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Dr. Giselle Liza Anatol is an associate professor of English at the University of Kansas. Her areas of specialization include contemporary Caribbean women’s literature, African American literature, and children’s literature. She has published an edited collection Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays (Praeger, 2003), and numerous articles on representations of motherhood in Caribbean women’s writing. Professor Anatol has lectured on the works of Toni Morrison to high school students, junior high and high school teachers, and delivered papers on Morrison’s work at academic conferences. She was a Conger-Gabel Teaching Professor from 2001-2004.
I love hearing Toni Morrison speak, and I love hearing her speak about her work. Here's a clip from a 2001 C-SPAN interview with the author.
Interviewer: [C]an you put some words to that style and to the stories that you’re trying to tell?
Morrison: The style . . . is a kind of a welcoming style. The voice is welcoming and doesn’t blink, and tells you very difficult things, but in a voice that makes it alright to hear. This is not going to be an easy trip; the journey is going to be bumpy but I’m gonna tell you the truth and you can hear it because I’ve already been there, and I’m holding your hand, and you can go with me, and it’s going to be alright. . . .
The stories are funny, sad, odd combinations that reveal the complexity and the profundity and size of human life. Sometimes we live so small—I mean in our imaginations (I don’t mean in wealth and status); we live small, frightened lives. . . . The most important thing is that [my characters] … learn something by the end of the book that, but for the [events of the] book, they never would have learned. (In Depth: Toni Morrison. February 4, 2001. [tape #162375]. Washington, DC: C-SPAN Video, 2001)
In that passage she talks about the difficult nature of the topics that she's trying to bring to her readers and how she really wants you to hear them. The voice that she's using is unflinching. She is going in with eyes wide open. She still wants to hold your hand, though, take you through the "bumpy ride," and make it a welcoming experience. That is also brought up in "Unspeakable Things Unspoken." I often use that article as one of the beginning texts when I teach the Toni Morrison course. Let's look at that very briefly.
This idea of something that's very culturally specific and perhaps gender specific being represented as universal sometimes comes up in my classes. Just last semester I was teaching an American Indian novel—N. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn—and one student said, "This book is just bad." That's very different from expressing the opinion "I don't like this book." When we, as a class, tried to tease out what the student thought made the book "bad," it turned out that he was unused to and confused by the nonlinear style. He was unfamiliar with and put off by the inclusion of folktales and folksongs within the body of the narrative. If all that you've read have been conventional Western texts, and these are all that have been validated as "good" or "literary" by being taught in schools, then you might make the assumption that they represent the entire world. You might forget—or not even realize—that they are specific to the middle-class or upper-class white male experience. Readers are expected to embrace these stories and settings and styles and perspectives and values as universal, and "normal," and that can be very demoralizing for those whose experiences fall outside the realm of what is depicted. That idea is crucial for understanding The Bluest Eye.
The third section of "Unspeakable Things Unspoken" takes a look at the first lines of all the novels that were written up to that point (Beloved). I just wanted to briefly touch on the themes mentioned in this piece that get teased out in The Bluest Eye. I think Durthy Washington's handout "Defining Elements of Morrison's Fiction" is much more comprehensive and really useful.
(1) We will talk about Morrison's emphasis on COMMUNITY, both for its intimacy and its support network but also the disruption caused by people who seek out and speak the unspeakable—she really goes into that in The Bluest Eye—or people who take their own path and who challenge the tribe. She describes the tensions of what it means to be bound to other people. She discusses the idea of having a bond with other people and the support that that means, as well as being bound, so that you're confined by what the community expects of you. We can talk about that and how that works later.
(2) Another theme is ORALITY: she talks extensively about the oral traditions in "Unspeakable Things." Key to African American culture are the songs, myths, stories, oral histories, and riddles. Morrison laments the loss of these traditions in the e-reading article "Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation." She states: "We don't live in places where we can hear those [old-time] stories anymore; parents don't sit around and tell their children those classical, mythological, archetypal stories that we heard years ago." That's something that she hopes to bring to her work. Making that bridge through children's literature becomes important for her. In this new realm she's entering into stories that speak to children but also speak to adults. These adults are reading these stories to their children. She's getting a much wider readership—addressing a larger community.
In "Unspeakable Things Unspoken," she writes about the phrase "Quiet as it's kept." When we look at that at the beginning of The Bluest Eye, it seems like such a simple quiet phrase that you might pass over. But how important that phrase is to convey a sense of the oral tradition: the phrase is a colloquialism that accentuates the spoken word and a listening ear. It's a phrase often employed by African American speakers, and thus has racial and cultural connotations. It conveys a sense of intimacy and proximity—the community members whisper over fences and keep secrets quiet, but not completely silenced. Gender is suggested in the idea of women's gossip.
(3) This brings me to the next major theme: GENDER themes, such as gender identity, gender roles, and sexuality. In discussing gender, some people focus only on women, but Morrison is careful to discuss how men and women are shaped by family, communities, and the larger society.
(4) She assesses the history of African American MIGRATION throughout her work. In "Unspeakable Things," she's discussing migration, both forced from Africa and also voluntary, especially from rural south to industrial north, like the journey that Pauline makes. Let's look at the beginning of the chapter for Geraldine—the "SEETHECATITGOES MEOW" chapter—where there's the list of all the different places that these women are coming from as they move north: "They come from Mobile. Aiken. From Newport News. From Marietta. From Meridian. And the sound of these places in their mouths make you think of love." (The Bluest Eye 81). We have cities from Alabama, South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi—all over the South.
