Toni Morrison Saved My Sister and Me with ‘The Bluest Eye’

Jonita Davis
Aug 8 · 12 min read

I don’t know exactly how old I was when I picked up The Bluest Eye. The book follows four preteen girls and their community as a devastating secret simmers under the surface of their lives, waiting to boil over. The story talks about the black community in a way that I never experienced before. It explores colorism and the burdens we place on ourselves, ultimately, because of whiteness. In a way, Morrison’s words — her gift of The Bluest Eye — helped me connect with the one person I would come to lean on most in life. My sister, Tamara. It came not a moment too soon, as we both were destined to be as estranged as so many siblings are these days.

Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ published 1970 by Holt McDougal

Toni saved us.

Prior to my reading about the girls in The Bluest Eye — Claudia, Pecola, Frieda, and Maureen — my sister was the last person in the world I wanted to see. I had come to hate her with a passion that scared me at times. It was hate that had simmered in me since her babyhood. I never knew why until I started filtering our relationship through the same lens that I used in viewing Claudia’s relationship with Maureen. I guess once the eyes are truly opened, there’s no need to dwell on the why of it.

Colorism Broke Us Before We Knew Each Other

The phenomenon of colorism is silent and yet very dangerous in all communities of color, especially in the black community. It drives decisions and causes harm. Most of the time, we don’t even realize it is operating. Morrison explains colorism as used in The Bluest Eye, in a 2015 interview with Farah Jasmine Griffin of Essence.

Describing the difference between colorism as used in God Help the Children versus The Bluest Eye, Morrison says, “In direct opposition to The Bluest Eye, where [Pecola’s] collapse is via racism within the community and how it hurts and can destroy you, now I know there is no such thing as race, [there is] simply the human race, but there is color, and color determines a lot of what people think about each other.” This, in turn, affects social interactions in the community, making many of the interactions and the subsequent relationships very toxic.

Colorism comes from the proximity to whiteness, with the “best” outcomes going to the people who are light-skinned or closer to whiteness. We see this through Claudia and Maureen in The Bluest Eye in the many ways that people feel the need to protect Maureen, but punish Claudia, and abuse Pecola. Maureen is biracial, paler than the usual “light-skinned” black girl and has green eyes. Claudia, I’ve always imagined her to be my shade. There’s no question that we are black, but we are several shades lighter than our family members who get jokes about being “night,” or “so black they are purple.” Those family members share Pecola’s shade.

Let’s just say, before the major makeup companies discovered that there was money in making products for darker skin tones, they stopped at my color. That should give you an idea of the color scale here. As you can see, my sister and I never stood a chance.

The Unknown Wedge of Color I Never Understood

Next to my sister, however, my skin was night. Tamara is the youngest of the five kids our mom had, four of which were with our dad. We share the same parentage. She has the features of a Black woman, and certainly the hair, but she is paler than most biracial people. We both bear my Dad’s gapped top, front teeth, and my mom’s “Holley” family nose. Our skin tones were our primary difference.

That’s Tamara on the left, me on the right.

People in the family call her “Casper,” “light bright,” “the white girl,” and “angel”. People off the street wondered if she was lost or in danger if she was with me and some of our cousins. It was not uncommon for us to take a trip to the corner store with the cousins or our brothers and have someone approach her asking if she was alright or needing help (while looking at the rest of us through worried eyes). It was also not uncommon for me to vouch for her to the bullies along our route, who wondered what the white girl was doing in the neighborhood.

It was my job to protect her from both the white people trying to “save her” and the bullies trying to “beat her”. (The latter was also taken care of by our fierce cousin Angie who had a rep for being fearless and not fighting fair.) I did it out of obligation and to avoid meeting my mother’s tightly coiled extension cord if I brought Tamara home bruised or not at all. I was also the person my mother put in charge of Tamara when she was busy with her husband and his exploits. By age 11, I was charged with making sure that the girl was bathed, dressed, fed, and stayed in good health as I knew it. My mother even taught me to braid hair and set me in charge of doing my sister’s hair, as she believed it was much easy to manage than my own. Being responsible for Tamara only fanned the flamed more.

