Archives For The Bluest Eye

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.

Danbury, Connecticut, is the closest metropolitan area near me (population 80893), and this past weekend, the Friends of the Danbury Public Library held their annual sale. The first remarkable fact about this event is that the 80,000 books available to the public for sale, transported several miles from the library location to the Danbury PAL building at the other side of town, arrived in alphabetical order! This was a very well-organized sale; browsing the fiction tables was a breeze.

The second remarkable fact about this event would be the surprisingly large number of biographies, auto-biographies, and memoirs donated by Danbury residents. Three long tables laid end to end were laden with all manner of biographical materials, and under these tables, there were boxes filled to overflowing with additional selections. Interestingly enough, most of these books were “solo” copies; duplicates, with the exception of  Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (an area favorite) and The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, were hard to find. A cultural anthropologist attending the sale could speculate as to what the fascination biographies, auto-biographies, and memoirs have for Danbury readers. Are the residents “people”-people? Is there a strain of  voyeurism running through their veins? Or are they simply curious about the lives of the rich and/or famous? (Did former Danbury resident Robin Leach have anything to do with this trend?)

One of the many titles available to add to Memoir class

The plethora of memoir titles provided the following as selections for independent reading for the 12th grade memoir class:
Madhur Jaffrey– Climbing The Mango Trees: A Memoir Of A Childhood In India.
Gail Caldwell- A Strong West Wind
Ann Patchett- Truth and Beauty
Lucy Grealy- Autobiography of a Face
Meredith Hall –Without a Map: A Memoir
Patrick Moore-Tweaked: A Crystal Meth Memoir
Rory Stewart- The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq
Janice Erlbaum- Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir
Claire Fontaine and Mia Fontaine- Come Back: A Mother and Daughter’s Journey Through Hell and Back (P.S.)
Linda Greenlaw- The Hungry Ocean: A Swordboat Captain’s Journey 

For Grade 11, there were multiple copies of  Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine Sebastian Junger’s War, and Michael Sharra’s The Killer Angels.

Multiple copies of The Bluest Eye were available. This text is under a book challenge by a neighboring community

There were also multiple copies of Nobel prize winning author Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, an indication that the book is on a Danbury school or local book club’s reading list. Currently, this book is being challenged by parents in the neighboring town of Brookfield. According to the local media, the Brookfield challenge to have the book removed (Honors Grade 11 class) is largely led by individuals who have not read the book but who have read, and are circulating, excerpts of some graphic scenes; one complainant does claim to have read the SparkNotes.

For grade 10, there were multiple copies of Ishmael Baeh’s A Long Way Gone, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson’s Kabul Beauty School.  There also multiple copies of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and  Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quite on the Western Front in the same editions we have in our classroom libraries.

For Grade 12 independent reading, usually Creative Writing classes, I found multiple copies of Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain, and enough copies of Melissa Bank’s The GirlsGuide to Hunting and Fishing as a “test” to see what students think.

I located some “hard to find” titles of books that are always needed including Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi, Bobbi Ann Mason’s In Country, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, Joseph Bruchec’s Codetalker, and Laurie Halse Andersen’s Chains. Since we are a vocational-agriculture school, an elective under consideration for seniors is Animals in Literature.  Both of Ken Foster’s books Dogs I Have Met: And the People They Found and his other book Dogs Who Found Me will be added to that bookshelf.

I have noticed that a number of books that currently occupy positions on the NY Times best seller lists have been available at these local library sales. At Danbury’s sale, these titles included Like Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, Little Bee by Chris Cleave, and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hossani. The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo by Stieg Larsson, and its sequels The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest escaped the stigma of being limited to the mystery table; all three were placed for readers of fiction who may want to “cross-over” for a thrilling mystery.

An entire side wall was dedicated to VHS tapes. Given the current state of technology, I wonder how much longer VHS will be featured at these sales; their value must be falling as the popularity of online movie streaming or DVD/Blu-ray grows. There were also two tables of audio books, CDs and DVDs. The organizers of the sale had a rather uncoventional approach to the literary canon; the classic literature section was divided from the poetry section with an expansive section of books devoted to humor. Was this placement a commentary on humor as the offspring of the classics? Or was this partition a statement about the lack of humor in the classics? I am not sure.

Unlike other area sales, there was no admission charge for early arriving buyers, so shopping during the first hours of the sale meant contending with book dealers and their ISBN readers. Fortunately, the aisles were wide enough to accommodate people carrying large bags filled with books. Prices ranged from $.50-$2.00;rare books had their own section and were priced accordingly. Volunteers wearing blue shirts and aprons were plentiful. By noon many were engaged in re-stacking tables and filling in gaps created by eager shoppers. Checkout was a breeze. The bill for five large bags of books, roughly 87 books, came to $101.00. The Friends of the Danbury Public Library will reduce the number of books to pack up by having a “bag sale” on Monday, 10/17.

80,000 books donated by residents in a city of 80893 means at least one donated book for each person. That is also remarkable; make this 80,000 Books and Three Remarkable Facts.