Evans 1 Self-Hate and The Bluest Eye At a time when blue-eyed, pale skin Shirley Temple is idolized by white and black alike, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove desperately seeks out beauty for herself. In order to attain beauty in her culture, Pecola must do the impossible: find white beauty. Toni Morrison shows the disastrous effects that colorism and racism can have on a whole culture and how AfricanAmericans will tear each other apart in order to fit into the graces of white society. The desire to be considered beautiful in the white world is so compelling, that the characters in The Bluest Eye loathe their own skin color and feel shame for their culture. These feelings of self-loathing and contempt pass on from the adults to their children, creating a continuous cycle of negativity and self-hate. “Here was an ugly little black girl asking for beauty…A little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes” (Morrison, 174). By petitioning for white beauty, Pecola Breedlove is desperately attempting to pull herself out of the pit of blackness. Because Pecola has dark-skin and authentic African-American features, black and white society has conditioned her to believe that she is ugly. Pecola‟s physical features ensure her to be a victim of classical racism; classical racism being the notion that the “physical ugliness of blackness is a sign of a deeper ugliness and depravity” (Taylor, 16). This notion allows the mistreatment of dark-skinned people because their blackness is a link to a “dark past” and to uncivilized ways. Pecola does not epitomize white society‟s standards of beauty because she does not have light skin and trademark blue eyes; therefore, she must be ugly and bad things will inevitably happen to her because she is ugly and. According to Elaine Showalter‟s discussion about “The Female Tradition”, there are several phases that a minority group experiences. The first phase is described as an extended Evans 2 period of “imitation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition, and internalization of its standards of art and its views on social roles” (Hamilton, 114). White Western society plays the dominant role here, and Pecola exhibits longing to imitate white society. Her desperation to have white beauty is so strong that she eats Mary Jane candies, fantasizing that the candies will make her white: “Smiling white face. Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of clean comfort…To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane” (Morrison, 50). Claudia Macteer is the only character that seemingly has distaste for white beauty. She is not at all impressed with it and does not understand why she is not considered beautiful like other white children. Readers get a snapshot at the beginning of The Bluest Eye of Frieda and Pecola discussing their fondness of Shirley Temple. The only one who seems to have a disdain for Shirley Temple is Claudia: “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, and who ought to have been soft-shoeing it and chuckling with me” (Morrison, 19). Claudia cannot comprehend why Bojangles, an African-American man, would not dance and play with an African-American girl. How could girls with darker skin think of themselves as cute or pretty if their own men are seen fraternizing with white girls as opposed to colored girls? Claudia shows even more distaste for white girls when she is given a white doll for Christmas. “I had only one desire: to dismember it. To see of what it was made, to discover the dearness, to find the beauty, the desirability that had escaped me, but apparently only me…all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured” (Morrison, 20). After the dismemberment of the doll, Claudia remembers being scorned by the adults of her family telling her “…Now-you-got-one-a-beautiful-one-and-you- Evans 3 tear-it-up-what‟s-the-matter-with-you” (Morrison, 21). Even the adults associate white with beauty, teaching this to their children, thus introducing colorism into the African-American society. As defined by Alice Walker, colorism is a “prejudicial or preferential treatment of samerace people based solely on their color” (Lobodziec, 35). Colorism is a practice that started during slavery, when darker-skinned blacks were relegated to field work, while light-skinned blacks, often the children of slave-masters, were given house-work. Some believe that “Caucasian features relate to a higher level of personal and intellectual capacities” (Lobodziec, 35). Maureen Peal‟s character emphasizes this theory. Maureen is described as a “high-yellow dream child” (Morrison, 62), meaning she was light-skinned and seemed affluent. “When teachers called on her, they smiled encouragingly. Black boys didn‟t‟ trip her in the halls; white boys didn‟t stone her, white girls didn‟t suck their teeth when she was assigned to be their partners; black girls stepped aside when she wanted to use the sink in the girls‟ toilet…” (Morrison, 62). Preferential treatment was given by white and black children alike, as well as teachers, to Maureen based solely on her light-skinned appearance. Maureen embraces white society and understands that she has an advantage with her ability to imitate white girls. She dresses fashionably with “patent-leather shoes with buckles…fluffy sweaters the color of lemon drops tucked into skirts with pleats so orderly...” (Morrison, 62). Maureen asserts her colorism when she calls after Pecola, Frieda, and Claudia “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly e mos” (Morrison, 73). Instead of relating to her peers through their shared culture, Maureen fully embraces and relates to white culture, thus pushing the three dark-skinned girls further into the arms of self-loathing and contempt for their own dark skin color. Evans 4 Maureen Peal is not the only character that embraces white society wholly. Geraldine is also a light-skinned, black woman who strives to be much like a middle-class white woman. Her house is neat and tidy. She does not display emotion except to her cat. Geraldine allows her son, Junior, to associate only with white children, teaching him the “…difference between colored people and niggers. …Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud” (Morrison, 87). Colored people, in Geraldine‟s eyes, were light-skinned African Americans, while niggers were those with darker complexions. Instead of teaching Junior about his culture and heritage, she steers him away from it. Geraldine forces Junior to imitate white boys as much as possible, teaching him in the process to be ashamed of his ethnicity and to try to blend in with whites as much as possible: “he wore white shirts and blue trousers; his hair was cut as close to his scalp as possible to avoid any suggestion of wool. …In winter his mother put Jergens Lotion on his face to keep the skin from becoming ashen” (Morrison, 87). By not allowing Junior to associate with his own peers, boys who look and act like him, causes much turmoil for him. His feelings of confusion and self-loathing for his own people come out in violent acts. He tortures his mother‟s cat with the knowledge that the cat receives more of Geraldine‟s love then