In 2015 I read 3 of Toni Morrison’s novels–The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Jazz. I called this the year of reading dangerously. One of the reasons was I got to read novels like these. At age 66 I read some of the best novels I have ever read.
In The Bluest Eye, the protagonist, a young black girl received a Christmas gift of “a big, blue-eyed Baby Doll” It was assumed she would love it. Isn’t that what every young girl wanted? Yet she had no interest in it. None at all. She was physically revolted by it and frightened of “those round moronic eyes.” She “had only one desire: to dismember it.” When I read that sentence I was shocked. What kind of a young girl would want to dismember a beautiful little baby doll? There must be something perverted about that young girl.
The reason she felt that way was that she could not identify with the doll. It had beauty that escaped the little black girl. The doll had nothing to do with her, even though it represented what the world thought was the most beautiful thing in the world—a white baby girl. As she said, “all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured.” Note the 3 colours in each case followed by a hyphen and adjective. Colours are important in this novel. That is because the colour of skin is so important. Important at least to the people in the novel, to the people in the United States, a country far from colour blind. The same goes for Canada of course.
The young girl, Claudia, had never been asked what she wanted. Had she been asked she said, this is what she would have said,
“I want to sit on the low stool in Big Mama’s kitchen with my lap full of lilacs and listen to Big Papa play his violin for me alone.” The lowness of the stool made for my body, the security and warmth of Big Mama’s kitchen, the smell of the lilacs, the sound of the music, and since it would be good to have all of my senses engaged, the taste of peach, perhaps, afterward.”
Instead she got what others thought was right and appropriate for her, even though it made no sense, really, to give a white baby doll to a black girl in racist America. It might have if America had been a different country, but it was not. It was racist to its rotten core. Claudia said, she “destroyed white baby dolls.”
Claudia did not realize that she was beautiful. Instead, as Morrison says in a wonderful afterword or commentary on her own novel, “implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing.” Imagine a young vulnerable girl who has no idea that she is beautiful! Instead she wants to look like white girls. How powerful must a racist society be to turn a young innocent girl against herself?
Another thing Claudia hated was the unnatural lack of dirt or grit in the house of the black family. She recalled, amazingly, a “humiliating absence of dirt. The irritable, unimaginable cleanliness.” Again another standard, not her own. Claudia was a young rebel. She defied for a while the traditional order that made white girls beautiful and black girls much less desirable. She could not accept that standard of beauty. It had nothing to do with her.
As a result little Claudia prayed for “pretty blue eyes…Blue-sky eyes…Morning-glory-blue-eyes.” She wanted to be pretty like little white girls. “Each night, without fail, she prayed for blue eyes.” This was doubly sad because she could never see her own beauty. That ability had been destroyed by racism. As a result, “she would never know her beauty. She would see only what there was to see: the eyes of other people.” And, of course, those eyes could not see her beauty. They too were shredded by racism.
What horrified her was that she felt the same way about white girls! As she said,
“But the dismembering of dolls was not the true horror. The truly horrifying thing was the transference of the same impulses to little white girls. The indifference with which I could have axed them was shaken only by my desire to do so. To discover what eluded me: the secret magic they weaved on others. What made people look at them and say, “Awwwww,” but not for me? The eye slide of black women as they approached them on the street, and the possessive gentleness of their touch as they handled them.”
Yet, in time, Claudia lost the spark of rebellion. She caved in. She accepted her lot. She felt ashamed of her attitude to the doll. This was the result,
“…my shame foundered for refuge. The best hiding place was love. Thus conversion from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred, to fraudulent love. It was a small step to Shirley Temple. I learned later to worship her, just as I learned to delight in cleanliness, knowing, even as I learned, that the change was adjustment without improvement.”
Claudia was the girl whose black father, so pinched and transformed by racism that he turned on his own wife and beat her, and then raped the young girl. She knew the effects of racism. It could transform a man into a rapist of his own daughter, and a young black girl into a destroyer of white baby dolls or, perhaps, even white girls. Racism is an incredibly powerful force—a powerful force for evil that cascades through generations of perpetrators and their victims.
The whites in America have the power over the blacks. They have always had it, ever since they dragged them kicking and screaming from Africa to America. Those black people rarely thought of their power. They did not have to. They assumed that power. It was always there. As Morrison, said, the whites were “thrilled by the easy power of a majority.” It is so easy for the dominant group to not even see the victims of their power.
One of the insidious and fiendish aspects of racism of a minority by a dominant majority is that the minority is made to feel that the dominance is justified. The victim comes to believe, over time, that she is inferior. She deserves to be discriminated against. As a result black people believed whites were superior. As Morrison described it,
“It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds—and spilled over lips of outrage, consuming whatever was in its path. They dance a macabre ballet, around the victim, whom for their own sake, they were prepared to sacrifice to the flaming pit.”
That is what racism is all about.