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The bluest eye
1993
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Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel. Rosemary Villanucci, our next-door friend who lives above her father's cafe, sits in a 1939 Buick eating bread and butter. She rolls down the window to tell my sister Frieda and me that we can't come in. We stare at her, wanting her bread, but more than that wanting to poke the arrogance out of her eyes and smash the pride of ownership that curls her chewing mouth. When she comes out of the car we will beat her up, make red marks on her white skin, and she will cry and ask us do we want her to pull her pants down. We will say no. We don't know what we should feel or do if she does, but whenever she asks us, we know she is offering us something precious and that our own pride must be asserted by refusing to accept. School has started, and Frieda and I get new brown stockings and cod-liver oil. Grown-ups talk in tired, edgy voices about Zick's Coal Company and take us along in the evening to the railroad tracks where we fill burlap sacks with the tiny pieces of coal lying about. Later we walk home, glancing back to see the great carloads of slag being dumped, red hot and smoking, into the ravine that skirts the steel mill. The dying fire lights the sky with a dull orange glow. Frieda and I lag behind, staring at the patch of color surrounded by black. It is impossible not to feel a shiver when our feet leave the gravel path and sink into the dead grass in the field. Our house is old, cold, and green. At night a kerosene lamp lights one large room. The others are braced in darkness, peopled by roaches and mice. Adults do not talk to us -- they give us directions. They issue orders without providing information. When we trip and fall down they glance at us; if we cut or bruise ourselves, they ask us are we crazy. When we catch colds, they shake their heads in disgust at our lack of consideration. How, they ask us, do you expect anybody to get anything done if you all are sick? We cannot answer them. Our illness is treated with contempt, foul Black Draught, and castor oil that blunts our minds. When, on a day after a trip to collect coal, I cough once, loudly, through bronchial tubes already packed tight with phlegm, my mother frowns. "Great Jesus. Get on in that bed. How many times do I have to tell you to wear something on your head? You must be the biggest fool in this town. Frieda? Get some rags and stuff that window." Frieda restuffs the window. I trudge off to bed, full of guilt and self-pity. I lie down in my underwear, the metal in the black garters hurts my legs, but I do not take them off, because it is too cold to lie stockingless. It takes a long time for my body to heat its place in the bed. Once I have generated a silhouette of warmth, I dare not move, for there is a cold place one-half inch in any direction. No one speaks to me or asks how I feel. In an hour or two my mother comes. Her hands are large and rough, and when she rubs the Vicks salve on my chest, I am rigid with pain. She takes two fingers' full of it at a time, and massages my chest until I am faint. Just when I think I will tip over into a scream, she scoops out a little of the salve on her forefinger and puts it in my mouth, telling me to swallow. A hot flannel is wrapped about my neck and chest. I am covered up with heavy quilts and ordered to sweat, which I do, promptly. Later I throw up, and my mother says, "What did you puke on the bed clothes for? Don't you have sense enough to hold your head out the bed? Now, look what you did. You think I got time for nothing but washing up your puke?" The puke swaddles down the pillow onto the sheet -- green-gray, with flecks of orange. It moves like the insides of an uncooked egg. Stubbornly clinging to its own mass, refusing to break up and be removed. How, I wonder, can it be so neat and nasty at the same time? My mother's voice drones on. She is not talking to me. She is talking to the puke, but she is calling it my name: Claudia. She wipes it up as best she can and puts a scratchy towel over the large wet place. I lie down again. The rags have fallen from the window crack, and the air is cold. I dare not call her back and am reluctant to leave my warmth. My mother's anger humiliates me; her words chafe my cheeks, and I am crying. I do not know that she is not angry at me, but at my sickness. I believe she despises my weakness for letting the sickness "take holt." By and by I will not get sick; I will refuse to. But for now I am crying. I know I am making more snot, but I can't stop. My sister comes in. Her eyes are full of sorrow. She sings to me: "When the deep purple falls over sleepy garden walls, someone thinks of me. . . ." I doze, thinking of plums, walls, and "someone." But was it really like that? As painful as I remember? Only mildly. Or rather, it was a productive and fructifying pain. Love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup, eased up into that cracked window. I could smell it -- taste it -- sweet, musty, with an edge of wintergreen in its base -- everywhere in that house. It stuck, along with my tongue, to the frosted windowpanes. It coated my chest, along with the salve, and when the flannel came undone in my sleep, the clear, sharp curves of air outlined its presence on my throat. And in the night, when my coughing was dry and tough, feet padded into the room, hands repinned the flannel, readjusted the quilt, and rested a moment on my forehead. So when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die. Excerpted from The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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  New York Times Review

no one becomes "not racist," despite a tendency by Americans to identify themselves that way. We can only strive to be "antiracist" on a daily basis, to continually rededicate ourselves to the lifelong task of overcoming our country's racist heritage. We learn early the racist notion that white people have more because they are more; that people of color have less because they are less. 1 had internalized this worldview by my high school graduation, seeing myself and my race as less than other people and blaming other blacks for racial inequities. To build a nation of equal opportunity for everyone, we need to dismantle this spurious legacy of our common upbringing. One of the best ways to do this is by reading books. Not books that reinforce old ideas about who we think we are, what we think America is, what we think racism is. Instead, we need to read books that are difficult or unorthodox, that don't go down easily. Books that force us to confront our self-serving beliefs and make us aware that "I'm not racist" is a slogan of denial. The reading list below is composed of just such books - a combination of classics, relatively obscure