he, himself, does. Junior also begins to accept that the black boys are not good enough for him. Ultimately, he begins to pick on dark-skinned girls, Pecola bearing the brunt of one of these attacks. Geraldine walks in after Junior‟s attack on Pecola and immediately “saw the torn dress, the plaits had come undone, the muddy shoes with the wad of gum peeping out from between the cheap soles, the soiled socks…” and immediately classifies Pecola as a nigger, pure trash. Rather than taking pity on this innocent child, a child who was an African-American female as she was, Geraldine tells Pecola “Get out. You nasty little black bitch. Get out of my house” (Morrison, 92). Geraldine‟s teachings ensure that Junior will afflict Evans 5 his own generation with self-loathing for their skin color, as well as their culture, creating a never-ending cycle. The contempt that African-American children feel for their own ethnicity is especially notable when Pecola is surrounded by the group of black boys chanting at her “black e mo. Black e mo” (Morrison, 65). Claudia recalls of the boys “That they themselves were black…was irrelevant. It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth” (Morrison, 65). By conforming to a false pretense of white beauty, African-Americans repress their own culture and bury their own identities. By denying their own culture, they assist in keeping white society the dominant force. They can never be white, and yet they never stop trying to reach that impossibility. The above instances lead Pecola to believe that she, as well as her family, is ugly. They live in a run-down storefront, which embodies the family‟s ugliness. As the narrator tells readers “You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction” (Morrison, 39). According to Katherine McKittrick, Pecola‟s belief in her ugliness stems from her geographical surroundings. The home of the Breedloves illustrates how “identities are constructed according to place and residency and how certain possessions help maintain and define the meaning of being black” (McKittrick, 134). The Breedloves choose to stay in the storefront home “not because they were having temporary difficulty adjusting to the cutbacks at the plant. They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly” (Morrison, 38). The home consists of one big room. There is no privacy and the children are not shielded from acts of violence and sex. These inappropriate acts drive Pecola further into her fantasies of becoming like a little white girl. She spends hours in Evans 6 the mirror trying to find the source of her ugliness and begins to believe that “if her eyes,…if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, maybe Cholly would be different, and Mrs. Breedlove too. Maybe they‟d say „Why, look at pretty-eyed Pecola. We mustn‟t do bad things in front of those pretty eyes‟” (Morrison, 46). The implication being that to be white is to be perfect and to be perfect is also to live in a perfect world where nothing bad ever takes place. Pecola is a tragic figure who seemingly never had a chance to begin with. During her time in the womb, her mother becomes brainwashed by the white movie industry. Upon Pecola‟s birth, Pauline decides her daughter is irreversibly ugly because the movies had changed her perception of what beauty was: “[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, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen” (Morrison, 122). Sitting in the local movie theater day after day, Pauline fantasizes about looking like the white actresses, and even begins to style her hair and dress like them. This fantasy comes to an abrupt end, when Pauline‟s tooth comes out in the theater. She then realizes how impossible her standards of beauty are to reach and begins to sink into a deep self-hate, which is passed onto Pecola, as well as the impossible dream of blond, blue-eyed beauty. Pauline does nothing to save Pecola from the obsession with white beauty because, she herself, has fallen into the obsession as well. Pauline works for the Fishers, a well-to-do white family. It is here that Pauline is able to find “beauty, order, cleanliness, and praise”, a place where she devotes herself and feels at home (127). Although she is a servant to the family, Pauline feels whole in this white world, enjoying the nickname of Polly and getting great satisfaction out of cleaning the beautiful house. Pauline gives her love freely to the white Fisher child, finding pleasure in “brushing the yellow hair, enjoying the roll and slip of it between her Evans 7 fingers” as compared to her own children‟s “tangled black puffs of rough wool” (127). Pauline uses “honey in her words” when dealing with the white child, while “into her son she beat[s] a loud desire to run away, and into her daughter she beat[s] a fear of growing up, fear of other people, fear of life” (129). Pauline simply accepts that her familial situation is ugly and completely gives up on providing a sense of purpose or even love to her children. It is easier for her to give herself to the Fisher family since they fit into her idea of what beauty and perfection is supposed to be. This acceptance on behalf of Pauline and others like her allow for white society to continue prevailing while the African-American community pulls itself apart trying to fit into that particular society. Because multiple negative forces surround Pecola, including her parents, she is unable to equip herself with a shield of self-love, thus making her unable to combat the negative forces brought upon her by both white and black society. Eventually, she succumbs to the demon known as colorism and shuts down from the rest of society. Morrison‟s novel is a lesson that one must be able to fully comprehend how society influences one‟s beliefs and values which touch and shape one‟s life. In order to understand these influences, parents must teach children about their culture and ethnicity instead of trying to adapt to another culture. By understanding one‟s culture and embracing it, one can strive to combat negative societal influences and grow to their fullest potential. Evans 8 Works Cited Cormier-Hamilton, Patrice. “Black Naturalism and Toni Morrison: The journey away from selflove in The Bluest Eye.” Melus: 19.4 (1994): 109-127. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 24 March 2011. Lobodziec, Agnieszka. “Theological Models of Black Middle-Class Performance in Toni Morrison‟s Novels.” Black Theology: An International Journal 8.1 (2010): 32-52. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 24 March 2011. McKittrick, Katherine. “Black and „Cause I‟m Black I‟m Blue‟: transverse racial geographies in Toni Morrison‟s The Bluest Eye.” Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 7.2 (2000): 125. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 24 March 2011. Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Penguin, 1970. Print. Taylor, Paul C. “Malcom‟s Conk and Danto‟s Colors; or Four Logical Petitions Concerning Race, Beauty, and Aesthetics.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 57.1 (2000): 16-20. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 23 March 2011.
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