TONI MORRISON — THE BLUEST EYE — 1970
That was the first novel published by Toni Morrison when she was still an editor. The first thing to say about it is what will remain her style all along her creative life. Her style is directly inherited from Black American oration, a sort of regular wavy ternary rolling flow that can accelerate from time to time or slow down but it remains that rolling Black American tide breaking along the shore of American history, or should I say African-American history, a history that was mostly untold and definitely untaught in 1970. The invisible side of America, as Ralph Ellison said in 1952. This style is all the clearer when the characters are speaking. They are not speaking standard English, or even standard American English. They are speaking a language that is as close as possible to the language of African Americans, maybe more or less educated, definitely polished for a standard multiracial audience to be able to read it and comprehend it, but nevertheless not standard American Mid-Atlantic English.
In this style, there is the story-telling technique of Toni Morrison. She centers her story on characters, several characters, mostly girls and women, but with two male characters sort of lost in this society of women. And these two male characters are mostly captured in their dealing with women, and particularly with the woman, or rather girl, who is the link between the two, the circumstantial link determined by the need of this girl, Pecola Breedlove, who wants love so much that she let her own father provide, and who wants to be accepted as equal in this white-dominated society, particularly in the psyche of Black people, so much that she begs Soaphead Church, a charlatan creole witch-doctor, to give her blue eyes, which he does symbolically, in her own consciousness, or rather fantasy. She started seeing her blue eyes but no one else did because they had not changed, and everyone else only saw her unacceptable pregnancy from her father — as rumor rightly has it — and her sad delivery of the child to death. And looking at herself with her brand new blue eyes, this Pecola turns insane because she grafted onto what she considered her black ugliness a pair of blue eyes that are only able to see black ugliness in her because blue eyes are those who once and for all decided that black is ugly. How can you survive seeing yourself through the eyes of those who absolutely consider you as raccoons, animals, monsters of ugliness?
The last element in this style is that the story is mostly told by — or from the point of view of people around — two sisters, Frieda and Claudia who befriend Pecola, and yet since they are black they cannot be seen by Pecola once her eyes got blue. The storyline is not straight, chronological. It follows the characters who are speaking, goes back to their past and moves to their present, several layers of present and it ends in a completely closed-up blind alley. There is no exit, no hope in this situation, and though Toni Morrison does not use the reference at all, it is supposed to give us the blues, and the darkest deepest blues you can imagine. How can humanity have fallen down so low with racism, race-hating, color-dictated psyche, and we know what it produced in 2020, a whole series of black men and even women killed by the men in blue, blue again of course, and these men in blue are mostly white. If Black people look at themselves or if white people look at Black people with blue eyes, Black people only deserve — I do say deserve because that’s all they are worth according to these blue eyes — death, and not natural death of course not, violent brutal execution-like lynching death.
But I would like to insist on another aspect of the book that is quite obvious today but was hardly known at the time of first publication: Post Traumatic Slavery Stress Syndrome, and I insist it is not a Disorder. It is not a disease. It is a disturbance in the psyche that comes from four centuries of slavery, and what came after abolition, starting in 1619 and the arrival of the first Black slaves in Virginia to work on John Rolfe’s tobacco plantation. Every single minute of black life in this American society is the absolute submission to the totally integrated, and constantly brandished by whites, hatred, and devalued if not plainly trashed vision of black, anything black, and first of all Black people. In 1970, there is not in Black America the very beginning of any consciousness that it is a PTSS inherited from four centuries of slavery, and that it can be dealt with and solved. There is little consciousness then that the whites are suffering from the same Syndrome, though inverted since they are the blue eyes that annihilate Black Americans. They are not conscious that this annihilation and destruction are engrained in their blue eyes, in their white skin, in their deepest white identity that is entirely racially constructed on the basis of the only principle that counts for them: White is the only color worth existing. Martin Luther King had a dream, but he was assassinated, turning his dream into a nightmare. It’s only a couple of decades later that the concept of PTSlaverySS was developed and that some procedure to make black eyes beautiful and beautiful black eyes look at blackness as deep and rich ebony-wood with which the most beautiful works of art can be made, in which the most beautiful statues can be carved.
In 2020, after the movement for justice after the lynching of George Floyd by white cops, this reality is becoming superbly powerful and the whole humanity, entangled in a pandemic, has to solve that problem as soon as they can, and there can be no trump card in this poker game because it is no poker game but a struggle for the birth and emergence of a really human humanity captured in its most dynamic diversity.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU