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The Bluest Eye | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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The Bluest Eye | Context


Race Relations in the 1940s

The Bluest Eye is set in 1941. At that time the United States was recovering from the Great Depression (1929–39) and just beginning to fight in World War II (1939–45). These events were traumatic for the country, yet African Americans suffered in wholly different ways than white Americans. During the Depression approximately 25 percent of Americans were out of work, but for African Americans the unemployment rate was closer to 50 percent. When African Americans did find work, they were sometimes kicked out of those jobs so white people could take them instead. The financial struggles of the African American community play an important role in the novel.

In most of the country African Americans lived in segregated communities. Some states legally required separation of African Americans and whites, while other areas had a de facto approach to segregation. These areas used high prices and social pressure to persuade African Americans to stay in the parts of town considered appropriate to them. There were thriving, predominantly African American communities in some places. Harlem, in New York City, was the source of a cultural, social, and artistic flowering called the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s, offering a place for African Americans to explore and celebrate their own culture. Integrated communities, such as the one portrayed in The Bluest Eye, were more unusual, and these had their own challenges. Some white people were openly hostile to African Americans. Others might be polite but inside they shared the same racist beliefs as their openly hostile neighbors. A small minority of white people genuinely believed in equal treatment for all, but many African Americans in the 1940s might live their whole lives and never meet such a person. Lynchings, or unlawful hangings, still occurred with some frequency in certain areas of the country.

Many African Americans contributed to the war effort. African American men enlisted, although most of them were assigned to menial tasks. African American men and women worked defense jobs, building weapons, planes, boats, and so on. In many cases African Americans were kept out of higher ranking (and higher paying) jobs even when there was a great need to fill those positions. In June 1941 President Roosevelt signed a law forbidding discrimination in war-industry jobs, but its enforcement was inconsistent. Most African Americans still struggled in the "land of opportunity."

1940s Movies

Several characters in The Bluest Eye, including Pecola and her mother, Pauline Breedlove, are fascinated by movies and movie stars. In the 1930s and 1940s movies were the dominant form of entertainment. A ticket to the movies was comparatively inexpensive (about $0.25 in 1940) and often included newsreels, cartoons, and sometimes a double feature (two full-length movies). There were no multiplexes with 10 or more screens, so in a small town everyone was likely to see the same movies at about the same time, and a new "bill" or list of coming movies would get everyone's attention.

At this time films were made using the studio system. This meant an actor was under contract to a particular studio, and it controlled everything about the performer's life and public image. The studio also controlled the photographs and stories published in newspapers and in movie fan magazines.

Most fans were not aware of how artificial the star's image was, and the stars had great impact on popular culture. Women were known to ask for hairstyles that duplicated the look of a particular movie star, as Maureen describes in The Bluest Eye. African American performers were almost exclusively servants or performed as part of a band or dance group. With so much cultural emphasis on movie stars' images and lives, young African Americans would grow up in an environment where every example of beauty they saw was white. As Morrison demonstrates in The Bluest Eye, this exclusive celebration of white beauty could have traumatic effects on African American girls.

Morrison explores the results of internalized racism, the idea that African Americans learned to believe they were inferior to white people because of their skin color. In discussing the novel, Morrison has explained her inspiration for The Bluest Eye came from a childhood conversation with a friend who wished for blue eyes. Morrison was horrified by the idea and began to wonder what could make a person reject her own identity in that way. In The Bluest Eye the children receive messages, even from their own African American parents, that white people are better. White baby dolls are more desirable. White women are prettier. The parents are unaware of these messages, which are so dominant in their society. The children, in general, also accept these ideas, but Claudia, as Morrison's stand in, does not. She rejects white baby dolls and prefers African American culture as expressed by her grandparents. Pecola, on the other hand, believes she needs blue eyes to be beautiful—the ultimate symbol of internalized racism. The "black is beautiful" movement grew out of a desire to counter internalized racism with a new message.

Black Is Beautiful

By the 1960s the civil rights movement, supporters of which protested against racial segregation and discrimination, was beginning to help African Americans gain some measure of equality in the country. The "black is beautiful" movement was a small part of the overall trend. While the "black is beautiful" movement happened decades after the events described in The Bluest Eye, the movement had a strong impact on Toni Morrison. It influenced her as she wrote the book, which was published in 1970.

For decades the dominant cultural message in America was "white is beautiful; black is ugly" or even just "white = good, black = bad." African American children learned it was better to be light skinned and to have "good" hair (e.g., hair that is easy to put into "white" hairstyles). Skin-lightening creams were sold. African American women in particular "trained" their hair and used straighteners and other techniques to try to create a hairstyle that mimicked the hairstyles of white women of the time.

In the mid to late 1960s things began to change. Young African Americans who were taking part in civil rights protests began to embrace their "black" identities. They used the phrase black is beautiful to celebrate their skin color, their hair, their culture—all the unique elements of being African American. At the same time the culture itself was beginning to change. Television was beginning to incorporate more black characters in major roles in popular TV shows. Most importantly of all, some television shows and movies began to focus almost exclusively on the "black" experience, such as Soul Train. Soul Train featured music and dancing by black artists enjoyed by African American youth. The show's creator, Don Cornelius, chose to feature on the show products that encouraged African Americans to embrace their natural features. Afros and other "natural" hairstyles grew in popularity. Between Soul Train and African American films, black culture started to become popular even with white Americans.

In The Bluest Eye no one tells Pecola or the other girls they are beautiful. Instead they are encouraged to appreciate white actresses like Shirley Temple and white baby dolls. They hear praise given to lighter-skinned girls like Maureen, and Pecola sees her own mother tend to a white girl in a way she never treats Pecola. Pecola's desire for blue eyes expresses how deeply she believes black can never be beautiful. Claudia, on the other hand, like Morrison, embraces her African American identity.

Morrison's Style

Toni Morrison mirrors the idea of psychological fragmentation by using multiple perspectives and shifting timelines in the novel. Parts of the book are told in a linear fashion, using Claudia's perspective. But chapters also jump into other perspectives, such as the chapters recounting Pauline Breedlove's and Cholly Breedlove's lives. Morrison explodes the timeline of the novel near the end, when Pecola's pregnancy, her visit to Soaphead Church, and Claudia and Frieda's prayer to save her baby are all presented out of order. In some chapters Morrison writes in "stream of consciousness," presenting a flow of words without context or external description, literally writing the character's thoughts on the page. Morrison uses this to great effect in the chapter when Pecola celebrates getting her blue eyes.

In a 1977 New York Times Book Review interview, Morrison describes the language of African American communities as "graceful and powerful" and argues that "black people's grace has been with what they do with language." In The Bluest Eye she regularly pulls song lyrics into the story, reflecting the times when African Americans have only been able to express their true feelings in song. She also makes a deliberate choice to embrace African American slang and vernacular. In the chapter about Cholly, she allows him to listen in on his great-aunt's friends talking to celebrate the colorful phrases the African American community shares.

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