“All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward…The instinct for freedom abrogated, he develops bad conscience. When all his other desires are blocked, the only one left to pay the debt is himself. So he pays it with himself with the only power left to him. He tortures himself and enjoys it.” – Nietzsche
The mark of a universal work is that it is so personal everyone can’t help but identify with it. It feels like a heart-to-heart. This is the reason why some folks shared and avidly read Live Journal. That same feeling is, to some extent, responsible for the rise of Reality Television. It does not matter what language you speak or whether you tan or burn, this book will resonate with you.
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was published in 1975. As the author writes in the afterward of the 1993 edition, the novel is the unveiling of a personal secret: the self hatred of blacks, especially black women.
A simple plot. The book follows the misadventures of a girl called Pecola in 1941. This is before Nina Simone sang Young, Gifted and Black. Before the 1970s and young hipsters wearing T-shirts that said “Black is Beautiful.” This is the unpropitious year that WWII started. 1941.
Pecola, whose ironic last name is Breedlove, feels ugly and unloved. The ideal of beauty in magazines and films is white, thin, and perfectly groomed. Pecola notices the way light-skinned Black children are treated with favoritism at school. Even the cheap dolls her friends receive at Christmas mock her. They are perfect porcelain white faces with bright blue eyes. Pecola conflates her luckless life – poverty, beatings, shyness- with ugliness. Like any abused soul she turns on herself. Her wish to have blue eyes leads her to a mystic who tells her God will grant her wish. Of course, unable to bear the strain of reality anymore, Pecola believes him. She believes she has blue eyes.
What? What we will talk about?
Why, your eyes.
Oh, yes, My eyes. My blue eyes. Let me look again.
See how pretty they are.
Yes, They get prettier each time I look at them. …
Prettier than the sky?
Oh, yes. Much prettier than the sky.
Prettier than Alice-and-Jerry Storybook eyes?
Oh, yes. Much prettier than Alice-and-Jerry Storybook eyes...
- Pecola and her friend Claudia
Internalized racism is an acute form of the common place self-loathing. Self-hatred is like a virus. Once inside the cell it is a hundred times more powerful than anything outside because it hijacks the cell’s structures to reproduce. Once the contempt Pecola sees in others’ eyes creeps into her, she becomes powerless. She no longer needs them to tell her she’s ugly because now she believes it.
The Bluest Eye is not about officially sanctioned racism. To that you can point and say “hey, you’re breaking the law by not letting that kid into the school.” The The Bluest Eye anticipates the lingering stench of the subtle hatred that is rooted in small gestures and traditions, the kind that’s hardest to point out and therefore the most pervasive. In the campaign for civil rights, winning the mind is easier than winning the heart. It’s easy to follow the law because jail is a decent deterrent for most people. It’s difficult to get people to appreciate the content of the law and that’s why this kind of book is important. It gives us an opportunity to engage with experiences and people who are not from our homes but whose lives we affect with our actions.
This book is gritty, it’s dark but it’s worth the effort because we have to be conscious of the world. Because the world is the consequent of our actions. Because the way we live is our contribution to the well-being of the world.
This book also reminded me how important it is to embrace different, to celebrate my unique features, to respect my neighbor’s uncommon heritage, to take conscious actions because what I do matters.
What you do matters, too! Is there a book or experience that has changed the way you look at the world/ other people? Tell us about it in the Comments!
Photo via Silver Foxes