“We read to know we are not alone,” says C.S. Lewis in the film Shadowlands. The quote resonated with me when I first encountered it. A cerebral, introverted black girl who had moved all across the country and overseas as an Army brat, changing schools like one might change an outfit, I had always found my most faithful and reliable companions in the pages of books, a salve to my existential loneliness.
What I rarely ever found were stories about or featuring anyone who looked, had parents, or the lived experiences of someone like me.
In fact, it wasn’t until I reached my senior year in high school that I’d ever be assigned a book written by a black author. And it wasn’t until I reached my sophomore and junior years in college that I’d be assigned a book written by a black woman. That woman was Toni Morrison, and both the first and second book I was assigned to read by her was 1977’s Song of Solomon, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1978 and catapulted her into the national spotlight.
What are the chances that two professors teaching two very different classes assigned the same Morrison book? It may have been a testament to the versatility and depth of her work, as so many layered meanings can be found in its dense and poetic passages. Or it may attest to the type of “checking off one’s list” mentality that many white teachers and professors use when assigning writers of color. They stick with the one book they know. The one book the guardians of “the Canon” have decided is worthy of including on a syllabus.
But regardless, once I’d been assigned my first Morrison book, I would begin to search for others, including 1973’s Sula, which had been nominated for an American Book Award. Of course, later, I’d read Oprah’s Book Club favorite, which she turned into a movie, Beloved. Beloved would earn Morrison a Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1988. The award moved her firmly into that venerable canon, along with the likes of Faulkner and Woolf, with whom she was so often compared. The writer, who’d first taught at the historically black colleges Texas Southern and Howard universities, worked as an editor at Random House, and taught at Cornell, would then move on to a professorship at Princeton.
In 1993, Morrison would be the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 2012, she would earn the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Toni Morrison, born Chloe Ardelia Morrison on Feb. 18, 1931, became one of the most decorated American authors. She died Monday night at the age of 88.
My favorite remains Morrison’s first work, the one she wrote while raising her two small boys as a single mother and budding scholar: 1970’s The Bluest Eye. The Bluest Eye wasn’t a critical darling when published. Critics thought it too facile. Too simple. Morrison would say in 1994 that just like its main character, The Bluest Eye was “dismissed, trivialized, misread.”
But when I read the story of Pecola Breedlove, a poor black girl in 1940s’ Lorain, Ohio (Morrison’s hometown), woefully neglected, severely abused, and nearly invisible, a girl who, along with her family and community, has swallowed whole the images and narratives of American society and believes herself to be hideously, irredeemably ugly, I saw myself.
As a young black girl in 1970s America, my favorite TV shows were the Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. My favorite movies were Paper Moon featuring Tatum O’Neal and Freaky Friday with spunky all-American Jodie Foster. The book my mother read to me each night, the book that sparked my love of reading and writing, was Katy’s First Day. Katy was a cute blond girl who was afraid of her first day of school. I related to Katy’s fear and Jody’s humor, to Tatum’s resourcefulness, yet each of these depictions were of blond-haired, blue-eyed American girls, just like the Dick and Jane readers from which Pecola Breedlove learns to put sentences, ideas, and her self-concept together. To truly be like the children whose stories were worthy of sharing and emulating, I, like Pecola, wished for blue eyes. I also wished for blond hair. I wished to be white.
As a little girl, I became enthralled with large white cotton bath towels. I’d position them over my head, feel the soft material caress my shoulders, and I’d fling each side back dramatically, mimicking the gestures of Farrah Fawcett or Marcia Brady. In my pre-adolescent mind, the towel on my head was long, flowing blond hair. It covered and replaced my offending curly kinks, kinks that my mother slicked down with grease and ran cast-iron hot combs through, searing my ears and scalp in an effort to straighten the naps and tame my primitive ugliness enough to be presentable to American society.
It was this experience of growing up as a black girl in American society—invisible and insignificant at best, disdained and abused at worst—that Toni Morrison chose to address when she first put pen to paper to craft her debut novel. The Bluest Eye sets its sights on and centers the lives of black girls and black women. The narrator is a black girl, Claudia MacTeer, who bears witness to 9-year-old Pecola’s sadness and shame. Its heroes, the ones who show Pecola compassion, are sex workers, black women discarded and used up by society but who create a community for themselves and the only semblance of nurture for Pecola.
The Bluest Eye, written near the dawning of the Black Is Beautiful movement, centers on the heartbreaking story of a black girl who is told and who believes that she is so hideous that only the bluest of eyes can make her whole, make her human.