My childhood was tied to hers in that we were sisters and that we were a walking colorist duality. This bore out daily in ways that a blind woman could see was discriminating. To us, it was how things worked. Our stepfamily produced the most loyal practicers of colorism and oftentimes, my sister and I were their pawns. My mother’s second husband was a church musician with a raging crack habit. He would take us with him to his parent’s house to beg for money, promising that “the kids” would do chores in return. That was me. I was “the kids”. I remember dusting, vacuuming, scrubbing, and polishing to the sound of my sister giggling and chatting away with this new set of grandparents. There was a five-year difference between us, which meant that she was five and 10-year-old me was the maid service.

This is my childhood squad. I am in the middle, holding what looks like a white baby. That’s my sister Tamara.

I resented the fact that they were so fascinated with her, gave her toys, dressed her in pretty things for church, and took her to the store for candy. Meanwhile, I got popped across the head for sloshing mop water on the carpet as I moved that heavy bucket from the bathroom I just finished, to the kitchen for disposal out the back door. I saw her coming back from the store with a small, neatly creased paper bag that I knew was full of candy. Our eyes met for a moment, and then hers dropped as she moved inside and I outside. Later that afternoon, she somehow quietly put candy in my pocket. Too tired and angry to care, I made a show of handing it off to one of our brothers.

This was not the first of such incidents. By the time I was 10, I had learned to keep my outrage silent and passive. Since the day they brought my sister home, I had been jealous of my dad calling her princess, of having to share his attention with her. That sister/sister rivalry should have smoldered and died as we aged and became playmates. However, we had the gas of colorism to keep the rivalry, the jealous fire burning long into our teen years.

It was a daily struggle.

My mother would cuss and fuss about doing my “nappy ass head,” but praise my sister’s “good hair,” like my mom’s favorite aunt who died not long before my sister was born. There were also several times that I had to do a chore or extra work because a relative was afraid to “bruise Tee-Tee’s pretty self” and “get Sharon started”. That’s my mother. I can’t even blame her for it, because the colorist behavior came from everywhere, it seemed. She was helpless to avoid its influence.

Safe Haven

My dad lived with my grandmother for a while after separating from my mother (when Tamara was almost 2 and I was 5). I used to think that he and my grandma had a superpower — they could see through my sister’s cute exterior through to her true self. Grandma would put both of us on chore duty and Daddy would send Tamara to my aunts to get her hair done and for other care. He would then give me a handful of change and send me off to the corner store. Or, he would send me to my Aunt Hazel’s to play with kids closer to my age. I was the oldest of her grandkids, my cousin Angie was born a year later.

I once overheard grandma telling my dad, “that child is not getting a chance to be a child, Robert.” She urged him to take action. But my dad was too young to know what that was. He had me at 18 with my mom, his high school sweetheart. She broke his heart when she kicked him out and moved in the addict. I think my dad was “asleep” to our family issues up until the county called years and let him know I was in foster care. That the rest of the kids were headed there too if he didn’t do something.

Colorism’s Ugly Scars

I would learn much much later, when I was well into my 30s, that my grandmother knew colorism when she saw it. She was a victim of it herself. Grandma’s father and mother (my Big Ma) were dark-skinned Mississippi Black folks who had yet to understand those nuances of color in our community. My grandma is a few shades lighter than me today, so I can only imagine what she looked like back then. She had a much darker-skinned twin who died very young. The two of them were like my sister and me, but my grandma was the lighter one. When her twin died, her father mourned badly and started accusing Big Ma of cheating with a white man to get that “bright” child JoAnne. One of the aunts accused him of trying to poison the child. He often spoke his belief that the wrong twin died.

With that in her history, I now know that my grandma saw exactly what was happening to me. It was probably one of the reasons she fought with my mother every time they met in the same space. She fought alongside my father for custody and reconnected with me in foster care.

Today, my mom claims to have never treated my sister and me any different. Any memories of difference were met with, “I don’t remember it like that,” or “the past is the past.” Tamara and I never pushed her. We eventually stopped bringing it up altogether. It was obviously something she chose not to face.

Colorism is a blinding bitch, man.

Enter Toni Morrison

I became an avid and advanced reader early on. My grandma would send me home with books and I would borrow them from anyone I could. At some point in my mid-teens, I picked up The Bluest Eye. I remember reading the book’s first chapter and throwing it down. Toni Morrison had put so much truth on those pages that it seared my soul. It hurt to read. I left the book for weeks. Then picked it up again when I ran out of everything else to read. I saw myself. I saw Tamara. I also saw how the both of us were caught in a machine that was much older and bigger than we could ever know. Toni was writing about my life but in some other girl’s story. I felt like she was speaking to me, trying to get me to understand.

