Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog


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Uncle Tom’s Gaze: Race Traitors in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye

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.

 

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Tried to post this at 11:30 last night, but my BrailleNote decided to totally glitch out and not function properly. So, here’s my post:

I am a writer of fantasy fiction, and am thus given the opportunity to create wholly new worlds with new structures within their societies. Really it is quite liberating, to shape entire cultures with words. But in doing so, I’ve run into a peculiar phenomenon: people want familiar paradigms, yet they don’t want them at all. I’ll give an example:

One of my stories, entitled “A Ransom in Crimson,” tells the tale of a young mercenary on her first mission, which is to rescue the son of a noble family, who has been abducted by ambitious brigands. The main character, Cassandra the mercenary, accepts this mission eagerly due to the fact that, in her youth, her little brother was cruelly slaughtered before her eyes. She felt she failed to save him, despite being only a child herself at the time, and thus feels compelled to protect young children who are put in harm’s way. In any case, I shared this story with numerous people: friends, family, and the base of readers I’ve cultivated online. Responses were overwhelmingly positive, but one particular critique vexed me. The critique was, “How is she a mercenary? How, in a Patriarchal world would a woman become a mercenary and be so accepted societally? This is a huge plot-hole, and something that needs to be expanded upon to make this tale make sense.”

Here’s what’s baffling to me: Why would they assume it’s a patriarchal world? Because it was written by a male? In a world of epic battles, carnivorous wood nymphs, blood-mad trolls, demons, warrior-queens, mighty empresses, and all of that fun stuff, why MUST it be patriarchal? Why, when I have created a fantasy world completely alien to our own, must the world adhere to such a paradigm? Because, people are familiar with it. People expect it, even in fantasy, even when there is no indication of it, and that is baffling to me. And here is the hilarious flip-side to that: Had I made a patriarchal world, I’d have been criticized for that! It’s a lose-lose type of situation. People see patriarchy as a needed touch of realism, even when it has no place, but they also hate it and want to see it thwarted, understandably. This is quite a conundrum for us fantasy writers, as it reins in what we are free to do in a place where we should have the utmost freedom. What are your thoughts on this matter?


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Experiencing Daughters of the Dust

I’ve struggled a bit in my attempt to figure out what to blog about when it comes to Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. I’ve decided to just focus on my experience with watching the film in class on Monday. When the film first started, I was already prepared for it to be a unique independent film, thanks to Dr. Evans’s warning. Therefore I was not surprised that I didn’t fully understand it. However, there have been a few films that I have watched in the past that I can think of which have given me this first initial you’re-never-going-to-catch-on-so-just-stop-paying-attention feeling. I’ve learned that when faced with a film like this, most of the time it’s a good idea to try to stick it out until the end. About halfway through the film, I realized that there had never been a point where I had begun to lose interest. Although I wasn’t fully grasping every concept of the film, I was taking in what I could and my attention was always on the film. It never bored me, and it never caused me to space out and think about other things. I think this is a really interesting quality to this film. One of the first things that we talked about in class after the film was its inaccessibility. Though this film is fairly inaccessible to many groups of people, I feel like there is still a kind of intrigue that follows it. 

In addition to what I mentioned above, although many people in our class found the film to be inaccessible, weird, and confusing, we still managed to talk about it and relate it to other things for the full hour and twenty minutes that we have class. All of this causes me to question the film’s true level of inaccessibility. Perhaps just because we don’t have the ability to necessarily relate ourselves and our own lives to the lives of these women, that doesn’t mean that it is inaccessible to us. 


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The Right to Abstain from Clarity

 

Some people here are already making some great posts on the inaccessible nature of the film… I started my homework with a comment on the privacy aspect of Daughters of the Dust, but I’m now tempted to expand this into its own post. Dash’s film, as many have pointed out, is hard to understand from the get-go. As viewers accustomed to a traditional cinematic style, we start the film expecting our initial unclarity to dissipate and give way to some kind of general understanding. This never happens. Instead of the movie laying the plot all bare for us, I believe the responsibility to “grasp the film” shifts to us as viewers. It is left to us to fumble in the darkness for the answers, while the characters share the light of their own community.