(5) The final theme that I'll touch on here is MAINSTREAM U.S. SOCIETY and history and how SUBCULTURES fit in. In "Unspeakable Things" she says that "these spaces which I am filling in and can fill in because they were planned can conceivably be filled in with other significances that are planned as well." So, too, we have these spaces in history—this history that's been given to us—and she tries to give us these stories of women that have not been told, of people from lower classes that have not been told, and especially people of the African diaspora that have not been told. She is filling in those spaces but also talking, on a larger level, about that idea of filling the spaces in the process of interpretation. The stories and the narratives are not prescriptive. There's not just one way to read them. There's room for lots of different readers' interpretations. I'd like to go into it more carefully in the opening section of The Bluest Eye, the "Here is the House" section, to talk about that notion of interpretations and spaces being filled in, a mainstream narrative, and how subcultures fit in.
A lot of what I think Morrison is doing in this first section is talking about the American Dream and also how the Dick and Jane narrative introduces us to the American Dream. The American Dream—if I threw that phrase out to you, what ideas spring up immediately? What does it entail? [Participants contribute their ideas.]
Money, education, anything else? Does this house with the picket fence have to be owned? Yes—it's not about rental, but ownership of property. Equal opportunity, equal access. "Self-made man." Hard work. It's that idea of equal opportunity to access goods, services, success. As long as you work hard enough, you should be able to achieve this. All of this [gestures to other items generated by students and listed on the board: 2 cars, 2 children, vacation home, pets] is what you should be able to achieve. The streets are paved with gold. No matter what situation you come from, who you are, it doesn't matter where you were born, it doesn't matter to what family you were born, you can come and you can achieve this. This is unvarying. It's the same for everyone. This is a very narrow definition in lots of ways, but everyone has it, and everyone is grasping for it.
What are the other components of the American Dream or the common conception of the American Dream? What are your choices to get to this place? Yes—you should never have just enough; you should always have more than enough. Anything you want. Excess and abundance. Having a legacy to pass on to your descendants.
It's really interesting to see how this works. If it's about the self-made man and about access for everyone earning as an individual, how then does that correspond to the idea of having a legacy? Note that inherent in the ideas of legacy and inheritance, we have the assumption that it's not only about descendants, but also about ancestors: how much money was in your family before and into what family you were born. You see the contradiction between those ideas. We have that tension.
Morrison sets her novel in the middle of the century. (A lot of these ideas are still carrying over, though perhaps they have changed. How much have they really changed over the years would be an interesting question.) I brought in a couple of documents that talk about how the American Dream was shaped, especially at this post-World War II time in the 1950s, a period that emphasized family and prosperity after the incredible experience of the war, with its death, and destruction. There was an emphasis on order. A lot of these ideas were perpetuated by TV and popular culture.
One of these pieces is from an interesting text, The Dawn at My Back: Memoir of a Black Texas Upbringing, by Carroll Parrott Blue, who teaches film studies at San Diego. The text comes with a DVD, so you can access all of the materials she's collected from movies, film, TV, and advertisements. The top part of Blue's text reads: "Appearance and money determine how much power I can really possess. And so I use these values in movies, magazines, newspapers, music, and television as mirrors to learn about me, my story, and my culture. What I am learning about is the power of a culture's persuasive mass-media techniques and, conversely, the power and ability of people to challenge that authority." (Blue 26) Blue attempts to demonstrate how the media shapes our ideas of who we are and how we fit in. She talks specifically in this chapter about Life magazine. She takes the issue of Life that was published on the day of her birth, August 23, 1943.
Life's August 23, 1943, issue appeared on my actual birthday. This particular Life magazine illustrates the stereotyping of Black and white in the world that I entered. The Lindy Hop, a Black-initiated dance, is portrayed on the cover by a delicately posed white couple shot in high-key lighting, while inside the magazine a primitive, wildly posed Black couple with animal-like facial expressions is submerged in low-key lighting. "Lindy" is short for Charles A. Lindbergh, an international hero who was also a known Nazi sympathizer. In another article Lucille Ball's pink skin, red hair, and blue eyes are shown as the standard for testing and measuring the exposure range in Technicolor film. (Blue 26)
The photo of the white couple is very bright, while the photo of the black couple is very dark. That's the lighting she's talking about. In looking at gender and how gender roles are enforced, in the picture of the white couple the man is dominant in his physical stance, from his holding of the woman, down to the visibility of his facial features—he's fully exposed. In the other picture there is a symbolic erasure of the black man's face and identity. We only get his back. It's the woman who's highlighted, dominant, and she looks crazy.
As Blue was explaining in her description of the light exposure, Lucille Ball's features are shown as a standard for testing and measuring exposure range. They set the light and the camera-opening apertures for her complexion, so that if you put a black person in front of the camera, and use the same lighting, the actor is going to look much darker than s/he really is. The standard is Lucille Ball and anything else is dark. I find the 1943 text amusing, "Lucille Ball's eyes are large, talkative, and forget-me-not blue, a rare shade even for movie actresses." It describes how she uses her false eyelashes and lipstick to match her hair. Again, we find that shaping of what you should wear, what you should do to look or be beautiful, and how that works itself out.
The Dawn at My Back features real stories of racism and oppression in childhood, and then we get the Dick and Jane version of growing up. Kathryn Earle's article in the resources list talks about how lots of younger students will have heard the names Shirley Temple, Greta Garbo, and Dick and Jane, but they won't have seen the images or understand the cultural relevance. (That might be changing now because they're putting out these new editions of Dick and Jane readers; they're bringing them back. My daughter got this one from her grandmother, and she loves it because it's easy to read.) Here again is that idea of primers—how children are culturally conditioned, brainwashed, in a sense, as they learn to read—how they are trained, and all of the different messages and subtexts that they are getting with these simple sentences, as they're learning to sound out the words.