Realizing that colorism is so embedded and unescapable should have weighed me down even more. It didn’t. The knowledge was a weight lifted off my shoulders as I began to see that it wasn’t about me, or what I looked like or anything I did. My sister and I were treated like we were because of something much bigger. The color of our skin is what triggered it. Not us. Not me, despite the personal digs I withstood over the years, especially from my stepfamily. No, this was so much bigger than me and I could either let the rage and confusion lead me down into madness like Pecola or figure out how to move on as Claudia does. But instead of trying to make a memorial to Pecola’s baby. I decided to try and reconcile with my sister.

Healing the Hatred

I had my second child at age 18, and Tamara was there for every moment, probably more fascinated by the process than anything else. Almost immediately after coming home with the new baby, I came down with strep throat and had to be quarantined from her. Don, my husband was already worried about our toddler Chloe. He was not ready to handle her and a newborn alone.

Tamara, age 13, swooped in to help. While I succumbed to what I am still convinced was a lot worse than strep throat (I was barely conscious with a high fever for nearly 2 weeks), the two of them tackled the little ones. My aunts helped out some, but they say my sister never left. She changed diapers, formula-fed and helped with the baby or chased the toddler and occupied her when needed. They also say that she helped me stumble, barely conscious, to the bathroom. She tried to get me to eat and drink whenever I was awake. She also stayed on Don about contamination and sterilization. This little teenager ran my household.

None of this was a miraculous reconciliation.

Before my illness, we were starting to talk more and do things together. We forced ourselves to work on a relationship. Or, I forced us. It was after my “come to Jesus meeting” with Toni and I was determined not to let lose my sister to something neither of us could control. It was awkward, though and oftentimes very strained. My birth and illness changed that.

After my illness, we were inseparable. She basically lived at my house after school, much to the annoyance of my father, who had custody of her and my brothers at the time. My life as a teen mother was much easier with her around to play with the little ones or run errands. We did worry about her social life, but her academics, track, and basketball seemed to be all the socializing she wanted. I was her best friend and she was mine. No one understood but us.

Tamara and me. She is now a police lieutenant and a criminal justice professor. In this pic, we had just dropped my third child off at college and were going for a spin around campus.

See it, Name it, Stop it

Years later, I would revisit The Bluest Eye in grad school. At the time, I completely forgot about how much the book did for me. That all came flooding back when I started reading. It was in a course taught by Dr. Jane Campbell at Purdue Northwest, that I began to fully understand the ramifications of colorism and the hand it had in my life.

My sister and I were never supposed to be as close as we were. Victims of colorism become those splintered families that never speak or engage with one another outside of cold pleasantries. Or, they become trapped in a vicious cycle of toxicity and drama that is hard to escape. But, because of The Bluest Eye, because of Toni Morrison’s gift of spinning Blackness and truth into words we can understand through our pain, I was able to see it, name it, and stop it. I also call out colorist tendencies in my own home of now six kids.

Don, Tamara, and I strive to protect them and teach them all about the systems that rear us. Yes, Tamara is still a co-parent for all of my kids. She and I just took the youngest two to Disney. Auntie Tamara watches over my third oldest who goes to college near her. Over the years, she has also been a tiebreaker for me and Don on parenting decisions, earning the title “second mommy”.

I often wonder who Pecola could have been if she had the gift of enlightenment at her young age. If she saw colorism for what it was and what it was doing to her, would she have still lost her mind at the end? Could she have been a third sister to Claudia and Frieda, educating them all on what was going down? Don’t know. What I do know is, the lessons in The Bluest Eye saved my sister and me. And for that, I am eternally grateful.

Rest in power, dear Ms. Toni.

Bylines by Jo-Entertainment Beat

News, reviews, and breakdowns of the film and tv shows that we all love (and that I geek out so hard on). This publication will feature interviews, coverage from behind the scenes and so much more.

Jonita Davis

Written by

A writer, critic, instructor, and academic who sits and waits — pen in hand — at the place where popular culture intersects with life. www.jonitadavis.com/clips

Bylines by Jo-Entertainment Beat

News, reviews, and breakdowns of the film and tv shows that we all love (and that I geek out so hard on). This publication will feature interviews, coverage from behind the scenes and so much more.

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