As two of the premiere African American Writers of their time period Toni Morrison and Ralph Ellison have had a profound effect on African American culture. Both confront the difficulty of defining an identity under the burden of different, dominant and racist white culture. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison describes several characters who accept the norms offered by that culture, with tragic results. Her characters show the obvious effects of white racist assumptions about the beauty and character, but perhaps more tragically, also reveals what happens within African American culture when people apply these norms themselves. Ellison takes a different approach. His invisible man shows the reader that adopting imposed identities, while perhaps a safe and easy path to success in the dominant white culture, is nevertheless both futile and self-defeating, and furthermore, fails to offer any hope for change. Thus, both authors criticize and reject common cultural coping strategies. Morrison show that accepting white definitions of beauty and virtue result in the tragic devastation of families and individuals. Ellison recognizes that assuming the traits that the dominant culture expects leads only to invisibility and not true individual or cultural definition.
In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, beauty is defined simply as blond hair, fair skin, and blue eyes and whatever the white culture views a beautiful. The Bluest Eye presents Pecola whose one desire is to have blue eyes. Pecola is a young girl who is displaced from her home and placed in the custody of the county because her father Cholly Breedlove burned down their house. She ends up moving in with the MacTeer family neighboring black family. Pecola represents black culture. Her character in itself is a tragedy because her aspirations were so innocent but nevertheless lead to her demise. Pecola is a symbol for self hatred and self degradation, a characteristic common in The Bluest Eye .Her beliefs were not her own. She instead accepts the belief that society had imposed on her young and innocent mind. Beauty is everything that she’s not and everything she never will be. At the beginning of the book Pecola struggles with the concept of beauty. “Dandelions. Why do people call them weeds? I think they’re pretty. Nobody loves the head of a dandelion” (Morrison 35). “They are ugly. They are weeds” (Morrison 38). Pecola compares herself to the dandelions. She is ugly and undeserving to be loved because she is made to feel like a weed. Pecola is raised with no sense of self-esteem or self-appreciation. She is an ugly black girl with nothing going for her in terms of looks. In the eyes of society Pecola’s dark black hair and her dark brown eyes don’t fit the definition of beauty. Although the dominant white culture may have defined beauty, it’s the black culture that retained their views and made them their own.
Throughout the novel Pecola hopes for blues eyes as if they will provide her happiness. Blue eyes are the sign of beauty and happiness. “Adults, older girls, shops, magazines, newspapers, window signs – all the world had agreed that a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll was what every girl child treasured.” (20) At this point in the novel Pecola has been convinced by society that she can never be beautiful. She lives a life of turmoil and ugliness. One of Pecola’s coping strategies is to put herself in the shoes of another person she refers to as Jane, an imaginary character from a children’s reading book. By the end of the book she convinces herself she is Jane “Look, look. Here comes a friend. The friend will play with Jane. They will play a good game. Play, Jane, play” (Morrison 152). Pecola believes at this point that she has her blue eyes. She looks into the mirror and finds not herself but a friend as her reflection. Pecola is now viewed as crazy. Through her constant quest for blue eyes she has reached a point of insanity. Her father dies in the workhouse as her baby dies in the womb contributing to her growing mental illness. Her mother continues to serve the white family as she continues to neglect Pecola. Her only brother decides to leave town leaving Pecola all alone with her alternate self staring at their reflection realizing that the blues eyes that she tried so hard to procure has not brought her happiness but sadness in the scope of society. This quote reinforces the “dick and Jane “reference that starts off the novel. Society has painted dick and Jane as a model to people. “The master had said you are ugly people”. (39) Master in the quote represents White society with connotations to slavery.
White society has condemned the black man to self hatred. “They had looked about themselves and saw nothing to contradict the statement; saw, in fact, support for it leaning at them from every billboard, every movie every glance.”(39) Even if black culture didn’t want to embrace white beliefs of beauty it would be very hard because it was branded to their minds by advertisements and media. At one point in the book black boys who went to Pecola’ School made fun of Pecola for everything that they were. The disgust for being black bubbled to the surface and was harvested to be thrown at Pecola like daggers. Societal belief that white is beautiful has torn at the flesh of the black race. Their own outlet is each other or those who have been beaten by themselves and the world outside to a point of non retaliation. “It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds – cooled – and spilled over lips of outrage, consuming whatever was in its path.” (Ellison 65) The endless circle of hatred in present .Blacks continues this vicious cycle because of the absence of self love and societal acceptance. “In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap….She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen.” (122 Morrison) Mrs. Breedlove tries to measure beauty with what she has seen at the movies. Realizing her self hatred she tries to discover the real essence of beauty and happiness while trying to throw away her sorrow. Her obsession furthers her loss of self and is shown in this quote about the cleanliness of her floor.In this scene Mrs.Breedlove is doing laundry while Pecola and “Crazy foolâ€¦my floor,messâ€¦.look what you â€¦workâ€¦get on outâ€¦now thatâ€¦crazyâ€¦my floor,myfloorâ€¦my floor.”(109) The importance if her kitchen floor was great. It sparkled white and so did her reflection in the porcelain floor. It was the only place where she could find beauty.
