Ken and Barbie Do Not Write Unhappy Literature: Case in Point-Toni Morrison

March 8, 2012 — Leave a comment

Student: “Is this another unhappy book?”
Me:*sigh* “Yes.”

Toni Morrison is on my mind. The Advanced Placement English Literature Class (12th grade) has just finished reading her novel Beloved; the Advanced Placement English Language Class (11th grade) is currently offering The Bluest Eye. These are most certainly not written from a happy Ken and Barbie point of view. These novels are complex and difficult reads because the Nobel Prize winning Morrison makes the reader uncomfortable…yes, even unhappy.

In an interview on Oprah,  Morrison explained how she began her first novel, The Bluest Eye:

“Things were going very fast in 1965, so I decided I wanted to write a novel that was not a warning but was just literature, and I wanted to put at the center of that story the most helpless creature in the world—a little black girl who doesn’t know anything, who has never been center stage. I wanted it to be about a real girl, and how that girl hurts, and how we are all complicitous in that hurt. I didn’t care what white people thought, because they didn’t know anything about this. This was the age of ‘black is beautiful,’ and, well, yeah, that is certainly the case; however, let us not forget why that became a necessary statement.”

The Bluest Eye is set in Post-Depression America, 1941, in the author’s hometown of Lorain, Ohio.  Eleven year-old Pecola Breedlove, a black girl, longs to be a white child with blonde hair and blue eyes. In a particularly graphic scene, the reason the book is so controversial, she is raped and impregnated by her own father.  Much of the book centers on the ideal of beauty and Pecola’s inability to accept herself. She is exposed to the perfect life portrayed in the Dick and Jane series of reading primers at school which increases her conflict about her self-image as seen in an excerpt from The Bluest Eye:

 “I destroyed white baby dolls. But the dismembering of dolls was not the true horror. The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls. The indifference with which I could have axed them was shaken only by my desire to do so. To discover what eluded me, the secret of the magic they weaved on others. What made people look at them and say, ‘Awwwww,’ but not for me.”

The other book, Beloved, is based on the true story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave who crossed the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati in January 1856 with her four children. Confronted by a slave catcher, Garner killed her daughter rather than have her returned to be a slave. In the novel, Sethe escapes with her newborn daughter, Denver, to meet up with her other three children, one of them the already-crawling? toddler who is known as Beloved. Sethe has 28 days of freedom where she is able to love her children for the first time:

“I was big, Paul D, and deep and wide and when I stretched out my arms all my children could get in between. I was that wide. Look like I loved em more after I got here. Or maybe I couldn’t love em proper in Kentucky because they wasn’t mine to love. But when I got here, when I jumped down off that wagon-there wasn’t nobody in the world I couldn’t love if I wanted to. You know what I mean?”

Soon after, the plantation owner School Teacher and a slave catcher arrive to claim their property, Sethe and her children. In an act of savage desperation taken in order to keep her children from a life of slavery, Sethe uses a saw to slice open the toddler’s neck , but she is prevented from killing her other children. In addition to this gruesome scene, the novel is also rife with rape, mutilations, and the supernatural. These elements  make its choice for a school curriculum as controversial as The Bluest Eye. However, both texts are often listed on the Advanced Placement Open Essay list, an indication that these books are exactly the kind of complex texts students should be reading. The demanding Advanced Placement prompts from past years are not answerable with less weighty books.

Teachers themselves struggle with complex and demanding texts, and the English Companion Ning often features posts from teachers who are looking for information on a topic or lesson plans on a text. There are always several posts about the use of Toni Morrison books in the high school curriculum. Many of these posts discuss the controversy these books cause for teachers who want to teach Morrison’s complex and compelling literature while addressing the concerns of  parents about the appropriateness of each novel’s content.

One teacher posted:

“I think it’s funny how we sometimes find things more shocking as adults than as kids.  I read The Bluest Eye in 11th grade and never thought about it being objectionable or age-inappropriate.  I actually read quite a bit of Toni Morrisson in HS.  As an adult, I think The Bluest Eye should be taught.  That said, any book with sensitive subject matter does need to be introduced in a thoughtful, open, and contextualized manner.”

While another offered a very balanced approach:

“Just want to mention that it is the parents’ responsibility to train up their children. It is not the responsibility of the school or the state. I worry that we teachers tend to forget that, making our relations with parents far more adversarial than they ought to be. Why not let the parents choose the appropriate novel for their child? Focus the classwork on skills that can be used with any novel, on practicing the thinking that will help students get through tough texts more independently, rather than on specific-novel content.

That said, strong instruction and discussion on what distinguishes great literature from not-so-great literature — literary fiction from commercial fiction, will help students see the difference between the great novels we English teachers want them to read and the … um, lightweight? novels they want to read.”

Morrison novels are demanding. They do not depict happiness. Their settings depict a world in stark contrast to the world of Ken and Barbie. While Ken and Barbie as fictional characters are perfectly formed, coiffed representatives of all that is perfect in the world, they have have not been marginalized as the fictional characters who people Morrison’s work; they have not experienced rejection, brutality, pain or suffering.

In the Oprah interview, Morrison attempts to explain a human’s want for acceptance by others but more importantly, by the self:

“I think a lot has changed since the ’60s in terms of self-image. But there’s still a lot of pain young girls feel because the bar is always being raised. The stakes are always higher….We don’t have the vocabulary to tell children what to value. We do say, “Oh, you’re so beautiful. Oh, you’re so pretty. Oh—that’s not really what we really ought to be saying. What do you tell a child when you want to say, “You are good, and I like that. You are honest and I like that. [Y]ou are courageous. I really like that. I really like the way you behave. I like the way you do yourself. Now. The way you are.’ That’s the vocabulary we need.”

Morrison’s admits that when she first started writing, she was writing for a different audience:
 “I guess I was just that arrogant. Nobody was going to judge me, because they didn’t know what I knew. No African-American writer had ever done what I did—none of the writers I knew, even the ones I admired—which was to write without the White Gaze. My writing wasn’t about them.”
 Morrison’s  The Bluest Eye and Beloved unapologetically stand in stark contrast to the world of Dick and Jane or Ken and Barbie. Her writing has received national and international praise for exactly that reason.

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