caste are rarely seen here; instead, we see that the characters have all internalized society’s inherently racist standards of what is good and beautiful, which lead them down various paths to a negatively distorted aesthetic view.

            Aesthetic views in The Bluest Eye are nuanced and many. Pecola Breedlove believes that blue eyes are the most desirable trait that a person can have, but not because blue is the color of the sky or flowers, or for any other natural reason. Instead, Pecola views them as the ‘whitest’ eye color, the color of Mary Jane’s eyes on every candy wrapper, because they are the most contrasted from her own brown-black eyes. Claudia provides insight into the aesthetics pushed onto herself, Pecola, and other children of color in her monologue on dolls:

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. “Here,” they said, “this is beautiful, and if you are one day ‘worthy’ you may have it.” (Morrison 000)

Every baby doll and movie star and candy wrapper and pretty classmate had blue eyes and are represented as beautiful, desirable, and worthy of love; how could Pecola, and by inference all children in our inherently racist society, see them as anything but representative of those things?

            Claudia MacTeer’s version of beauty is completely unconnected from this. When she thinks of what she would have wanted for Christmas, for a gift, she thinks of purely sensory delights:

“I want to sit on the low stool in Big Mama’s kitchen with my lap full of lilacs and listen to Big Papa play his violin for me alone.” The lowness of the stool made for my body, the security and warmth of Big Mama’s kitchen, the smell of the lilacs, the sound of the music, and, since it would be good to have all of my senses engaged, the taste of a peach, perhaps, afterward. (Morrison 000)

            Another interesting contrast is the span of what is seen as beautiful by these characters. When Claudia, Pecola, and Frieda are bored one day, Claudia suggests that they go look at Henry Washington’s pornography. When Frieda demurs, she then suggests that they look at his Bible. Neither of these suggestions is given more weight than the other; both naked bodies and Biblical illustrations are beautiful to Claudia. The adults in The Bluest Eye are similarly sensory in nature. Geraldine finds beauty in quiet and cleanliness, in order and purity. She disdains the color of her skin, the sex of her husband, and orders her son not to play with ‘niggers’, which he recounts: “She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud.” (Morrison 000) as though avoiding the negative connotations that surrounded the word would somehow shield Geraldine from being seen by white people as a ‘nigger’.

            In the beginning, Mrs. Breedlove has a similar view to Geraldine, in that she sees order as beauty. Quiet, neatness, stillness, and isolation are all attractive to her, as outlined in her Winter chapter:

“She liked, most of all, to arrange things. To line things up in rows—jars on shelves at canning, peach pits on the step, sticks, stones, leaves—and the members of her family let these arrangements be. … Whatever portable plurality she found, she organized into neat lines, according to their size, shape, or gradations of color. … After her parents left for work and the other children were at school or in mines, the house was quiet. The stillness and isolation both calmed and energized her. She could arrange and clean without interruption…” (Morrison 000)

            Later, Mrs. Breedlove’s aesthetic grows from simple order to beautiful order, illustrated by the difference between her own home and her place of work and her daughter and her employer’s daughter, wherein one is beautiful and thereby a cause for happiness, and the other is not:

Soon she stopped trying to keep her own house. The things she could afford to buy did not last, had no beauty or style, and were absorbed by the dingy storefront. More and more she neglected her house, her children, her man—they were like the afterthoughts one has just before sleep, the early-morning and late-evening edges of her day, the dark edges that made the daily life with the Fishers lighter, more delicate, more lovely. Here she could arrange things, clean things, line things up in neat rows. Here her foot flopped around on deep pile carpets, and there was no uneven sound. Here she found beauty, order, cleanliness, and praise. (Morrison 000)

            This desire for a white standard of orderliness and beauty, imposed by society onto Mrs. Breedlove, lead her to a distorted view of her own daughter. Unable to view her child on the larger spectrum, she instead views her with disdain, based on a negative growth in her personal aesthetic, picked up from watching movies:

She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen. … It was really a simple pleasure, but she learned all there was to love and all there was to hate. … “A right smart baby she was. I used to like to watch her. You know they makes them greedy sounds. Eyes all soft and wet. A cross between a puppy and a dying man. But I knowed she was ugly. Head full of pretty hair, but Lord she was ugly.” (Morrison 000)

            Even characters such as Cholly Breedlove, who beats his wife and rapes his daughter, bring elements of aesthetic understanding through his narrative. Through his story of Aunt Jimmy and Blue Jack, of flashlights and dirty watermelon hearts, we come to understand how his desire for freedom and beauty led him away from his hometown and to Mrs. Breedlove, and how these desires, twisted, led to the rape of his daughter. Ultimately, Cholly gains his “freedom” in the form of a complete lack of connection with other people, dying alone in a workhouse. Soaphead Church is a similarly understandable character, being fond of things and cleanliness and rejecting connections to people, but with a “keen sexual need”:

It was as though his disdain of human contact had converted itself into a craving for things humans had touched. The residue of the human spirit smeared on inanimate objects was all he could withstand of humanity. … In any case, his cravings, although intense, never relished physical contact. He abhorred flesh on flesh. Body odor, breath odor, overwhelmed him. The sight of dried matter in the corner of the eye, decayed or missing teeth, ear wax, blackheads, moles, blisters, skin crusts—all the natural excretions and protections the body was capable of— disquieted him. His attentions therefore gradually settled on those humans whose bodies were least offensive—children. And since he was too diffident to confront homosexuality, and since little boys were insulting, scary, and stubborn, he further limited his interests to little girls. They were usually manageable and frequently seductive. His sexuality was anything but lewd; his patronage of little girls smacked of innocence and was associated in his mind with cleanliness. He was what one might call a very clean old man. (Morrison 000)

            Again, we see cleanliness associated with beauty. This seems to relate to the underlying theme of The Bluest Eye. If blackness is funky and dirty and funky and dirty are bad, then blackness is bad. The life of every character in The Bluest Eye is negatively affected by this internalized worldview; Mrs. Breedlove and the Soaphead Church embrace this worldview and find ways to introduce beauty in their lives despite it, while the Claudia and Cholly reject this worldview and find other standards of beauty. Again, this is a book about racism and how it has affected the lives of the townspeople in Lorain, Ohio. It is not Uncle Tom’s Cabin or even Beloved, which are novels about racism that center around large obvious acts by white people against people of color, but instead about the pervasive and damaging nature of racism, and how that racism plays in the lives of these people by distorting their aesthetic views. In this, The Bluest Eye is singularly successful.

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York City: Plume, 2005. Print.

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