“Long hours she sat looking in the mirror, trying to discover the secret of the ugliness, the ugliness that made her ignored or despised at school, by teachers and classmates alike.”(45) Pecola at this point
Color is a significant theme in the book. The color of Pecola’s eyes show desperate desire to have blue eyes while the color of skin to demonstrates the segregation between the black and the white and division between light blacks and dark blacks. Morrison’s use of color shows black culture identifies happiness with light colors. For instance, internally black culture struggles substantially within its self because lighter skin implies higher status. This paved the way for the emergence of historical black clubs like Jack and Jill who discriminated against other blacks and within black culture because of the lightness or darkness of the skin. Like “Dick and Jane” Jack and Jill is another representation of black children indentifying with white children as a template for happiness. Since Dick and Jane are white they automatically entitled to happiness. This ideology has been instilled in the minds of black people. In The Bluest Eye the lightness of one’s skin makes one prettier than others and smarter too. “White kids; his mother did not like him to play with niggers. She had explained to him the difference between colored people and niggers. They were easily identifiable. Colored people were neat and quiet; niggers were dirty and loud. “(87) Geraldine is a lighter skinned black woman who tries to separate her and her son from the world of the black man. This reinforces the theme that the lighter the color of your skin the prettier you are, and emphasizes the common motif that appears in many novels of light versus dark. Darkness is usually associated with evil and dirtiness. White is usually linked with being pure and clean without sin. Mrs.Breedlove is obsessed with the cleanliness of the houses she cleans, because it is a home of a white person when in contrast her own home at which she should care about is left in shambles. The difference with the houses is another representation of black culture accepting to much about those who society paints as important and forgets what’s important to them. In contrast Geraldine, the middle class black women, is obsessed with cleanliness of her house and because of it she thinks that she is stripped of her blackness and forgets who and what she really is. She views other black people as below her and not worthy of conversation. This is apparent when Geraldine catches her son Junior playing with Pecola Breedlove. When she realizes that her cat was murdered she automatically assumes that Pecola is the perpetrator when ,in fact, it was her pretentious son. “This opens the reader’s eye to the many different levels of racism. After the obvious white/black separation, we discover that there is even hostility from some blacks toward other blacks. Junior wants to be able to have fun with the black boys, but his mother won’t allow him to. Due to his mother, Geraldine’s harsh restrictions, Junior resorts to humiliating others and bullying girls, namely Pecola. “How he laughed when they fell down and their bloomers showed. When they got up, their faces red and crinkled, it made him feel good.”(87)”
However the power that Geraldine holds over the black race is given to her by the black race. Mrs. Breedlove for instance instills in the mind of her own child that being light skinned changes how pretty you are to the outside world. This is clear when Maureen Peal, a wealthy light skinned new girl, comes to town and tells Pecola how pretty she is. Instantly Pecola believes that color plays a role in happiness and safety. Maureen also buys into this doctrine because she goes on to say “I am cute ! And you ugly! Black and ugly black emos!”(73) Maureen forgets what she is: a black person not only to white people to black people also. Mrs.Breedlove’s strong dislike for her own daughter is clear when a little a white girl strolls into their house asking for Polly (Mrs.Breedlove). When Mrs.Breedlove sees that Pecola accidentally spilled a pan of pie on the floor she rushes to the floor without regarding the safety of her own daughter who has just been burnt by the scalding hot berry juice. After she cleans the floor she moves to the white girl who has been splashed with a little bit of the blueberry pie. Mrs.Breedlove tends to the white girl and soothes her with a “honey” like voice at which is foreign to Pecola bolstering her beliefs that the blue eyes inspire happiness and create love and attention.
Pecola’s obsession with having blues eyes shows the motif that is common throughout the book. Eyes symbolize what society sees and wants. She thinks that having blues eyes will in effect get her parents to love her and call her beautiful. She believes there are different “pictures” to be seen. “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights-if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.”(46) Pecola’s innocently ignorant self loathing leads her to an unfortunate and unhealthy state. Eyes have always been a window to the soul and what Pecola doesn’t realize is that beauty comes from what she believes is beautiful. Like the old adage beauty comes from within and not from view of others. The narrator of the story has a tough time understanding why beauty is associated with having blues eyes. Eventually the narrator succumbs to society and calls dandelions weeds and not flowers. Pecola’s belief that blues eyes make life better and happier plays into black cultures belief that being white leads to success. They are lacking two vital traits that are important to ones happiness: beauty and love.
