Mourning Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye
Beauty is more than in the eye of the beholder
Author Toni Morrison died Monday, August 5, 2019, and left us a legacy of trying to understand the intersection of race, identity, family and community. Her books challenged us to question our assumptions about what it means to be human and connected to each other.
Her books have garnered world-wide praise and readership, including Sula and Beloved. But one particular book of hers really resonated with me. I was deeply affected by Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye.
In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes of black women who believe that light skin is the epitome of beauty because of what society has taught them.
As she writes in her famous novel,
“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.”
In fact, having the “bluest eye” is supposed to protect one from hurt and sorrow, as she writes,
“It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights — if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.”
But the desire actually leads to hopelessness and madness,
“She, however, stepped over into madness, a madness which protected her from us simply because it bored us in the end.”
As a white woman, this book really opened my eyes up and let me see the pressure people of color feel to try to live up to certain standards of beauty.
I’d eventually learn that these ideals aren’t just problematic in terms of race or ethnicity, but also in terms of disability, class, gender identity and body image.
All this might be self-evident to some people now, maybe even more so for my 18 year old son, and eventually for my 3 year daughter. However, for my generation (Gen X) a wide view of beauty wasn’t as normalized as it is now (and perhaps will become even more so in the future.) I know that, for generations past, diverse concepts of beauty was even more a foreign concept.
At least now, in popular culture, we see attempts at inclusion and challenges to constricting standards that Toni Morrison addressed in her work. (I’m reminded of Shonda Rhimes saying she wrote and cast Grey’s Anatomy without any consideration of race).
Morrison’s work helped elevate the national conversation about diversity, inclusion and representation. She made way for a whole generation of writers to engage in this conversation. She was part of a zeitgeist that heralded in a new way of thinking about race and identity.
As we mourn the death of Toni Morrison, let’s remember her words in The Bluest Eye,
“Beauty was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do.”
It’s what we do in the future to fight racism and exclusion that makes us beautiful. Let’s honor her in making this true.