Hey guys, I thought I would go ahead and put my essay up for everybody to read. I’m pretty happy with the way it turned out. P.S. Not trying to pass this off as a blog entry, I just thought people might be interested in reading it. I’d like to see other people’s essays if they don’t mind putting them up.
In her novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison attempts to explain how stereotypes about beauty can become internalized in young African-American girls, a process explored in the chapter “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images” of Patricia Hill Collins’ book Black Feminist Thought. I assert that Morrison’s novel, not only presents no solutions to the problem of stereotype internalization, but also demonizes African-Americans who have a relationship with the white community. In this essay I will examine the characters Maureen Peel and Geraldine, who are both portrayed as causes of stereotype internalization because of their relationships with the white community of Lorain, Ohio. I will first analyze how the characters are described by Morrison and then move on to analyzing the scenes in which they appear in the novel.
Maureen Peal, who is described as “A high-yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes…” (Morrison 62), is an embodiment of the “…pecking order (that) existed among African-Americans, one based on one’s closeness to Whiteness” (Collins 91). As a mixed race child of wealthy parents, Maureen invokes a cavalcade of negative emotions in Frieda and Claudia for the special treatment she receives from the community of Lorain, Ohio. They are “bemused, irritated, and fascinated by her”(Morrison 63). An entire page of The Bluest Eye is dedicated to the special treatment Maureen receives and how she is different from other black girls, “Black boys didn’t trip her in the hallways; white boys didn’t stone her…”(Morrison 62) and on and on. One detail given in this passage
is particularly damning, “She even bought and liked white milk”(Morrison 63). The consumption and enjoyment of “white” milk is a metaphor for Maureen’s indoctrination into white culture. This passage shows that no detail of Maureen’s treatment is lost on Frieda and Claudia. Seeing the way whites and blacks treat Maureen reinforces in Freida, Claudia, and Pecola that white is beautiful and black is ugly. While Frieda and Claudia are all too aware of the reasons that Maureen is treated the way that she is and the ease that her monied parents give her life, Maureen herself is oblivious to these things. She blindly accepts them as the way of the world and allows them to give her confidence and poise; she has internalized the notion that her lighter skin and fair features are beautiful. In their attempts to degrade Maureen, Frieda and Claudia’s first victory is degrading her name to “Meringue Pie”. This and the earlier description of Maureen as a “high-yellow dream child”(Morrison 62) show that her chief offense is her “yellow” or mixed race nature. Frieda and Claudia then discover that Maureen has physical deformities, that “she had a dog tooth” and “had been born with six fingers on each hand and that there was a little bump where each extra one had been removed”(Morrison 63). Her sin is that she receives special treatment for her mixed race nature, something completely beyond her control, and her punishment for the racial mixing of her family is physical deformity.
The differences between the lives of the four young girls at the center of the novel, Frieda, Claudia, Maureen, and Pecola create an insurmountable communication barrier between them. Not only do they have nothing to say to each other, they don’t even speak the same language. These four young girls are Collins’ “African-American… Pecking order” in microcosm. Pecola is the lowest of the four, she is black, poor, ignorant, and perhaps most damningly, ugly. Frieda and Claudia are better regarded than Pecola because of their higher economic status and the respect the black community of Lorain has for their family. Maureen has the highest social status of them all because of her mixed race nature.
The circumstances of how these four girls are brought together for their walk home and what
transpires on that walk perfectly illustrate how Maureen’s internalized notions of beauty influence the self-image of Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola. The four girls join up when Frieda defends Pecola who is being taunted by black schoolchildren. “Black e mo. Black e mo. Yadaddsleepsnekked.” they chant at her “…a verse made up of two insults about matters over which the victim had no control…” and “It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth.”(Morrison 65). Frieda is attuned to the internalized racism that surrounds her; she is incensed not just by the boys picking on Pecola, but by the fact that they are doing so because of “their contempt for their own blackness”(Morrison 65). The irony that the reasons Frieda and Pecola mock Maureen are also beyond her control appear to be lost on them and presumably on Morrison. Frieda is motivated to defend Pecola and after she is successful Maureen takes up the cause of attempting to cheer up Pecola by showing her affection. This is one of the rare instances in the novel of characters being able to shed their race and class differences and work together, but it doesn’t last.
