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A Reflective Essay On Personal Experiences Of Racism

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Inaugural Edition, December 2008

ENL 258: Best Essays in Literary Analysis

2nd Place Winner

Toni Morrison Writes on Racism

LeAnne Coady

Since childhood, we all have been taught that “racism is bad” and should be avoided at all costs. We have been told that “everyone is a child of God and we are all created equal.” In fact, Americans are praised for the so-called equality they possess. However, renowned author Toni Morrison sheds light on the sheltered and unspoken truth that everyone—to some extent—is racist. “Home” is a reflective essay in which Morrison explains that her triumphs against racist ideologies are evident throughout her various novels (“Home” 3). In Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, instead of establishing a home where race does not matter—a home which she dreams of in her essay—she creates just the opposite (3). In this novel, by using direct characterizations, symbolic imagery, and racial tensions in a black society, Morrison unlocks the door to the secrecy of the inevitable racisms in American culture.

Knowledge of American history is an important factor in understanding The Bluest Eye. The novel was written during the 60s and 70s, but is set during the 40s. Despite the setting, her novel reflects the happenings of the late 60s and early 70s in which African American culture was becoming well defined and recognized as a part of the once dominantly white American culture. However, racism was and still is quite common in American society and in fact, racism was taking new forms in 1940s America. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison took a different approach to the traditional white-versus-black racism. She acknowledged that most people are unaware of the racism that exists within a culture and often the racism that exists within themselves.

Morrison’s essay describes a world free of racial hierarchy as “dreamscape” and unrealistic (“Home” 3). Instead of such an imaginary place, her works acknowledge cultural divides and the racism that exists within them. The middle class black society and the lower class black society, for example, are quite different from each other and are constantly conflicting. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison distinguishes these divisions and their tensions through characters like Geraldine, Junior, and Maureen Peal, who represent the privileged division of black culture. On the contrary, the less privileged division is represented by the MacTeer family and the “relentlessly and aggressively ugly” Breedlove family (The Bluest Eye 38). Tension between the divided African American society is clearly represented by such characterizations throughout Morrison’s novel.

Characters Claudia and Frieda MacTeer show envious disapproval towards Maureen Peal, a wealthy and stylish lighter-skinned African American girl who the girls refer to as a “disrupter of seasons” (62). Maureen’s character introduces the disruptive and wealthy society within the novel making the division between classes in black culture more apparent. The girls—clearly representing separate societal classes—do not relate to one another despite their shared race. Verifying that Maureen defines perfection in a black society, Claudia and Frieda had to “[look] hard to find [Maureen’s] flaws to restore [their] equilibrium” (63). The self-conscious girls literally search for any apparent faults middle-class Maureen may have in order to make themselves feel better about their “less beautiful” appearance and lower rank in society.

Tension increases when Claudia, Frieda, and Pecola bicker with Maureen. Maureen eventually reveals her internalized racist thoughts as she yells back to the girls cockily: “I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly” (73). Maureen reveals symbolic judgments associated with darker shades of brown—being a lighter shade of brown makes one closer to being white and thus, she assumes hierarchy over the darker girls. Maureen calls the young girls “black” as if it is an insult, yet Maureen is also African American; however, she is much lighter skinned. Maureen is blinded by her wealth and light skin tone and ultimately, feels she is not black or perhaps not the same type of black as the other girls. Black to Maureen, and to the society she represents, is unsuccessful, poor, and criminal. We get the impression that to the world Morrison depicts, not only are whites superior, but lighter or wealthier black societies are as well. For example, someone who has lighter skin and/or money obtains greater privileges in society and thus more acceptance. Morrison intentionally portrays Maureen as lighter skinned (in a sense, she is a blend of black and white) in order to ease her readers from the idea of white versus black to the notion of a same-race racism.

Geraldine, who is also lighter skinned, is the epitome of a racist within the black race (although she would never dare categorize herself as racist or black). Morrison introduces the adult character Geraldine late in the novel in order to depict this same-race racism as widely spread among the ages. Geraldine’s racism is plainly stated when she warns her son that there are obvious “difference[s] between colored people and niggers [ . . .] Colored people [are] neat and quiet; niggers [are] dirty and loud” (87). Geraldine, a representative of the middle-class black society, is fully aware of such “differences” and treats “niggers” as if they were a separate race (87). Geraldine is not only warning her son of these differences, but she is also spreading a racial stereotype. In fact, each character aids in replenishing the cycle of racism. The characterizations of conflicting classes express a lack of understanding, envy, and disgust between them. Characterization remains a fluid theme in Morrison’s novel and is mimicked by similarly representative symbols.