"Oh, Oh! Look, Dick."
It's very simple, so in kindergarten, as a child is learning how the sounds work, she's so excited that she can go through the pages and read them on her own, but all of these images that she's getting are of blond, curly-haired children. I want to talk about how this works in the passage that Morrison provides us.
Let's look at this Dick and Jane passage in The Bluest Eye. Let's do a close reading, and let's start with the standard: "Here is the house that is green and white. It has a red door." Take a minute and go through line by line and interpret it. What kinds of things come out in this narrative? How is this shaping the way that children and people who are reading the story come to perceive the world?
(1) There are two children. Culturally, there's this idea that one child might be spoiled, three children may be too much—you can't afford three children and give them everything that they need. Very standard—two children and everyone is happy.
(2) Note that the passage starts with the house; it doesn't start with the family. The first thing that we get is the house. It's not "a" house. Here it's "the" house, the ultimate house that you should aspire to, whatever that may be. There's no room for ambiguity. This is it, and very simplistic sentences lay it all out.
(3) Is there anything that we can take from the fact that the emphasis is on Jane and not on Dick? In lots of ways, as we go through the novel, we see reflected how often girls are programmed to say, "What can you buy?"—that idea of consumer culture, purchasing power and sense of worth. In Song of Solomon, for example, there is a scene where Morrison describes the mango tango makeup and the Evan Picone suit and the heels and everything that Hagar is trying to buy in order to make herself beautiful and appealing; this scene shows how that definition of beauty gets tied in to products and is shaped by culture.
We find strict gender roles in the Dick and Jane passage. The mother's function is to be nice and to laugh. Father is big and strong, this idea of protection and physical strength. Perhaps the repression of emotion. Mother is laughing. There is more emotion there. Father is only smiling, more reserved. Perhaps that is part of it as well.
(4) What about the animals? Someone mentioned the dog. This idea of the 2.5 kids and also the cat and the dog. How are dogs and cats part of the American Dream? There's that idea of luxury and excess: if you can't afford food for your children, you're not necessarily going to have a dog or a cat. It costs money to maintain them and time to take care of them.
Cats and dogs—they've done studies on how people usually associate dogs with men and cats with women. Cats are personified as female and dogs as male. That we have one male parent, one female parent, one male child, one female child, and one "male" pet and one "female" pet hints at the binaries drawn between genders—the idea of strict separation of roles.
Note the difference between this pet and a dog that's used for guarding your house or hunting down your food, whatever it might be. Here it's just pampering. The dog might be in your bed rather than outside in the yard. My parents are from Trinidad, and I remember my mother talking about how when she first came here, she found out that people had dogs in their houses. She was mortified! "Oh my god! The dogs are in the house!" For her, the dogs belong in the yard. The dogs are there for protection, to warn you when people are coming. There's no such thing as dogs being your friends. The dog's there to work.
Participant: It seems to me that dogs and cats are replacements for human beings. They are, in this case, owned.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Could you go a bit further with that? The idea of ownership of children, the ownership of animals. Is that how you're perceiving it?
Participant: Yes, and then the ownership of any humans. People think they can train dogs and cats to get them to do what they want. Dogs and cats are malleable entities for humans to deal with and manipulate.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: This is a way for us to think about dominance and how that might work itself out in the novel.
Participant: I thought the dog and the cat were the friends in the title of the Dick and Jane reader [The World of Dick and Jane and Friends]. Those are the pictures on the front of the book. I thought those were the friends and not other children.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Do you also mean at the end of the Morrison prologue: "The friend will play with Jane. They will have a good time. Play, Jane, play."?
Participant: No—just on the front of the reader; it's just the pictures of the animals and the title.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Again, we might think of these things that can make children happy, and the slide between people and these things that you own or possess. I'd like to come back to that. But let's move to the other two sections.
Participant: I want to know why she's in a red dress?
Dr. Giselle Anatol: The colors are highlighted in The Bluest Eye version. The house is green and white with the red door and this might be connected to the image of Jane in a red dress. I don't think that's in the original Dick and Jane book. Red would be a very shocking color for a little girl to wear, I would think (in that red dresses are often associated with loose women). Perhaps It's the idea of a warning of what's going to go on in the house and with this little girl.
How about the next section of the opening prologue? Again, we have the "here's the house" narrative, but this time with no punctuation. The second section is the first repetition. How does that work? It is interesting how different people interpret it in different ways, that idea of no punctuation.
Participant: The structure of sentences is arbitrary because of the words that are there. I think that the meaning lies within the words, not necessarily the sentence structure. You still have these words here. You can still understand the meaning.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: If I'm interpreting you correctly, we have in the first section a very formulized structure with the punctuation and everything intact. In this new section it would seem that meaning would be completely lost, but the meaning is still there because we have the words that are in the correct order, with the correct spacing. You can figure out how to fit into this narrative by inserting the punctuation on your own. It's a little looser, but the meaning is still intact. There's a sense of haziness around the reading of it.
Participant: There's no punctuation in the story. It can be reflected with the idea of the American Dream, a story that is repeated, recycled, and passed on from family to family.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Yes, the way the words in that section are repeated again and again. This is indicative of the ways that this American dream myth is passed on, repeated in TV, in movies, in songs, in ads, on the news—all of these different places that we get this narrative to train us about what we should want, what we should buy, and how we should think about what it means to be beautiful and happy.