The first tension in the group arises when Maureen offers to buy Pecola ice cream. She nonchalantly assumes that Frieda and Claudia will be able to afford such a treat and their inability to do so causes them shame. Things continue to fall apart when Maureen, prompted by the earlier insults of the black boys, asks Pecola “’Did you ever see a naked man?’”(Morrison 71). Pecola quickly responds in the negative, but slips and says, “Nobody’s father would be naked in front of his own daughter. Not unless he was dirty too”(Morrison 71). This slip reveals both that Pecola has seen her father naked and the shame she feels for it to the group. Having also seen their father naked Frieda and Claudia jump to Pecola’s defense and the conversation falls to name calling culminating in Maureen crossing the line with Frieda, “’What do I care about her old black daddy?’ asked Maureen. ‘Black? Who you calling black?’ ‘You!”. Maureen continues, “’I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos!’”(Morrison 73). Like every conflict in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, this one is caused by race. Because of her internalized notions of beauty and her exposure to the white community and white ways of life,
Maureen is unable to identify as black. It’s hard to read this as anything other than Morrison disavowing those blacks who mingle with white communities.
Geraldine is another character in The Bluest Eye who is portrayed as betraying her blackness in an attempt to join the white community, but her portrayal is even more negative than that of Maureen. Geraldine is portrayed as having made the conscious decision to disavow African-American culture. Geraldine is not first introduced by name, but by an increasingly detailed series of facts about “they”, “They come from Mobile. Aiken. From Newport News. From Marietta. From Meridian. And the sound of these places in their mouths make you think of love”(Morrison 81). Despite these women being introduced as outsiders, they come from everywhere but Lorain, the descriptions start out innocent enough. However, over the course of the five pages before an actual character is revealed the descriptions become more and more disturbing. “they learn… The careful development of thrift, patience, high morals, and good manners. In short, how to get rid of the funkiness… The laugh a little too loud; the enunciation a little too round”(Morrison 83). Morrison is describing an archetype of African-American women who endeavor to destroy everything that is “black” about them. The description continues, “…she will give him(her husband) her body sparingly and partially. He must enter her surreptitiously, lifting the hem of her nightgown only to her navel. He must rest his weight on his elbows… to keep her from having to touch or feel to much of him”(Morrison 84). These women, in trying to cleanse themselves of “blackness”, have rendered themselves sexually repressed and incapable of showing affection. Finally, the archetype becomes a single individual and is given a name. Geraldine is introduced this way to stress that she is not alone, that there are countless other women like her. Morrison also portrays these women as having chosen this path for themselves. In a novel, designed to explore how society influences individuals in a negative. Morrison gives the reader no insight into why Geraldine is this way. The reader is left to assume that she chose this life for herself and is not in any way a victim.
Geraldine only enters the action of the novel very briefly and even then mostly through the actions of her son, Junior. Geraldine takes care to explain “to him the difference between colored people and niggers”(Morrison 87). The idea that Geraldine imposes on her son is that there is an irreconcilable difference between respectable lighter skinned African-Americans who espouse white society and try to rise above their blackness and what she calls “niggers”, who “were dirty and loud”(Morrison 87). This is the “pecking order” that Collins refers to in her essay. Geraldine’s ideas corrupt her son who “used to long to play with the black boys”(Morrison 87). This training by Geraldine and her lack of maternal affection alienates Junior and encourages sadistic tendencies in him. He takes pleasure in causing pain in black children and animals. This is why he torments Pecola, he is unable to react positively with African-Americans because he hates the black aspects of himself. He reinforces in Pecola by tormenting her that something is inherently wrong with her dark skin and kinky hair.
Geraldine and Maureen Peel are not unbelievable characters. Morrison’s portrayal of them feels very possible. The fault in these characters is that Morrison paints them as archetypes, not only individuals, but types of individuals that appear throughout the world. This portrayal coupled with the fact that Geraldine and Maureen, two very negatively portrayed characters, are the only black women in Morrison’s novel that have any ties to the white community and that there are no white characters in the novel, let alone positive ones, makes for a novel that illuminates a lot of possible explanations for the internalization of stereotypes about beauty, but offers no solution or even a hope for a solution. These characters seem to say that not only is there no hope for African-Americans overcoming negative stereotypes and interacting positively with their Caucasian neighbors, any African-American who attempts to mingle with white society will become corrupted and alienated from whites and blacks alike.