 

In this sense, it is not the role of the African-American community to explain themselves to us. As Gloria Yamato guides so-called “white allies” in ‘Trembles Our Rage’, “Whites who want to be allies of people of color: You can educate yourselves via research and observation rather than rigidly, arrogantly relying solely on interrogating people of color. Do not expect that people should teach you how to behave non-oppressively” (23). This sentiment is precisely the kind of direction I believe Dash ran with. The surge of interest in black women writers and artists has admittedly been overdue, but that doesn’t mean white people can, as cultural consumers, demand for black women to explain themselves to them. If we seek knowledge and awareness, it won’t be denied, but neither should it be submitted to us as African-American life were in itself an object or artefact. If Daughters of the Dust does one thing, it celebrates African-American life openly and honestly, without making excuses for itself, or anyone else, for that matter.

 


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The Bluest Eye and Dominant Beauty

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye employs the theme of natural beauty and its corresponding unreachable physical qualities to expose the socially-constructed and self-inflicted ugliness projected upon black women.  The controlling images associated with outward attractiveness suppress and control black culture by supplying a dominating standard of beauty originating in white, blond girls.  In The Bluest Eye, these images pervade the self-image of black women and internalize their acceptance of inequality, inferiority, and ugliness.

Continuing from my last blog post, the theme of physical beauty is applied to influence Pauline Breedlove’s self-esteem as she consumes a popular culture ethnocentric in nature.  The films depict beautiful actors and actresses as white or fair-skinned, leaving Pauline to believe herself as ugly by the sole comparison of her outer color.  “There in the dark”, Morrison writes, Pauline was introduced to “physical beauty” which in tandem with “romantic love” became “the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought” (Morrison 122).  Ideas “originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion”, the dual-effects of the association of both romance and beauty to white folk teaches Pauline to equate “physical beauty with virtue”, resulting in her inability to “look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty” (Morrison 122).  Brainwashed and disenchanted, Pauline strips her mind of previous conceptions of romantic love and beauty in order to defend herself from her own self-destructive ugliness she allows to be projected upon her.  By attempting and ultimately failing to imitate the characteristics those actresses she idolizes, Pauline sets herself up for failure and disappointment in her genetics as she “collected self-contempt by the heap” (Morrison 122).  The popular culture that supplies these controlling images of white beauty indirectly force black women to submit to societal norms of purity, success, and love.  As black women always fall short of their own impossible standards for physical beauty, the only outcome for their futile attempts of behaving white is to internalize their racist inferiority and project it upon others like them.


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A Gentle Post for a Tired Night; The Shared Experience of Spectacle

Last semester I took a class on the philosophy of aesthetics. We discussed a bunch of things not directly related to this class, and a few things that are. I’m thinking of the spectacle here, and how involved we’ve become in expecting it in all that we encounter in society. It becomes somewhat revelatory when we understand our shared experience of Daughters of the Dust, and how easily we came together as a class for the discussion today. (That may have had something to do with the circle, but let’s wait till the end of this post to decide.)

So, ‘spectacle’ is, in short, the concept for what happens when we see an ad for a product like a fancy new phone. The ad suggests it will offer a type of experience or being that we would like to have, and we decide to buy this fancy phone because we want to be cool in this way and have the experience of the person in the advertisement. The same sort of thing happens with celebrities, and fashion styles, types of speech, etc. The thing is, once we get (to)

((Woah, guys, I just had a two hour long consultation in the writing center–reigning it back in…))

So, as I was saying, the thing is, once we get (to) the thing that we were wanting, we realize it’s not what we saw, and that there will be another thing that can be a little better, a little faster, a bit more cool. Right, fine, that’s the spectacle–what does it have to do with what we’re talking about?

The spectacle came about with the advent of movies. See, what happened (this is sort of theory/philosophical argument recap on three hours of sleep–forgive) was:

A long time ago Art only exists to be experienced in its context; statues carried their past with them, a painting was in/on the place where it was meant to be shown, etc.

Then pictures became more mobile and screwed things up; we can now take an image of a painting and hang it in our dorm rooms. We create museums where images of nature inspire us in a way we feel is akin the the inspiration of being in nature. We become alienated from the historicity of the Art.