Participant: There is such an ongoing rush. You have to have it all. You can't break it up into parts. You have to do it all at once because it's the most important thing.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Moving away from living in the moment to always desiring to accumulate things and to act out this dream life.
Participant: Right. There's no stopping. There's no pausing. Punctuation provides pauses. There are none. You've got to get the American Dream, and you've go to do it all as fast as you can.
Participant: This is so familiar that we don't even need punctuation. This is Morrison's attempt to bring disorder, this lack of structure to something that's so structured, but even then, it makes sense to us.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: We don't need the punctuation in certain ways, because it's been repeated so many times that we already know what it is.
Participant: I think it's more like a mantra. It becomes internalized, and we just run it through. Without even thinking, it takes over.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Is there a difference between the second and the third repetition? No punctuation but then also no spaces.
Participant: I saw it as a contrast with the next part of the book, because it seems like everyone knows the American Dream. You grow up and have to hear it. To me, it's like Morrison is telling you that you have to hear it. She gets faster and faster and runs [the words] together quicker and quicker. Then she changes fonts. Get this part over with, so we can get to the real story. That's when she starts out, "There were no marigolds in the fall." You've got this beautiful picture-perfect story that she just wants to hurry up and get through so we can get that American Dream part done. Then let's get to the real story.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Which deals with the ways that the American Dream does not work or is not acceptable.
Participant: I see [another] difference between the second and the third one. In the third one I start getting pictures of Jack Nicholson and The Shining. The husband/father's perspective in this whole story is "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." The woman in American Dream is frantically vacuuming in her underwear, as she tries to prepare this house to sell. There's this insane version of the mantra.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: This idea of the mantra, willing yourself to have it versus receiving the message.
Participant: It also changes in another way as we get from the second to the third. When the white space disappears, it [the page] gets darker. It's harder to piece out the story. Even though the words are the same, the way that we're receiving it changes, so my perception of the theme changes. It's hard to recognize that American Dream, and things run together.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: You're saying your interpretation changes?
Participant: As we go from the first to the last, the spaces disappear. It becomes darker. The American Dream isn't as easy and clear to recognize.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: We might read that lack of space as symbolizing not only that it's much harder to recognize the American Dream, but it's much harder for certain people to fit into those spaces. There are no spaces for particular people to insert themselves. There is no way for certain people to access this narrative and all of the goods, products, and happiness that everyone is supposed to have access to.
Participant: In the urgency of trying to get the American Dream, it's lost. The things like family and individual structure run together with material things. What you're really supposed to be reaching for becomes lost in the fog as you're trying to get it.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Interesting!
Participant: There was a security breach in the airport when I left Florida. When the announcement first came on, it was very startling. People looked at it with import. Then it was repeated over and over again. After a good three minutes of, "There is a security breech in [this section of the airport]," it was blotted out, and those words didn't mean anything. I think that the repetition in this is the same kind of thing. It might seem like it holds promise or meaning, but the more it's repeated, the less important it becomes, because it's not real. Communication forms community. As the communication breaks down, the ability to be part of that community breaks down, and it's just meaningless after all the repetition.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: When you talk about the meaninglessness of the story because it's repeated over and over again, that reminds me of those tapes that you're supposed to be able to listen to as you're sleeping so that you learn the materials subconsciously. A comment on America's educational system: how many things are we required to learn by memorization, and do those stick with you? Is that really learning? Throughout the book we get different references to a variety of educational texts, and Morrison thus points to that idea of what we are being asked to memorize. The Dick and Jane primer starts it off.
On page 122—we might not think of this as an educational text—but it's Pauline's education at the movies. She's going there to have fun and to achieve release. There's that description: "Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another—physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought." In the next paragraph: "She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty" (122). That repetition is working on her subconsciously.
Then there's the description of the ads when Claudia's talking about the dolls on page 20. She talks about 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." Again, this is the education that she's receiving from all of these different sources.
Participant: What's interesting about this is the question of who fulfills that role. I remember watching one of Bill Cosby's shows where he interviews the little kids, and he's talking to a girl. This little girl had been told that she was so beautiful over and over again. He then asked her if she had been born a boy or a girl. She said she had been born a girl, so she could be beautiful. She was six. It was really sad that this girl thinks the only thing she can be is beautiful, because she's been placed in this role.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: I had several things that I wanted to touch on, but we can leave it open. I wanted to return to the idea of ownership and how that works in the novel, plus the ideas of standards of beauty and products tied to racism. Also, to consider the oral tradition, and Claudia's perspective as a naïve narrator, and how that works. In addition, the idea of violence and villains and gender roles, both for men and for women. Do you have any questions about what we've discussed so far?
Participant: I wondered why we didn't include happiness on the American Dream list on the board.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Why did we not mention happiness?
Participant: It's understood. If you've got all that, then you should be happy.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Perhaps that speaks to the idea that people lose sight of the important, but intangible things when they're accumulating all these material things. When is it enough? When are you happy? Of course, money doesn't buy happiness.
Participant: I would say that the assumption is not necessarily that you're going to be happy. We have happiness in bottles of Prozac. I bet the same would also happen with [our high school] students. They would not put happiness up at the top, even though it's the pursuit of happiness, life, liberty, etc.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Perhaps we have liberty in choices, in that freedom to choose.
Participant: People aren't striving for freedom in the American Dream.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Does all of that [what we've listed on the board] buy happiness or security? I think a lot of this can be tied to the idea of money, accumulation, and ownership. Would it be the same for the African American community as the white American community? How is the idea of ownership reflected differently in black communities? Think of it in terms of history.