works and a few of recent vintage. Think of it as a stepladder to antiracism, each step addressing a different stage of the journey toward destroying racism's insidious hold on all of us. Biology "FATAL INVENTION: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century," by Dorothy Roberts (New Press, 2011). No book destabilized my fraught notions of racial distinction and hierarchy - the belief that each race had different genes, diseases and natural abilities - more than this vigorous critique of the "biopolitics of race." Roberts, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, shows unequivocally that all people are indeed created equal, despite political and economic special interests that keep trying to persuade us otherwise. Ethnicity "WEST INDIAN IMMIGRANTS: A Black Success Story?" by Suzanne Model (Russell Sage Foundation, 2008). Some of the same forces have led Americans to believe that the recent success of black immigrants from the Caribbean proves either that racism does not exist or that the gap between African-Americans and other groups in income and wealth is their own fault. But Model's meticulous study, emphasizing the self-selecting nature of the West Indians who emigrate to the United States, argues otherwise, showing me, a native of racially diverse New York City, how such notions - the foundation of ethnic racism - are unsupported by the facts. Body "THE CONDEMNATION OF BLACKNESS: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America," by Khalil Gibran Muhammad (Harvard University, 2010). "Black" and "criminal" are as wedded in America as "star" and "spangled." Muhammad's book traces these ideas to the late 19th century, when racist policies led to the disproportionate arrest and incarceration of blacks, igniting urban whites' fears and bequeathing tenaciously racist stereotypes. Culture "THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD," by Zora Neale Hurston (1937). Of course, the black body exists within a wider black culture - one Hurston portrayed with grace and insight in this seminal novel. She defies racist Americans who would standardize the cultures of white people or sanitize, eroticize, erase or assimilate those of blacks. Behavior "THE NEGRO ARTIST AND THE RACIAL MOUNTAIN," by Langston Hughes (The Nation, June 23, 1926). "We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame," Hughes wrote nearly 100 years ago. "We know we are beautiful. And ugly too." We are all imperfectly human, and these imperfections are also markers of human equality. Color "THE BLUEST EYE," by Toni Morrison (1970); "THE BLACKER THE BERRY," by Wallace Thurman (1929). Beautiful and hardworking black people come in all shades. If dark people have less it is not because they are less, a moral eloquently conveyed in these two classic novels, stirring explorations of colorism. Whiteness "THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X," by Malcolm X and Alex Haley (1965); "DYING OF WHITENESS: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America's Heartland," by Jonathan M. Metzl (Basic Books, 2019). Malcolm X began by adoring whiteness, grew to hate white people and, ultimately, despised the false concept of white superiority - a killer of people of color. And not only them: low- and middle-income white people too, as Metzl's timely book shows, with its look at Trump-era policies that have unraveled the Affordable Care Act and contributed to rising gun suicide rates and lowered life expectancies. Blackness "LOCKING UP OUR OWN: Crime and Punishment in Black America," by James Forman Jr. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017). Just as Metzl explains how seemingly pro-white policies are killing whites, Forman explains how blacks themselves abetted the mass incarceration of other blacks, beginning in the 1970s. Amid rising crime rates, black mayors, judges, prosecutors and police chiefs embraced toughon-crime policies that they promoted as pro-black with tragic consequences for black America. Class "BLACK MARXISM: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition," by Cedric J. Robinson (Zed Press, 1983). Black America has been economically devastated by what Robinson calls racial capitalism. He chastises white Marxists (and black capitalists) for failing to acknowledge capitalism's racial character, and for embracing as sufficient an interpretation of history founded on a European vision of class struggle. Spaces "WAITING 'TIL THE MIDNIGHT HOUR: A Narrative History of Black Power in America," by Peniel E. Joseph (Holt, 2006). As racial capitalism deprives black communities of resources, assimilationists ignore or gentrify these same spaces in the name of "development" and "integration." To be antiracist is not only to promote equity among racial groups, but also among their spaces, something the black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s understood well, as Joseph's chronicle makes clear. Gender "HOW WE GET FREE: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective," edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (Haymarket, 2017); "WELL-READ BLACK GIRL: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves," edited by Glory Edim (Ballantine, 2018). I began my career studying, and too often admiring, activists who demanded black (male) power over black communities, including over black women, whom they placed on pedestals and under their feet. Black feminist literature, including these anthologies, helps us recognize black women "as human, levelly human," as the Combahee River Collective demanded to be seen in 1977. Sexuality "REDEFINING REALNESS: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More," by Janet Mock (Atria, 2014); "SISTER OUTSIDER: Essays and Speeches," by Audre Lorde (Crossing Press, 1984). 1 grew up in a Christian household thinking there was something abnormal and immoral about queer blacks. My racialized transphobia made Mock's memoir an agonizing read - just as my racialized homophobia made Lorde's essays and speeches a challenge. But pain often precedes healing. By not running from the books that pain us, we can allow them to transform us. 1 ran from antiracist books most of my life. But now 1 can't stop running after them - scrutinizing myself and my society, and in the process changing both.
Summary
The Bluest Eye,published in 1970, is the first novel written by Toni Morrison, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. It is the story of eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove--a black girl in an America whose love for its blond, blue-eyed children can devastate all others--who prays for her eyes to turn blue: so that she will be beautiful, so that people will look at her, so that her world will be different. This is the story of the nightmare at the heart of her yearning and the tragedy of its fulfillment.
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