Academic journal article MELUS

Not So Fast, Dick and Jane: Reimagining Childhood and Nation in the Bluest Eye

Academic journal article MELUS

Not So Fast, Dick and Jane: Reimagining Childhood and Nation in the Bluest Eye

Article excerpt

In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison challenges America's complacent belief in its benevolent self-image through representations of children who experience race, class, and gender oppressions. She is not the first African American author to use images of childhood to undermine cherished conceptions of national identity. In his 1845 slave narrative, Frederick Douglass condemns American democracy and Christianity through detailed accounts of his own childhood as a slave. Similarly, Pauline Hopkins confronts the ideal of an all-white American nation by placing the image of a black baby next to an American flag on the cover of her October 1900 issue of The Colored American Magazine. Morrison, however, centralizes childhood more deeply than her predecessors. Anticipating the currently emerging field in childhood studies, Morrison puts the concept of childhood itself under scrutiny. In The Bluest Eye, a child provides the primary voice through which the reader hears, the primary lens through which the reader sees, and the object of the reader's gaze.

My interest in the novel's children centers on Morrison's treatment of their supposed innocence. In her critical work, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Morrison comments on "thematics of innocence" that typically define Americanness in literature. She asks, "What are Americans always so insistently innocent of?." (44-45). I contend that, in The Bluest Eye, Morrison first explored this question, and the implications of its answer, long before she explicitly asked it. This article first emphasizes the connection between thematics of childhood innocence in American culture and an ideology of national innocence. Next, I argue that Morrison's allusions to the Dick and Jane Basic Readers highlight images of childhood that promote superficial and ahistorical conceptions of the United States. I show how Morrison contrasts these images with child-characters painted as intimate extensions of long familial, socio-economic, and national histories that contradict the innocent ideal. From public education I turn to popular culture. Through Morrison's references to Shirley Temple, I examine images of children as both producers and consumers of commodities that are themselves ironically charged with the ideology of childhood innocence. Finally, I analyze Morrison's allusion to John M. Stahl's film, Imitation of Life (1934), to better understand the symbolic significance of both Pecola's body and Claudia's consciousness. Throughout these analyses, I argue that Morrison shows us the counterhegemonic potential of reimagining childhood in the context of history. She portrays children as victims, activists, recorders, and even oppressors--all as a way of demythologizing the "innocent" past.

Almost a century after Pauline Hopkins's child-image challenged the southern opposition to Reconstruction, Morrison confronts another tense political climate, publishing her first novel during the transition between a waning Civil Rights Movement and the backlash that emerged against it. Morrison faced the repercussions of civil rights legislation in their infancy, but the nation's anxiety about questions of race, class, and gender equity continued to evolve, creating the neo-conservative paranoia regarding "reverse discrimination" and immigration that continues today. By the 1990s, the growth of such conservatism ushers in what Henry Giroux calls "organized forgetting," a phenomenon where Americans look nostalgically back to a "mythic" pre-Civil Rights Era (Channel 77). Claiming that children often serve as "signposts" for America's self-image, Giroux finds evidence of such nostalgia in 1970s Hollywood. He explains that 1970s films such as The Last Picture Show and American Graffiti "resurrected white, suburban, middle-class youth in the nostalgic image of Andy Hardy and Frankie Avalon" (Channel 35, 42). In this mythically innocent past, domestic unrest evaporates while post-war prosperity thrives, despite such tragic realities as the lynching of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. …

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