Participant: If you were to compare the American Dream to an "African Dream," it's almost like the formula for survival in a way. The American Dream formula for survival is that you automatically have to have food and shelter, but then must follow this formula for "success." Whereas living in a less-affluent country, your formula for survival, like the African dream, might be fighting antelope. It's not so much a formula for happiness as it is a formula for survival.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Today, of course, Africa is a continent with many urban centers, suburban communities. If we were talking historically—pre-Middle Passage—before people were brought over and before people were introduced to this version of the American Dream, then yes—there was more of a desire to live in order to meet one's needs versus the desire to accumulate things and to have more and more. And there's always the matter of class—a wealthy African king would not be required to put the same efforts into basic survival and would also be concerned with garnering material goods.
Participant: It seems like we have two different dream setups here. We have the materialistic versus the cultivation when we get to the miracle/magic side.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: We can go to the body of the text.
Participant: Look at those first two paragraphs [following the Dick and Jane section of The Bluest Eye]: "Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. [….] A little examination and much less melancholy would have proved to us that our seeds were not the only ones that did not sprout; nobody's did. Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year" (5). Note the concern they [sisters Claudia and Frieda] have with the planting that did not bear the fruit that was expected. It's a different type of interest and different type of investment from what we've seen.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: It is the idea of growth and production of produce and food, working the soil, even though it's something to beautify yards. That idea of investment in the earth versus these other material things.
Participant: Going back to the American Dream and how it's different, I don't think this is really different. It's similar. White people have always taken for granted the family unit and the fact that you have these relationships with the same people. In listening to the Underground Railroad narratives, one thing that struck me was those slaves that escaped and had written back to family or the ones who had been enslaved after they'd been kidnapped. I listened to a lot of those. The reoccurring theme throughout all of those tapes was the desire to be with people who you love and who love you back. I think that's probably universal, but we take it for granted now.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: It is the idea of families that have been ripped apart, and that idea of being ripped from home. During slavery, a person of African descent could be torn from his or her family during capture in Africa, while being put aboard different ships for transport, on the auction blocks when arriving in the Americas, or at any time during enslavement. One could not rely on the bonds of blood and family, because one was not in control of one's location, one's self. The constant fear of being severed from one's family might cause a greater appreciation for loved ones in the moment: a different investment that might be represented in a more contemporary text on the notions of family. In ensuing generations, there might be more investment in happiness that is derived from a family model versus happiness that is derived from the accumulation of things. This is also related to that idea of ownership: if we were people who came into this country as owned property, how differently we would look at what it means to own something if we were previously owned ourselves.
We might tie those different things together. In the beginning of the autumn section (9), look at the line, "Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel."
Participant: I don't know what that means.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: One of the things involved in that language is Morrison twisting versions of the expected. Similarly, she's going to show us how the American Dream gets contorted and inverted. We see that right off in the first line. The nuns with the lust. The drunken men and the sober eyes. Rosemary Villanucci—by the way, Morrison has spoken about how Lorain, Ohio, in the time that she grew up was an immigrant community. Rosemary, Mr. Yacobowski (the man who sells Pecola the Mary Janes in the candy store [48-50])—all of these different people come from different ethnic communities. Rosemary sits in a 1939 Buick eating bread and butter. "We stare at her, wanting her bread, but more than that, wanting to poke the arrogance out of her eyes and smash the pride of ownership that curls her chewing mouth" (9). That pride of owning things is introduced in the narrative right up front and overtly here, as opposed to more subtly in the Dick and Jane section.
Are there any other places where you see it come up?
Participant: My kids [high school students] would identify cars, money, and mobility as really important. I don't know if any of the black characters are mentioned owning cars. Something else that Americans take for granted is safety. Many people from other countries wouldn't take it for granted.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Yes. Recall the character of Mr. MacTeer—the narrator's father. At the beginning of the "Winter" section, he is identified as "Wolf killer turned hawk fighter" (61). In African-American slang, "the wolf" is hunger and "the hawk" is cold. Folks will say "The hawk is out today," meaning it is very cold. So we see Claudia's father as fighting to protect and provide for his family. The fact that "he will not unrazor his lips until spring" conveys the sense of worry that he has all through the winter.
Participant: He is more of a watchdog, as opposed to the other father—Cholly, Pecola's father.
Participant: There's another instance of ownership on page 19 in the middle of the paragraph talking about Shirley Temple. "Frieda and she had a loving conversation about how cu-ute Shirley Temple was. I couldn't join them in their adoration because I hated Shirley. Not because she was cute but because she danced with Bojangles, who was my friend, my uncle, my daddy . . .
Dr. Giselle Anatol: She was speaking of him as a possession. He should belong to her. Claudia is strongly evoking that image of white ownership of the black body, again referring back to the United States' slave past and slave history.
Participant: Another example comes on page 18: "Knowing that there was such a thing as outdoors bred in us a hunger for property, for ownership. The firm possession of a yard, a porch, a grape arbor."
Dr. Giselle Anatol: That long section begins on the previous page, with "Outdoors, we knew, was the real terror of life." That means not to have a home and not to have a space. "Every possibility of excess was curtailed with it" (17). Again, Morrison brings up that tension—the idea of having a home, having safety, having security, and having protection for your family potentially conflicts with what happens when you get obsessed by all of these different things so that the home becomes a prison. We might also think about Song of Solomon's Macon Dead. His keys keep jingling and he's infatuated by that idea of accumulating more and more wealth, more and more things. We might tie that to Geraldine in her immaculate house, as she has all of these pristine and perfect things.