In the Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison talks about how societal stereotypes give the narrator and unwanted identity. Due to this narrator tries to define himself by accepting the stereotypes but soon realizes that he can’t yield to the expectations of others only those of himself. In the prologue the invisible man defines himself as visible but invisible to society. “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids-and I might even be said to possess mind. I am invisible; understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” (3) The invisible man is not visible because he wishes not to be seen but because society doesn’t recognize what he is. The narrator in the Invisible Man tries to conform to the white stereotypes and fit into the categories that the white men place on him. “Our white is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you’d have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn’t white clear through.”(250)This quote is presented as a metaphor for the white power over the blacks. The only way that white society would accept the black man is if he assimilates to white cultural beliefs. Optic white is the paint company that the invisible man works for. The white paint company fails to acknowledge its dependence on the black paint company who mixes the paint. This is also example of how white culture tries to subdue black culture and make blacks hide their true identity in order for society to take them in. even though the narrator himself tries to conform to white society he still remains not to be seen. The problem that is posed to the invisible man is that of definition. Defining what he is or what he should be. In the Invisible Man Ralph Ellison shows two sides of the black community; one of conformity and the other of rebellion. There are disastrous results for both parties. Dr. Bledsoe a teacher at a college believes in order to get by in the world and remain visible one must conform and please the needs of the white folks. “I’s big and black and I say ‘Yes, suh’ as loudly as any burrhead when it’s convenient, but I’m still the king down here. . . . The only ones I even pretend to please are big white folk, and even those I control more than they control me. . . . That’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about. . . . It’s a nasty deal and I don’t always like it myself. . . . But I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am.”(160)Dr.bledsoe is a black man plays a cowardly game with white society. Instead of talking in a way that white people my perceive as smart he talks in like and uneducated good for nothing nigger. In order to help his white bosses feel a sense of security and superiority. To know that the black man has remained in its place and is making no strides forward comforts them. His racist comment at the end of his quote is only used to establish that no matter what it takes he will make himself visible to white man even if it’s at the cost of his own self pride. The narrator realizes that Dr.Bledsoe has taken many steps backward In having society recognize him instead of taking large strides forward. The doctor in front of his name is meaningless because the white man has found a way of controlling him and keeping his thoughts at bay.
Racism in the novel is the obstruction to which the invisible man has a tough time in finding his identity. When he comes in contact with the coin back at Mary’s he understands that in order to be acknowledged, the black man must slip to the lowest of levels. He must embrace the stereotypes of a coon. The coin bank is wide mouth black man with thick red lips and image very common in the reconstruction era of America. “â€¦the cast-iron figure of a very black, red-lipped and wide-mouthed Negro . . . stared up at me from the floor, his face an enormous grin, his single large black hand held palm up before his chest. It was a bank, a piece of early Americana, the kind of bank which, if a coin is placed in the hand and a lever pressed upon the back, will raise its arm and flip the coin into the grinning mouth. The narrator despises these stereotypes and tries desperately to be free from them. He may be a freed slave but he sure as hell not a freed man. The whole point of this vile creation is to provide entertainment for white society. This is the only format in which the invisible man becomes visible. Thus him saying: “It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves.” (3) Racism is also found in the factory liberty paints when the invisible man gets in a fist fight because he and his white counterpart don’t see eye to eye. When the boiler explodes and the narrator is rendered unconscious the doctors perform experiments on the invisible man to help classify narrator. they don’t even see him as human. “to please a white man is to tell him a lie”(Ellison 130) This quote allows us to see that the narrator realizes that his sole existence is for the white man’s pleasure and amusement. Almost like a caged monkey would be to children.
Unlike in Morrison ,Ellison character finds a ray of hope at the ends of the novel. “All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naÃ¯ve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization that everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself.” (15) The narrator realizes that only he himself can set his expectations and goals. “And my problem was that I always tried to go in everyone’s way but my own. I have also been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself. So after years of trying to adopt the opinions of others I finally rebelled. I am an invisible man.” The narrator’s exceptance of being invisible because black or white society can define who he is. He is who he wants to be. He defines what his black means no one else. The invisible man is visible to some but most importantly he is visible to himself. Unfortately in Morrison visibility was lacking. By the end of Bluest Eye Pecola shrank into a state of only self awareness. The outside world disappeared with her sanity. Pecola’s character representing black culture is the protagonist and antagonist all at the same time. She strives to be better but in doing so her mind becomes twisted in warped. Her Strong desire to get blue eyes or in theory become white shows the tragedy and the ultimate demise of black culture. Malcolm X said it best “Who made you Hate yourself?”
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