One of my favorite books growing up as a child was “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. Nine-year-old Claudia MacTeer and her ten-year-old sister Frieda are the main characters. The sisters grow up on the Black side of town of what is Any City USA, but this particular town is Lorain, Ohio. It the story of brown-skinned, between working class and middle-income, Black, tween girls. Although the book takes place in the 1940s, it is a story that most free Black children born post Civil Rights could understand.
“The Bluest Eye” refers to the character Pecola. Pecola is more of a symbol than a character. Pecola is a poor, dark-skinned Black girl driven mad by a constant onslaught of misogynoir and poverty. Her desire for blue eyes obscures her awareness and connection to every other part of her humanity. Morrison draws the character entirely from her imagination. The reader should never view Pecola as the archetype for dark skinned Black girlhood. The character, in my opinion, was a pathologized ghost.
Pecola is an excellent tool for a fiction story, but a dangerous character to emphasize for communities that do not understand the entire Black experience.
“The Bluest Eye” is fiction like “The Christmas Story” by Jean Shepard or “Dear God, It’s Me Margaret” by Judy Blue.
“Don’t write what you know.”Toni Morrison
Morrison writing advice is a dig at the memoir and first person essay. Morrison was a great fan of fiction and the art of both the craft of writing and imagination.
You can tell truths in fiction that you cannot tell in memoirs or first-person essays, and unless you’re 100, how many great ones could you possibly have?
Fiction and history are not the same genres.
Real-life inspires fiction, but its fuel is imagination and a political lens. In fiction, politics refers to the leverage used in relationships. Fiction is often viewed as an art for art’s sake endeavor. While the writers vary in socio-economic class, the audience of this literature is thought to be the educated middle to upper middle classes. People who marketers feel would enjoy an escape.
History is based on facts.
History is supposed to be objective.
Fiction demands subjectivity.
So how did Morrison’s fictional tale of Black girlhood become almost a memoir and archetype for the symbolic character of Pecola who wanted blue eyes?
After the Civil Rights Movement, publishers realized they were white focused and therefore racist. They still wanted to continue being racist, but tap the newly awakened Black audience. Black publishers started publishing potentially competitive books and introducing ideas about freedom and socialism. But the white publishers didn’t want to exclusively put any money into Black creativity. They felt that would be a waste of time.
Their racist interpretation of studies pointed to Black people not reading for pleasure (possibly the constant stereotypes were off-putting.) Publishers wanted a sort of two for one deal. So Black literature began to get this bizarre requirement that it be based in real life to support the fight against illiteracy. (Los Angeles Public Library, CA. 1967. Report of library services and construction act project # 2842, July 1 – December 31, 1966)
It was an idea that I’m sure was inspired from the 1965 Moynihan Report, which to summarize, yes, racism is kind of real, but through hard work, reading bad literature, and marriage —Black people could most certainly overcome it.
Publishing began a “genre” in the late 1960s and early 1970s called hi/lo or high interest low reading level.
The theory behind it is Black children, and illiterate adults will read more if the books are viewed as being about the Black author (you could imply the author was Black, they didn’t have to be Black) and “blackness.” Henceforth, from that period on, virtually every Black book published and marketed for Black people is sold as “based on real-life events,” or memoirs, or “historical.”
This paradigm continues, despite the most likely book buyer is a college educated Black woman who is more than capable of grasping the idea of fiction.
Even the great Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” is now viewed not through the lens of beautiful children’s literature, but as an African American history tale. A “Black” book that teachers can use to check off the boxes of multiculturalism, reading, and history on their lesson plans.
Toni Morrison wrote “The Bluest Eye” for Black people to enjoy as fiction, not as a check mark for racist K-12 classroom and neoliberal agendas. If she had known her book was going to be used in that fashion, I’m sure she would have written it differently or may not have written it at all.
There is a danger to chaining the Black art to earthly realms of reality as viewed through United States’ history books and philanthropists. Those dangers are not limited to only misinterpretations of experiences, but also in creating an environment where lies masquerade as truths.
“The Bluest Eye” is fiction, to turn it into African American history turns it into a lie. It does a disservice to Morrison and Black girls who get generalized as Pecola, a character who is a warning of the ugliness of America, not of Black culture.