'The Bluest Eye': Notes on History, Community, and Black Female Subjectivity

Article excerpt

In Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, the Breedloves' storefront apartment is graced overhead by the home of three magnificent whores, each a tribute to Morrison's confidence in the efficacy of the obvious. The novel's unhappy convergence of history, naming and bodies--delineated so subtly and variously elsewhere--is, in these three, signified most simply and most crudely by their bodies and their names: Poland, China, the Maginot Line. With these characters, Morrison literalizes the novel's overall conflation of black female bodies as the sites of fascist invasions of one kind or another, as the terrain on which is mapped the encroachment and colonization of African-American experiences, particularly those of its women, by a seemingly hegemonic white culture. The Bluest Eye as a whole documents this invasion--and its concomitant erasure of specific local bodies, histories, and cultural productions--in terms of sexuality as it intersects with commodity culture. Furthermore, this mass culture and, more generally, the commodity capitalism that gave rise to it, is in large part responsible--through its capacity to efface history--for the "disinterestedness" that Morrison condemns throughout the novel. Beyond exempting this, Morrison's project is to rewrite the specific bodies and histories of the black Americans whose positive images and stories have been eradicated by commodity culture. She does this formally by shifting the novel's perspective and point of view, a narrative tactic that enables her, in the process, to represent black female subjectivity as a layered, shifting and complex reality.

The disallowance of the specific cultures and histories of African-Americans and black women especially is figured in The Bluest Eye primarily as a consequence of or sideline to the more general annihilation of popular forms and images by an ever more all-pervasive and insidious mass culture industry. This industry increasingly disallows the representation of any image not premised on consumption or the production of normative values conducive to it. These values are often rigidly tied to gender and are race-specific to the extent that racial and ethnic differences are not allowed to be represented. One lesson from history, as Susan Willis reiterates, is that "in mass culture many of the social contradictions of capitalism appear to us as if those very contradictions had been resolved" ("I Shop" 183). Among these contradictions we might include those antagonisms continuing in spite of capitalism's benevolent influence, along the axes of economic privilege and racial difference. According to Willis, it is because "all the models [in mass cultural representation] are white"--either in fact or by virtue of their status as "replicants ... devoid of cultural integrity"--that the differences in race or ethnicity (and class, we might add) and the continued problems for which these differences are a convenient excuse appear to be erased or made equal "at the level of consumption" ("I Shop" 184). In other words, economic, racial and ethnic difference is erased and replaced by a purportedly equal ability to consume, even though what is consumed are more or less competing versions of the same white image.

There is evidence of the presence and influence of this process of erasure and replacement throughout The Bluest Eye. For example, the grade school reader that prefaces the text was (and in many places still is) a ubiquitous, mass-produced presence in schools across the country. Its widespread use made learning the pleasures of Dick and Jane's commodified life dangerously synonymous with learning itself. Its placement first in the novel makes it the pretext for what is presented after: As the seeming given of contemporary life, it stands as the only visible model for happiness and thus implicitly accuses those whose lives do not match up. In 1941, and no less so today, this would include a lot of people. Even so, white lower-class children can at least more easily imagine themselves posited within the story's realm of possibility. …

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