Morrison’s use of creative symbolism and imagery tied to her characterizations further support her theme of racism within a culture. Incorporating flowers as symbols periodically throughout her novel presents a natural and earthy tone. Morrison makes the connection between nature and racism because both are inevitably natural. The privileged black society is described as “hollyhocks [ . . . ] narrow, tall, and still. Their roots are deep, their stalks are firm, and only the top blossom nods in the wind” (82). The hollyhock flower is used to represent the beauty, confidence, and strength of the privileged black society. Dandelions in the novel symbolize the less privileged black society. Known primarily as weeds, dandelions portray the lower class as ugly, useless, and unwanted. As a member of the less privileged society, Pecola associates well with the dandelions and believes “they [are] pretty” (47). It is implied when Pecola sees the beauty in the dandelions that she is actually seeing the beauty in herself and in her society. This beauty is something that people of other cultures—and divisions within a culture—do not notice.

The symbolism surrounding various characters in The Bluest Eye is continuous and in some instances subtle. However, the symbols pertaining mainly to the idea of racial divisions are more blatant and readily identifiable. For example, Claudia expresses her hatred towards objects like white baby dolls and Shirley Temple, which are commonly cherished figurines representing the so-called ideal child (19). Claudia describes herself as different from the other girls; she could not come to love the dolls that the rest of her culture praised and idolized (20). Claudia (the lower class) wants to break the doll (the middle class) into pieces to figure out what makes it so beautiful. In doing so, Claudia could then find what was so great—so different—about being a member of white society, or the more privileged black societies (20). What Claudia discovers is “gauze,” “metal,” and “disks,” nothing of substantial beauty (20). The less privileged black society is therefore unsuccessful in defining the beauty that separates them from the more privileged.

Geraldine’s cat represents yet another symbol of the privileged society. In Geraldine’s wealthy family the cat symbolizes her pristine attitude and swagger. The cat is “as clean and quiet as she is,” and because of these similarities nothing will come between what the cat represents and the middle class black society that praises it (84). Geraldine’s son, Junior, was neglected by his self-absorbed, cat-loving, and “nigger”-hating mother. Junior revolts against his mother’s racist beliefs by abusing the cat which represents all that is dear to her (86).
Junior’s character embodies the line that lay between the divisions in black society. Although he belongs to the middle class that his mother has born him into, he feels out of place and drawn towards the black children his mother shuns (87). Junior’s attempt to reconnect these cultural divides is apparent when “he wanted to play King of the Mountain and have [the black boys] push him down the mound of dirt and roll over him” (87). The significance in the previous quotation is astounding. Junior, knowing he is placed above them in society, is the “King of the Mountain” (87). Junior wants the “black boys” to “push him down” and “roll over him,” signifying the destruction of the walls which unjustly divide the black culture into insignificant categories (87). Here Junior expresses the need for equality and unification within his African American culture.

Junior and the narrator Claudia MacTeer share similar feelings and ideas with their creator, Toni Morrison. Junior’s actions and Claudia’s narration are rough products of Morrison’s words: “I want to see whether or not race-specific, race-free language is both possible and meaningful” in story telling (“Home” 9). In an attempt to break free from the racially influenced language that is so inevitable, Morrison uses characters (in places of words) in The Bluest Eye to enact this struggle—this inevitability—through realistic events and emotions that they each endure. Together, the characters represent a culture—a society—that is hopelessly divided by wealth and upbringing as well as race. Wealthy characters like Geraldine and Maureen Peal have beliefs that are most likely influenced by the white people whom they try so hard to impress and gain acceptance from. Poor characters like the MacTeers and Breedloves search for any reason that can substantiate why they have been separated from their once unified culture.

Many African Americans strain to find reasons for their cultural divides. The reasons which most find is that the middle class uses wealth to mask insecurities about black ethnicity in hopes of attaining equality to the white culture that shuns them. Ironically, in hopes of attaining equality with white society they are consequently diminishing the equality within their racial community. Morrison explains that when writing The Bluest Eye she “was interested in racism as a cause, consequence, and manifestation of individual and social psychosis” (“Home” 9). In other words, racism causes, effects, and symbolizes the personal and communal question of whether or not certain thoughts and feelings pertaining to the real world are actually true “psychos[e]s” (“Psychosis”). This concept is established through characters like Junior and Claudia who test the boundaries between white and black, upper class and lower class, and privileged and unprivileged cultures.

Morrison’s attempts at breaking the boundaries between races, classes, and cultures are reflected in her work. Her struggle to incorporate race without being racist starts with her novel The Bluest Eye. In hopes of one day creating “a world [. . .] free of racial hierarchy,” Morrison treats her characters as works in progress, or examples of this racially influenced and racially maturing world (“Home” 3). To further her explanation, Morrison produces symbols that are easily identifiable and understood (an ugly flower versus a conventionally beautiful one, a perfect doll, and a constantly-preening cat). Combining characters and symbolism creates a racial tension unlike any other—one that exists not only in humans, but in our actual environment. Racism affects and dwells within each and every one of us—it is part of everyday life whether we recognize it or not. Judgments, fear, questions, and hate are all part of human nature and in Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye, such knowledge is printed in plain black and white.

Works Cited
Morrison, Toni. “Home.” The House That Race Built. Ed. Wahneema Lubiano. New York:
Pantheon Books, 1997. 3-12.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York: Plume, 1970.

“Psychosis.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. New ed. 2004.


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