The 1940’s were a decade of ‘national togetherness’ within the United States, caused largely because of World War II and the external evils of Hitler and Tojo. It seemed as if all Americans were pulling together to support freedom worldwide. But even as liberty was won around the globe, many were being shortchanged within America. Toni Morrison grew up during this period of American history, and she wrote The Bluest Eye to reveal the racial hatred, especially self-hatred, that existed at the time against African-Americans. This racism has been a central part of Morrison’s ethnicity, as it has been for all African-Americans in America.
Claudia and Frieda MacTeer, two African-American girls, are the characters through which the reader sees the community of Lorain, Ohio, in 1941. They often seem young and innocent, but at points in the book the viewpoint expands and matures so that adult problems and ideas can be shown. The other set of major characters within the novel is the family of Pecola Breedlove, whose life intersects with the MacTeers’ at the beginning of the novel.
Through Claudia, Morrison shows how Afro-American culture of the 1940’s was built around jealousy of the prosperity of white Americans. This jealousy was formed because of the mainstream white culture, which created a picture of beauty excluding African-Americans.
Claudia describes her relationship with baby dolls in one section of the book. Every doll she has ever been given has been white, because of the mainstream picture of beauty in the 1940’s in the US. When given one, she quickly takes it apart because she believes there is some internal mechanism that makes white baby dolls beautiful. Claudia is even willing to take the investigation one step further, and study white girls in the same manner. She wants to find the secret to beauty so she can make herself beautiful. She asks, “What made people look at them [white girls] and say ‘Awwwww,’ but not for me?” (Morrison 22) She can’t understand that this beauty has been defined externally through the culture, not internally by some innate mechanism.
Claudia meets up with racial jealousy in other ways. She hates Shirley Temple, apex of America’s definition of beauty. She and Frieda also hate Maureen Peal, a biracial classmate. Once, as a compliment, she is called Ginger Rogers, because there is no knowledge of a beautiful African-American actress.
The MacTeer parents, who evidently are foster parents, are temporarily given charge of Pecola Breedlove while her family attempts to get over some problems. Pecola -- daughter of Cholly Breedlove, the town drunk -- is the target for racial self-hatred throughout the book. This self-hatred in the 1940’s was an outgrowth of racial jealousy. As a result of distorted standards of beauty, African-Americans often ended up hating themselves instead of working to change the popular culture.
We see Pecola taunted by classmates after school. The boys surround Pecola and yell racial epithets at her, such as “Black e mo”, even though they themselves are black. “It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the . . . insult its teeth.” (Morrison 65)
Maureen Peal believes she is superior to Pecola because she is partially Caucasian. She pretends to be a friend to Pecola and the MacTeers, but it soon becomes obvious that she is only attempting to show them up. The meeting ends with Maureen running away, yelling the same epithets at the girls that the circle of boys used.
Geraldine, a middle-class African-American woman, hates Pecola because Pecola personifies the “funk” that she has excommunicated from her life. Junior, Geraldine’s son, asks Pecola to come over to his house because he is bored. When she enters the house, he blocks her from leaving, nearly kills his mother’s cat, and then blames it all on Pecola. Geraldine then arrives, sees Pecola, and immediately puts her into a stereotype of low-class black girls. She curses at her and throws her out of the house, never questioning whether her own son had anything to do with it.
Mrs. Breedlove even shows racial self-hatred toward her own daughter. Mrs. Breedlove works as a maid to a white family. One day as she is preparing to leave from work for the day, Pecola and the MacTeer girls wait in the kitchen of the white family’s house. A daughter within the family that Mrs. Breedlove works for enters the kitchen at the same time as Pecola accidentally knocks over a hot berry cobbler. The cobbler splashes all over Pecola’s legs, burning them. Mrs. Breedlove enters the room, slaps Pecola twice, and yells at the African-American girls to get out. She then turns to the white girl, who has started to cry, and does her best to comfort her.
Pecola and her family have succumbed to popular culture’s ideas of beauty. “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) The Breedlove family is ugly because they believe it to be so.
Surprisingly, there are few pictures within the novel of whites actively performing acts of racism against African-Americans. The white culture seems to sit in the background, influencing lives but not really coming out into the open itself. A couple exceptions occur, especially when the Breedlove family’s history is being recounted. One instance was when Pauline Breedlove was giving birth to Pecola. The doctors treated the pregnant white women as humans, but treated Pauline like a horse about to give birth.
The biggest instance of outright white-black racism within The Bluest Eye occurs in Cholly Breedlove’s life. Cholly was raised by his Great Aunt Jimmy, who died when he was about sixteen. On the night of her funeral, he and a girlfriend went out into the woods to have sex. In the middle of the act two white hunters found them and forced them to continue at gunpoint, under the light of their flashlight. This incident caused Cholly to hate his girlfriend; since hating the white hunters could have destroyed him psychologically, his subconscious prevented him from doing so. He soon ran away for the same reason as his father had -- he did not want to take the responsibility of being a father, in case the girl had become pregnant.
The Bluest Eye is fundamentally based on Toni Morrison’s ethnicity. Morrison’s ethnic background has been mired in racism -- not just one group hating another, but a group hating itself because of its status as a minority. She has seen the devastating effects of racism throughout her life, having been on the receiving end of it since birth. This novel was written to display racism and racial self-hatred to mainstream American culture, as the first step to eradicating both. Perhaps someday this will not be an essential part of ethnicity within the US.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Plume, 1994.