The scene that I wanted to look at specifically was Pauline in the Fishers' house. What did you think of when reading about her obsession with the Fishers' house and what goes on there?
Participant: It's her chance to feel ownership over something. She feels very strong ownership over it, but she doesn't really own it. That's the model for domestic space for black women: as maids and domestic workers, they run the house, knowing that it's not theirs. Even the children [of the house in which they work] take precedence over their own children. It's a very sad disconnect.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Yes, there's the pathetic nature of her desire to access all of this wealth and excess and luxury—somewhat understandable, given all the American Dream messages she's been bombarded with—but she seeks this at the expense of her own children.
Participant: Also, not wanting to own the crappy couch that was damaged while it was still on the truck.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Good connection between those two things. There's the description of the couch and again this notion that there are no spaces for poor people, for people of color, to maneuver in. The man who's delivering the couch says something like, "Tough shit" (36). That's it. Once it's on the truck, that's it. That's what you get. It doesn't matter. Think about how that reflects Cholly's emasculation if we were to go to that notion of gender roles. There's the description of Cholly's "Pleading eyes and tightened testicles" (36). Think about how this reflects his impotence, and what this means for masculinity and manhood, especially if we think about how femininity is tied up in Pauline's performance in the Fishers' house as the ruler of the space and comforter of the little blonde girl.
Who owns the narrative? How accurately can we define and prove ownership? What do you think of that question, and what does that mean for Claudia to be telling the story but for Morrison to bring in all of these different voices?
Participant: On page 12 Claudia questions her own reliability. She says, "But was it really like that?" Am I telling the story the right way? And she admits her own bias.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Yes, readers observe her as an adult flashing back. It is interesting that her telling the story, and positioning herself as a young child witnessing these events, raises this issue of interpretation. This fits in well with Morrison's children's books as well. What it means to mature is, in lots of ways, an interpretive endeavor. How you proceed through the world and how you understand the world hinges on, as Morrison says, how you interpret language and how that works itself out. I want to look at a couple of instances where we see Claudia as a child narrator who does not quite understand what is going on and how this emphasizes this question of whether she is a reliable narrator. What do we do with the fact that a child is telling us parts of this story?
On page 15:
"Their conversation is like a gently wicked dance: sound meets sound, curtsies, shimmies, and retires. Another sound enters but is upstaged by still another." Pay attention to the beauty and artistry, the performance, conveyed in this interaction. There is also an emphasis on the oral tradition, and the whole dialogue that precedes it—the women's gossip about Mr. Henry—accentuates the workings of this tradition.
"Sometimes their words move in lofty spirals; other times they take strident leaps, and all of it is punctuated with warm-pulsed laughter [….] We do not, cannot, know the meanings of all their words, for we are nine and ten years old. So we watch their faces, their hands, their feet, and listen for truth in timbre" (15). The idea of listening for "truth in timbre" and trying to read all of these signs that they don't necessarily have direct access to is very important. There are numerous instances in the novel where there are slight misinterpretations of what is going on; for example, the whole thing with Pecola's first menstruation: Pecola asks "Am I going to die?" (28) and Claudia wonders whether her mother is going to drown the bleeding girl (31). It's very humorous but also speaks to their inability to completely see and understand.
Maureen Peal comes into it as well on page 70. Pecola asks, "How do babies get the blood?" and Maureen responds, "Through the like-lines [as opposed to the 'life-lines']. You know. Where your belly button is." One of the girls inquires, "If belly buttons are to grow like-lines to give the baby blood, and only girls have babies, how come boys have belly buttons?" They kind of get it, but they kind of don't. All of these spaces for misinterpretation again speak to the spaces that people can fall through; that might connect back to the spaces and the access citizens have to freedom, choice, the American Dream, happiness, all of those different things.
I'd like to go back to Pauline and her relationship to her children—particularly Pecola—to begin a discussion of violence and how it works. The Kathryn Earle article that I mentioned earlier—"Teaching Controversy: The Bluest Eye in the Multicultural Classroom"—mentions the nervousness that can arise about teaching this book because of the sensitive subject matter. The Bluest Eye was number thirty-nine on the list of most frequently challenged books of 1990-2000 [books challenged in U.S. schools and public libraries]. Beloved was number forty-two, and Song of Solomon was number eighty-five. The Bluest Eye was challenged for sexually explicit and offensive language. It was pulled from a high school in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1994 by school administrators because, according to them, "It was a very controversial book; it contains lots of very graphic descriptions and lots of disturbing language." At West Chester and Morrisville, Pennsylvania, schools, it was pulled in 1994 because there were complaints about sexual content and objectionable language.
Participant: Since you mentioned the banned-books information, I don't know how many people know that NCTE has a CD of rationales for supporting books that have been challenged.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: The American Library Association (ALA) website is also useful for information about challenges and advocacy.
Participant: ALA is really good, but NCTE has a CD that you can purchase, and it will help you if you have to defend a book. It's wonderful.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: That's great to know.
Participant: The state affiliates of NCTE should have somebody at the state level who will listen and help you defend. Each state affiliate has a SLATE (Support for the Learning and Teaching of English) coordinator. They will help you deal with censorship issues.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: What instances of violence did you see in The Bluest Eye?
Participant: On page 161, the rape.
Participant: Louis Jr. directs his anger at his mother toward her cat (86).
Participant: The scene in the woods with Cholly, Darlene, and the hunters.
Participant: Pecola and the pie—the incident at the Fishers' house where the kids spill the pie on the newly mopped floor.
