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Required Reading Became Inspired Reading

There are wounds in childhood and then there are events that break a child.

I searched through myriad boxes in storage for the book. With limited lighting, I felt my way through file boxes, knowing by touch I would recognize the dog-eared pages and broken spine of the thin paperback. But my quest ended empty-handed. Frustrated, I riffled through my file cabinet and found the college paper I wrote about the book that changed the course of my life.

“The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison was required reading for English 311 – the History of Afro-American Literature – for my undergraduate degree in journalism at California State University at Northridge. The only Afro-American literature I read to that point consisted of a brief excerpt of the 1845 autobiography, “Narraive of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave,” in a history textbook. My knowledge of Afro-American literature was as limited as knowledge of Afro-Americans.

Dr. Rhodes introduced me to “The Bluest Eye” in 1989 during my junior year in college. “The Bluest Eye” is a layering of stories, each unfolding with a retelling of a story. Each story focuses, some narrowly, others broadly, on how eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove and the people around her respond to her father raping and impregnating her.

“The Bluest Eye” was the most difficult book to read because of the raw emotions it unearthed. Pecola was sexually terrorized – and not just by her father. I identified with elements of her sexual assault and the dichotomy of family.

Pecola’s home was hardly a haven from sexual assault. Yet her age kept her dependent upon her family, which continually victimized her. Her mother failed to protect her daughter and the community rejected her. Pecola is led to believe she’s ugly and that everything that happened to her was because of her ugliness. This young girl wears her ugliness even though it does not belong to her.

Pecola’s nightly vigilance to God for blue eyes is her way out of the life she knows. But instead of gaining the vision she seeks, the world becomes a mirror that only reflects back the ugliness she is taught to believe. There was no way for Pecola to survive. Even when she was placed in a foster home, Pecola represented everything black families in the 1940s were trying to flee: oppression, shame, and poverty.

No matter how many times I read, “The Bluest Eye,” I still find myself hoping someone will see and save Pecola, the way I hoped someone would see me. But it didn’t happen – for either of us. Pecola doesn’t survive. Her splitting personality became her final coping/survival strategy: “She stepped over into madness, a madness which protected her from us simply because it bored us in the end.” (p. 206) Her mind splitters into schizophrenia and her arms turn inward like a “winged, but grounded bird.”

There are wounds in childhood and then there are events that break a child. Pecola was broken and in her brokenness, I related. Pecola split from reality, I turned to drugs and alcohol for my escape. Neither worked.

The topics of racial self-loathing, incest and rape often keep “The Bluest Eye’ out of the hands of the young readers who could most benefit from its powerful prose. If I had read this book when I was Pecola’s age, I would have realized that I wasn’t alone. As it was, the start of my healing from childhood sexual abuse began in college.

As a published author, I appreciate that “The Bluest Eye” shows all sides of the story – Morrison doesn’t rely on simple blame or objectifying Pecola’s father as a monster. Morrison spreads the blame evenly – and in doing so it pushes the reader to delve inward – past stereotypes. Had Morrison dehumanized the characters and their treatment of Pecola, it would have opened the door for readers – especially white readers – to write it off as another sad, black story. It may have touched readers, but Morrison was out to move them. And she did.

Morrison’s story takes root in what she refers to in her afterward as “the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female.”

It’s probably why “The Bluest Eye” resonated with me so deeply. Pecola Breedlove has stayed in my memory decades after college. I no longer have the used copy I bought at the college book store. But the hardcover replacement is just as weathered from repeated reading.

“The Bluest Eye” was published in 1970. It was Morrison’s debut novel. In 1993, Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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