Then the pictures start to move! But they’re moving from one picture to the next, so, instead of having a moment to contemplate a beautiful picture of nature and imagine we’re experiencing it, we’re shown how our experience is meant to be. Unpacked: You see a picture of a dog, and think of rubbing its tummy or whatever–you see a movie of a dog and it does random stuff without you, or with someone else. You are not there with it in the movie, and you have no control over what you’re imagining because the director has created a series of images, scenes, characters who happen in front of you.

Tying it in: What’s happening is that the director is creating a framework in which your imagining can take place. That is, where the director chooses to send that dog, and whether it gets pet or rained upon is the director’s choice, not yours. Furthermore, the director is anticipating what a ton of people are going to feel! Imagine holding a camera and having all these people around you and thinking, ‘I want everyone who watches this scene to think about how sexy and empowered the Native American is. Hopefully, they’ll remember the scene they just saw with the Black guy bemoaning his loss of dreams and wishing he were as free as the mustangs… Hopefully they’re understand that he’s a symbol, meant to express an aspect of the Black woman, which they surely realize this movie is all about.’

That’s probably how directors think. It’s probably how writers think… It’s probably how you think when you’re writing. I know it’s how I think when I’m writing, and I like to imagine it’s how I seem when I’m speaking. (Alas, the latter couple of these things are not always true.)

The Point: Directors are creating a framework in which ((here’s the circle)) spectacle happens over and over, but they’re creating the spectacle over and over by giving us what is best for that moment in that scene for them, in their movie. Every time you watch something and leave thinking, ‘that was so freakin’ awesome’, it’s because the director set up an expectation, first with trailers, then within the framework of the movie, and met that expectation like a boss.

We all know that if we don’t work within the framework of Daughters of the Dust, then this movie is going to make no sense. We’d get questions about where the White people are, and why they weren’t in the film even though we knew they were there somewhere because White people exist, right. Maybe… Maybe it was black people on the mainland? Maybe they killed all the White people? I certainly don’t know because the director did not say, and they didn’t exist in her framework, yo! If we were trying to ignore the framework of the movie, we’d ask things like whether there should’ve been more Native Americans or whether the one there should’ve spoken. I think the directors would rather that we asked things like, ‘how would this film have been different if White people were in it?’ and, ‘What would’ve happened if a bunch of Native American men came up and started talking about things that had nothing to do with these Black women except by stretches of the imagination, unless I made them explain a whole bunch of back story?’

Right? Guys, when I get really tired, my writing gets crazy–apologies. I have one last thing, though. And I think this is freaking AWESOME!

Could the reason that we didn’t go ballistic about Daughters of the Dust be because our genius professors set up a framework in which the movie could make sense? We don’t even have to ask what would’ve happened if they didn’t do this, because they let us know what to expect; Just like a director, what reactions would work within the framework our encounter with the movie were made the same, and we were finally able to share it. Well done Dr. Evans.

Boom.


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At what point is a film too obtuse?

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We talked briefly today in class about how last year’s Black Women Writers class reacted rather poorly to Daughters of the Dust, feeling that the film was obtuse just for the sake of obtuseness, some even saying the film was a narcoleptic(I did see one person sleeping while watching the film on Monday(he wasn’t in our class). Our class’s reaction wasn’t nearly so negative. Something I would attribute to our briefing that the film would be extremely obtuse. I (and I will assume others) took this as a challenge.

But what does it say about a film that one has to be challenged to understand before they will even make the effort? Does Dash’s claim that the film will alienate anyone other than Black Women excuse or explain the film’s obtuseness? Is that even a valid claim? Will Black Women see something in this film that no one else can?

By the end of the film, I had a pretty good understanding of the general direction the plot took. And after our discussion in class today, I feel I have a good grasp of the film. So, being not Black, nor a woman, how is this possible? I think that the obtuseness of the film stems just as much from the odd narrative structure and the non-traditional cinematography chooses as it does any issue of race. The film doesn’t hold your hand. It throws you into events and situations in the middle and expects you to just figure them out. I think that this choice gives the film a unique feel and if the viewer approaches it as a puzzle that must be solved (almost like one would approach any of the non-linear Tarantino films), than I believe it is possible for viewers who are neither black nor women to understand the film.