• Sam Fleming


“Beauty was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do.”

There is not much that can be said about Toni Morrison’s classic 1970 novel, “The Bluest Eye,” that has not been said before. However, re-reading the book in the last couple of weeks, it struck me how the ugliness Morrison talks about in the novel has changed since its publication. Of course, the idea of a racialized ugliness never will go away, but the ways it manifests itself can change. An ugliness that goes beyond the surface of the skin and permeates into the soul still shapes our world today.

"The Bluest Eye" is set in the town of Lorain, Ohio in the 1940s. The novel tells the story of three girls: the narrator, Claudia MacTeer, her sister, Frieda MacTeer, and their housemate, Pecola. Pecola comes from an abusive home and goes to live with the MacTeer family while life in her own home settles down. After some time Pecola moves back home and the MacTeer girls observe her life from afar. The story revolves around the complex relationship between these three characters and Pecola's deep desire to cure herself of her "ugliness."

Pecola is ruthlessly bullied for her dark skin and plain features and grows to wholeheartedly believe that she is ugly. She comes to the conclusion that if she had eyes like Shirley Temple the bullying would stop. She prays every day for a pair of blue eyes. But, as Morrison writes, “Try as she might, she could never get her eyes to disappear.” Pecola’s ugliness is portrayed as going deeper than just her skin and eyes. There are many children in the neighborhood who have dark skin, but Pecola’s ugliness is a result of what she represents. Other neighborhood children take out all of their internalized racism and classism on Pecola because she represents the epitome of what they do not want to be.

Morrison tells us the story of “The Bluest Eye” in fragments. Fragments of jumbled up text from “Dick & Jane” serve as chapter titles and the book shifts in perspective in a way that it becomes hard to tell which perspective belongs to which character. Characters are introduced, then never heard from again, abuse seems to come from all angles, and even the good that comes in the story is jumbled up with the bad. These fragments help to make sense of the way that Morrison portrays love in the novel.

In "The Bluest Eye," love becomes an extension of one’s personality. As Morrison writes, “Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe.” The way each character displays love in "The Bluest Eye" becomes their defining characteristic. The love of the wicked is truly cruel, and the love of the innocent is pure. But, each character's way of loving is shaped by their internalized ugliness.

Strangely, the memory that reading "The Bluest Eye" kept bringing up for me was a Kodak Black controversy from 2017, when he proudly proclaimed he wouldn't date black women out of a "preference" for light-skinned women. This is an obvious example of the self-hate Morrison wrote about, but in 2017 the entire world had the chance to directly respond to him via Twitter. Kodak's comments were disgusting and there's more than enough evidence at this point to conclude that he is an awful person who deserves contempt, but rather than simply calling him out or canceling him, a lot of Twitter users took it one step further. Memes were spread comparing his appearance to that of a roach, further reinforcing a racialized vision of ugliness.

In 1970, when "The Bluest Eye" was published, those who were forced to feel ugly did not necessarily have the platform to respond. Now, with Twitter and social media more broadly, that internalized ugliness can be talked about, however, that ugliness can also be used to reinforce that racialized vision of ugliness in others. I'm sure Kodak feels that same ugliness about himself that Twitter users pointed out. The only reason he would come out and say he doesn't date black women is that he feels ugly.

The idea of love through ugliness has been echoing around in my head. I have been thinking about when the world has made me feel ugly, or worse, when the world has made me believe that others are ugly. Morrison shows that the way that we all learn to love is shaped by the ugliness we see around us and within ourselves which is both powerful and terrifying.

If you haven’t read “The Bluest Eye,” now is a great time to pick it up. The words of Toni Morrison are eternal and her voice is greatly missed.

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