The subject matter is daunting and deep—the simplicity of its writing style belies the complexity of both structure and storytelling. When first published, Morrison was accused of savaging black men by showing Cholly, Breedlove’s father, as an abuser, and the preacher, Soaphead Church, as one who also was a pedophile. However, Morrison makes clear that the abuse Pecola experiences is part of a cycle, with trauma first inflicted upon individuals, community and culture by a system of oppression and white supremacy.
The novel is prescient in its themes and retains increasing relevance over time. In the five decades since it was published, we’ve seen Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, a movement created for young black girls who’d been abused, take over the country and shine light on men like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, and empower women and men of all walks of life and races to share their stories of abuse and trauma, for the purpose of healing.
The Bluest Eye not only hints at the force that would be Toni Morrison’s fullness. It features themes such colorism, internalized racism, and beauty that she’d return to and expand throughout her career. Such themes can even be seen in one of her last works, God Help the Child, published in 2015. In it, the main character, Bride, is a dark-skinned black woman who focuses on beautification to mask her self-hatred. It is an internalized racism that is inflicted upon black people by their own, just as in The Bluest Eye. Yet The Bluest Eye’s deceptive simplicity makes it one of her most accessible pieces of writing. And to me, that accessibility is no flaw at all, but key to its strength.
It was 2009. The country had just elected its first actual black president. (A famous quote from Morrison, often misunderstood, has her naming Bill Clinton as our first black president.) I was teaching high school AP English. The school was diverse, but as is common even in diverse schools, the AP English classes were not. And I was the sole black teacher of AP English at the high school. The sole black AP English teacher in the district. And when I attended an AP English conference at Rice University earlier in the year, I was the lone black AP English teacher out of at least 100 teachers from across the state of Texas. When I’d attended that conference, the sole Latina in the group rushed over to me, “I’ve been coming to these conferences for eight years. This is the first time I’ve seen another teacher of color,” she said, quickly exchanging information with me and inviting me to lunch.
Upcoming on the syllabus for 12th grade AP English that spring were two books, Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. Students would have a choice between them. I sighed. We’d read no books by people of color at all. I scanned the list of approved AP English texts. I spotted Morrison’s name, and though at the time The Bluest Eye wasn’t listed among them, I felt compelled to teach it. I believed the story would be accessible to high school students. I believed it was also important, as Americans were so quick to see the election of Barack Obama as the beginning of a post-racial era, to show a history that was not so far from, and still influencing, the present.
I petitioned to have the book included on our reading list, and though it was permitted, I was the only one who felt comfortable teaching it. The white teachers felt they couldn’t tackle the subject matter and because the book, which has been banned by school districts in various parts of the country at one time or another, dealt with issues of abuse, I had to allow students to opt out if they chose and get permission slips signed from parents if they wanted to dive in.
As I’d expected, black and brown students flocked to my class to read it. However, unexpectedly the controversy had an interesting consequence. White teenage boys, uninterested in what they saw as sappy 19th-century love stories, chose to read The Bluest Eye in droves. Conversations in class were fruitful, layered, nuanced, and complex. I explained colorism to them, brought in my parents’ high-school yearbooks to show them how close segregation and Jim Crow actually were to me and to them. We dissected the book as a literary work and shared empathy over the sadness of an innocent black girl whose only desire was to be seen and loved by a society that refuses to recognize her humanity.
We read to know we are not alone. Morrison had no qualms acknowledging that her intended audience was black people. In a 2015 essay about her in The Guardian, she was quoted as saying, “’I’m writing for black people in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old colored girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologize or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people]... The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.”
Yet a hallmark of true art is its ability to transcend the artist’s intention and vision—to show through the particular, the universal.
One student in my class became utterly fascinated with the book and with Morrison. This student frequently stayed after class to discuss the work, and as I had done, began to search for more. Sharing Morrison’s work with my students was the highlight of my high-school teaching career, but pressure from the demands of the profession, my own role as a single mother to a young son, and my feeling of isolation as the lone black AP English teacher influenced my decision to leave not long after that. When I did, that student, who I and everyone else had perceived as an upper-middle-class white boy, confided to me that she experienced herself as a girl. I would be the first adult she came out to as transgender.
The Bluest Eye, with its focus on the impact of invisibility and need for acceptance, had been meaningful to her on levels I had not understood and Morrison could not have anticipated. In the particular story of Pecola Breedlove, a story written for black people to shine a light on our need to see and love ourselves in a society that does not recognize our humanity, is a story about our universal humanity, our human desire and right to be seen and loved for who we are.
We read to know that we are not alone. From her debut novel to her last, from her prolific essays, stories, and her libretto, Toni Morrison has made that statement ring true for so many more of us than she or anyone could ever have imagined when she first chose to illuminate and make visible the life of young Pecola Breedlove.