Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye is a unflinching look at racism, poverty, damaged self-esteem, the internalization of hatred, and the psychology of misplaced rage.  It is a tough look at people in tough situations, willing to confront human foibles as well as strengths. The Bluest Eye is widely used as a teaching tool in high schools and colleges, and even has its own Spark Notes (a students' guide to literary works) volume and web page.

The author, Toni Morrison, is an eminent American writer, with an MA in English from Cornell and an honorary doctorate from Oxford University, a winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize for Literature.  She is noted for other tremendously successful books, including Song of Solomon and Beloved.  The standing of the author alone makes this a significant work.  Nonetheless, this book stands on its own two feet as a literary achievement and a profound social commentary.  

Once again I have to thank the would-be censors for calling attention to worthy literature.  I only read this book because it was challenged, and I have been enriched by that experience.

As with almost any worthwhile literature, this book will make some readers uncomfortable.  Included among its many diverse themes are sexualized violence, rape, and incest.  These, more than anything else, have caused some parents to object to the use of the book in high school curricula.  The Bluest Eye is listed as 34th on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books 1990-1999.   More recently, it made it onto the top-ten list of challenged books in 2006, was challenged in 2008 at the Burke County, North Carolina, school district, and in 2009 at the Delphi Community high school in Delphi, Indiana. The Delphi case is quite refreshing compared to many others.  For one thing, the school board formed a review committee, who read the book in order to make an informed decision  instead of relying on mere innuendo.  As so often happens when people actually read a challenged book, the committee saw the book's literary value and recommended keeping it in the classroom curricula.  The second refreshing thing about the Delphi case is that the school board actually followed the review committee's recommendations and kept the book, unlike so many other cases, in which school boards have made political choices to override the review committees they appointed.

Speaking of challenges by people who haven't read the book they're challenging, disinformation about The Bluest Eye has taken on a life of its own on the internet.  It has, for example, become almost automatic now for would-be censors to proclaim that this book exposes young minds to bestiality.  There is, of course, no description of any such act in the book.  The evolution of this disinformation is quite plain.  The book does, exactly once, contain the word bestiality, without any description of what that term means, mentioning it as something a particular character cannot imagine or do.  No doubt, someone wishing to disparage the book claimed that it contained bestiality.  The first person making that claim surely knew that he was saying it contained the word without any description of the act, and surely knew quite well that others would misinterpret his statement as meaning the book contained such a description.

So typical of book challenges: once the disinformation is established anywhere, it is repeated and legitimated by those who don't read but want to tell those who do read what they can't read.


  1. It contained the WORD bestiality? Just the WORD? That's the definition of pathetic and desperate.

    I've read a few of the "pornographic" excerpts. They are indeed disturbing but you can't exactly make a book about rape, racism, violence and poverty all sunshine and sparkles. And usually books that are a bit disturbing are excellant.

    A similar book, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, I'm not sure if you've reviewed it yet. It is spectacular. One of my absolute favourites. It is also about rape and its effects on the victim. And don't be suprised if the ending makes you stand up and cheer. I nearly did.

  2. Or the other way around, excellent books are usually a little bit disturbing in places.

    I agree that Speak is spectacular. I haven't reviewed the book yet, but I did an article about a challenge to it. It has a link to the author reading a poem about the letters she got in response to the book, and it'll make you cry. Click Here

  3. Yes, that is a much better way to say it.

    Oops! How silly of me to forget it when it was only a month ago. I didn't cry but I came awfully close.

    I love Speak because it covers so many things in a such a short amount of pages and words. And it has such appeal to so many people because even if we lead fairly normal lives: Nice parents, no abuse of any kind, no homelessness, nothing like that. At some point we were all that little kid who the whole class was laughing at and the teacher wouldn't help, who got picked last for kickball, who just wanted the girls on the bus to leave us alone. We might not want to admit it but we've all been there (Oh now I'm crying).