Participant: The very last scene, where Pecola's insane.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Explain a bit—how would you say that's violent?
Participant: It's a total dismantling of this child. It's not the moment of physical or emotional violence; it's the aftereffects.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Who perpetrates that violence?
Participant: Claudia and the rest of the community. They basically use her to feel more beautiful. They perpetuate this violence. They turn her into the crazy woman of the neighborhood. They feel more beautiful. They feel more intelligent. They substitute good grammar for intelligence. They feel like they've got great senses of humor, because they can make fun of her.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: This is one of the things that I wanted to look at: the ways that we move from physical violence in the book to examples of emotional abuse and emotional and mental violence. Note what the community does to Pecola, and how similar that is to how Pauline reacts to Pecola, swooping up the white girl in her arms and then scolding her own daughter. To me, that scene of rejection is one of the most violent scenes in the book.
What other examples are striking?
Participant: The corporal punishment scene early on.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: The menstruation scene? When Mrs. MacTeer starts to switch the girls for playing "nasty"?
Participant: Also, when Mr. Henry touches Frieda and the father knocks him off the porch. The two parts of that.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: So, we have Mr. Henry and Frieda—the sexual abuse that occurs in the molestation—and then Mr. MacTeer's retaliation against Mr. Henry.
Participant: When Claudia is fighting Maureen Peal and accidentally hits Pecola.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: In the interaction with Maureen Peal, Maureen yells at the girls, "I am cute! And you ugly!" (73) This allegation appears to be based solely on their darker complexions. Note that the scene starts off with the little boys calling Pecola "Black e mo" (65). Then the girls appear to bond, go to the ice cream shop, tempers flare, and all of those racial slur words get re-spoken—it's the verbal violence before the physical violence erupts.
Participant: Does this tie into Pauline['s behavior] after the rape of her daughter? That scene ends with the mother's face "looming over her" (163). Pecola is raped by her father and later the victim is beaten by the mother. I think that's right up there with the mother's behavior in the scene with the pie in the Fishers' house.
Participant: And the fact that she does nothing after this. The neglect and silence when she knows what's going on between Cholly and Pecola.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Yes. The fact that the sexual abuse continues to happen. It's not just that one time. Horror comes from the reader's recognition of a continued failure to protect this child. And later, Pauline starts to look "drop-eyed" at the pregnant girl (195), refusing (or unable?) to support her in her time of need. What are the possibilities for why she acts this way? Which violent behavior is the worst? Is there a worst one?
Participant: I think the rape of Pecola is the worst one.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Do you all disagree or agree? Why is it difficult to settle on one? If we were to agree that it was Pecola's rape, do we then say that Cholly is the true villain of this story? How do we talk about this idea? Often students want to say there's Evil, and it's in absolute opposition to Good. Morrison asks us to question this binary—the lines are hazy between "good" and "bad," "black" and "white." That's something that we need to look at. How do we wrestle with all of those ideas and bring them together?
Participant: It's hard because words like "love," "tenderness," and "desire" are in the rape scene on page 162. After the moment where he touches her, there's a lot of love. Her response is "frigid," "shocked," "stunned," "silent," and "confused." It's not, "You asshole, you just raped me!" He does say that he wanted to "fuck her—tenderly." Morrison doesn't let that be the image that we already have in our minds. She doesn't let it be the deranged and crazy man in the mask in the alley who grabs the stranger. She infuses it with language that is very hard to believe. It goes against everything that we've—especially women—been trained to believe about rape. It's by Other people. It's by strangers. It's hateful. It's about power. Power doesn't seem to come into play here. Those are words that we look for. I think we supply those words. But when you look at the language, it's startling to see: "the creamy toe of her bare foot." That's more like the language you'd see between Jadine and her lover Son, from Tar Baby. That's not language that we expect to see between a rapist and a victim.
Participant: Then Cholly talks about how painful it is. It's more focused on him than on Pecola. To me, it's very painful and graphic. The tenderness fades.
Participant: It's hard to get through the longer paragraphs where the language is so unexpected.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: It's an incredibly painful scene. The first time I read this book I was in high school. I can remember sobbing through this. How difficult it is. In some ways it might have been easier to read it if it were just horrific and if he were a monster. That would allow more distance in certain ways.
Participant: The images of pencils pushing into the ear are easier to read and accept as painful--and also disconnected.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: In the Kathryn Earle article, the author talks about having students read this scene before reading the book and try to figure out what's going on. As you've stated, parts can be read as a love/sex scene. That might be problematic and confusing for younger students trying to grasp what Morrison is conveying—the turmoil of Cholly's past (and present, as well)—and the resulting complexities of his mental and emotional state.
Participant: Do students see Pecola as the victim and Cholly as the villain? After we'd read it, I sympathized with Cholly. I realize that some of the events that took place in his life may have caused this rape. He was victimized as well. All of the acts of violence coincide with each other.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Yes. One of the things to talk about is the cycle of violence and how that works itself out. What different acts and events from his past help us see those connections?
Participant: Right from birth. He's abandoned. Then he finds his father and is rejected. The Darlene thing, everything.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: His whole life. Yes. And note that the abandonment, the rejection, those different stories make him "dangerously free" (159). Again turning to Song of Solomon, we might ask: what does freedom truly mean? And especially that idea of escaping and being free? In The Bluest Eye, Cholly has no perception of how one connects with family in some ways, how parents connect to their children, because of being abandoned on the junkheap as a child by his mother and then being rejected as a teenager by his biological father. We see that that idea of escape as freedom might also potentially be replicated in his son Sammy. During the description of that huge fight that Cholly and Pauline have, Pecola says that she wishes Sammy would take her with him when he runs away, but he never thinks of it. He just runs. He achieves freedom by running away. But what does that mean? He doesn't have connection to his family. He doesn't have this community in certain ways.
