Last weekend I listened to the audiobook version of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for the first time. This was not my first encounter with the text. Like many readers, I first experienced Morrison’s work in a high school English class and have regularly returned to it throughout college and adulthood. But hearing the novel read in Morrison’s voice, I experienced it anew. I wept on I-95 halfway between Washington D.C. and New York as the story came to its climax, and spent the rest of the week wondering what it is about her writing that allows it to transcend space and time to wrap its arms around your chest and squeeze until you feel you may burst.
It is no surprise to me that The Bluest Eye once again appeared on the American Library Association’s Top 10 Banned Books list. After all, Morrison appeared on the list six times in the last twenty years, and The Bluest Eye previously made the list in 2006, 2013, 2014, and 2020 (even Morrison’s 1987 Nobel Prize-winning novel Beloved made the list in 2006 and 2012). But despite efforts to keep a new generation of students from a transformative encounter with Morrison’s work, The Bluest Eye remains relevant and reflective of American society over 50 years after its original publication in 1970. This cultural relevance is the reason why it maintains its place on recommended reading lists for Advanced Placement assessments across the country. It is why the novel still brings me to tears, and still has important things to teach us about reckoning with racialized concepts like beauty and gender, and how ugliness renders one invisible.
One of the only professional reviews of the title is from Choice Reviews published in 1971. “Though somewhat overburdened by cliches in both style and content, Morrison’s novel is nonetheless a significant addition to the rising tide of black literature. Seething with the same hatred that has inspired so many contemporary black writers, Morrison creates a pictures similar to the one created by Richard Wright in Black Boy (1945). Focusing on one little black girl growing up in a chaos of hate and confusion. Morrison successfully evokes the same feelings of despair, anger, and love that have arisen in anyone who has read the story of Wright’s little black boy. The Bluest Eye may not be the fiction find of the year, nor the best first novel ever published; it is, however, a sympathetic and moving portrayal of human beings caught in the age-old webs of prejudice and hate, and for this alone it deserves to be read.”
There is something magical about this text, something that pulls you in immediately and is not to be read lightly. It demands rigorous interrogation and self-analysis. Part of Morrison’s magic is her ability to tell you the entire plot at the outset yet still leave you asking questions after its close. In a 1993 interview with The Paris Review, Morrison describes one of her most poignant narrative decisions: “I put the whole plot on the first page. In fact, in the first edition, the plot was on the cover, so that a person in a bookstore could read the cover and know right away what the book was about, and could, if they wished, dismiss it and buy another book.” In the foreword of the novel, Morrison makes clear that her project is to examine “how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female.” She tackles this topic with rigorous precision that demands reader’s attention.
Reading The Bluest Eye as a teenager opened my mind to thinking about complex topics like racial identity, privilege, beauty, and self-loathing. It prepared me to critically engage with these topics both in academic work and daily life. Returning to the novel as an adult reminds me of the immense power of the storyteller. Fiction creates a space to tell truths unobscured by the necessity of facts. The truth of Pecola’s story remains as real today as it was in 1970. I could speculate as to why this is the case, but do not have the capacity to engage with the complexity of answering the why in its totality. Morrison concludes the first section of the novel with these words: “But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.” It is the particulars of the how that preserves the novel’s legacy.
Yet this powerful novel is only a small piece of Morrison’s legacy. Her oeuvre continues to inspire each subsequent generation of writers, academics, and readers. As Roxane Gay wrote in The New York Times shortly after Morrison’s passing in 2019, “Ms. Morrison taught me and an entire generation of black writers to recognize that we are rich places to write from. She showed us that we must matter first to ourselves if we hope to matter to anyone else. She demonstrated that there is no shame in writing that is both work and a necessary political act.” It is no surprise, then, that works like The Bluest Eye continue to be seen as a political challenge to those who would seek to prevent the next generation of students from speaking truth to power.
Mary Arbor was born in San Diego, California and has lived in Washington D.C. for 10 years. She received a BA in Philosophy and Women’s Studies from George Washington University in 2015. After working as a 7th and 8th grade English teacher, she decided to pursue her dream of becoming a librarian. She currently works in a school library that serves students from PK-12th grade. Her academic interests include intellectual freedom, censorship, Critical Race Theory, and disability justice.