Participant: I want to go back to the idea of dangerous freedom. In Beloved, Sethe is free and that's what enables her to kill her child. If you connect these two scenes, you think of violence and perverseness of love. In this rape scene as well in the scene where Sethe kills her child, definitely there is violence. It's also perversion of love. You might read it as Morrison blurring the lines.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: That connection works really well.
Participant: Also, a lot of the sex scenes in this book are violent scenes. Cholly and his sexual partner, his wife, have a violent relationship. Plus, in his first sexual experience with Darlene, the white men come and catch them. That's a very violent scene. There's that reoccurring theme in Cholly's life that sex and violence are somewhat related.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: Students sometimes fail to see that there are all kinds of violence in this scene—all the fear that's embodied when he's forced to perform sexually but also how he's being symbolically raped at the same time. Note the description of the flashlight worming its way into his guts and shining on his bottom (148). How Morrison creates that scene works to convey the layered brutality of that violation.
Participant: And he gets angry with Darlene.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: In talking about cycles of violence, we definitely see here how the weak victimize the weaker and how that's replayed over and over again. When Cholly feels disempowered, he beats on Pauline. Pauline beats the children when things are going wrong for her—always attacking those who are lower on the pole. That description of Louis Jr. with the cat: he really wants to play with the black boys, but he can't—his mother won't allow him to—so he starts attacking girls. Claudia wants to disembody the white dolls, and she shoves that desire onto white girls. This is how people deal with their disempowerment.
Participant: Did Pecola's brother also rape her? It seemed like there was one sentence somewhere.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: I had not picked up on that, but someone else might have.
Participant: I love the last sentence of the second part in the prologue, "There's really nothing more to say—except why. But since why is hard to handle, one must take refuge in how." Then the text travels, which presumably answers how, and I feel like we're left with why. That's the big question: Why is there so much violence? Why is there the cycle of violence? Why is there so much unfairness? Why are there standards of beauty that are based on whiteness? Claudia does say, "And now when I see her [Pecola] searching the garbage—for what? The thing we assassinated?" (206) This is sort of like why, but it's really not. It could also be what's in the garbage that she's looking for. I'm not sure that Toni Morrison answers why here, but I'd be curious to hear from you how some of her other books attempt to answer the question, Why?
Dr. Giselle Anatol: I come back again to the notion of the violence and how it works. The scapegoating of Pecola illustrates the ways that the disempowered act as aggressors to make themselves feel better. Can we link this to the beauty myth and the predispositions towards individualism and hierarchies in American society? Is the beauty myth violence to the African American community? Those feelings of insecurity and inferiority might seem very minor. Someone might argue: How is something that you see in a magazine going to make you rape your child? Does Morrison take it there? Can we spin those questions out to show how dire and serious this situation really is?
Through all of her novels there is that sense of trying to unravel the question of the roles of and expectations for women. People who are on the outside of any dominant group and possess that desire to situate themselves better might say, "I have very limited power in society, but I can find power Here and I can find dominance in This Prescribed Way and take it and grasp it, because that's what I'm told." "This is what I'm supposed to do as a man," if we're talking about masculinity, or "This is how I'm more beautiful than you, because I look more like them" or "That's what I'm supposed to do as an American citizen : claim and stake my own space."
Participant: I think by the end Morrison's putting the story to rest. Well listen, idiot, it's slavery. That's why it was really bad. Let's move on. Maybe it's love. Why? Love does something really funny with human beings. Maybe that's what she's trying to work out.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: It's also about failures of the community. In Beloved, the community doesn't warn the family when the slavecatchers are coming. That silence is important. Resolution occurs when the townswomen come to sing to exorcise the demon. In The Bluest Eye, the community does incredible damage to Pecola. Claudia claims that, instead of taking her out of the house and protecting her, nurturing her, the community "dumped on her" and "cleaned ourselves on her" (205). Or Cholly, when he's rejected by his father, is completely alone and free. Pauline, moving from the South to the North, removes herself from her family of origin and rural community. When she and Cholly are in love, it would have worked better for their entire family if she had been accepted into the community rather than made fun of because of her unpressed hair, her accent, and her country ways.
Participant: Consider this metaphor from the end of the novel: "I talk about how I did not plant the seeds too deeply, how it was the fault of the earth, the land, of our town. I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year. This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers" (206). I think this soil is a metaphor for the beauty myth or anything in society that can make us feel better.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: So this soil is not just in Lorain, Ohio, but this soil is the soil of the United States. Is the soil of this country truly bad for certain types of flowers—certain groups of people? That flower imagery connects to the dandelion scene from earlier in the novel when Pecola is going to buy the Mary Janes. She sees the dandelions and at first wonders, "Why […] do people call them weeds? She thought they were pretty" (47). Think about how she is symbolized by the flower and that blossom. According to mainstream society, can you call dandelions blossoms?—no, they are a weed. In the same way, mainstream society will not allow us to identify this impoverished African American girl as beautiful.
Participant: We started out with the American Dream. This is [supposed to be] possible for everybody. But here we're seeing that soil is bad for certain flowers.
Dr. Giselle Anatol: You can't plant everywhere. You're right. Perhaps what Morrison is encouraging readers to do is "fertilize" the ground, root out the elements like racism, classism, and sexism that don't allow all plants to grow, all people to prosper.