In order to move cleanly and wholly into our discussion of Beloved tomorrow, I thought we might conclude our discussion of The Bluest Eye via digital mediums. Pursuant to that I goal, I will post what follows on the blog and hope that many of you will respond with questions, elaborations, and contestations.
In today’s class I attempted to connect DuBois’s famous concept, double-consciousness, and many of the characters in Morrison’s novel:
…the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.(DuBois 3 The Souls of Black Folk)
I offered this, controversially, as a normative description of black identity rather than a reality for all black folks. Claiming this conception as normative is problematic in that it implies that this is, and perhaps should be, the normal or standard state of African-American identity. My emphasis in using the term normative is the ubiquity with which this concept has been taken up and the extent to which, if it is true for some, it may resonate differently for different members of the African-American community as depicted by Morrison. Specifically, we might see in Morrison’s depictions of various members of the community –Geraldine, Soaphead Church, the women who discuss Pecola’s pregnancy in earshot of the MacTeer girls—attempts to excise their ‘dirtiness’ by casting their own sociological eye onto other members of the black community. In other words, in order to achieve “true self-consciousness” the black community (and I use this more general designation deliberately) performs the “American” function of measuring the souls of black people they have excluded and looked upon with “contempt and pity” because of class/ color /ugliness/dirtiness/ southern-ness/etc.
If this is at work in the African-American community, the striving towards whiteness/American-ness through the oppression of others, it might then be argued that Morrison resignifies “American” as not merely separated from blackness by a veil but as parasitic on a blackness that allows it/ ‘American’ to align itself with whiteness/cleanliness/northern-ness/beauty etc. It should be noted that for DuBois, blackness, or ‘the negro soul’ has positive/existent content and is not merely a signifier of oppression. I read Morrison’s construction and deployment of blackness within the community in The Bluest Eye as signifying lack and exclusion. Thus when Pecola asks for blue eyes she not only seeks beauty but all of the terms related to it—America-ness/whiteness/cleanliness/northern-ness—and enrolls herself with a system that by its nature oppresses in order to consolidate its structurally empowered.
The damage done, as the novel tells us at its closing, was total (Morrison 204). Claudia calls Pecola’s days “tendril, sap-green” and describes her as looking “like a bird in an eternal, grotesquely futile effort to fly”(204). Here two potentially paradoxical conceptions are at play, one in which Pecola is like a growing plant, necessarily grounded in the earth reminding the reader of the flowers that never grew. The second is a story from black folklore, The People Could Fly, in which some of the enslaved African were are able to, upon hearing the magic word, fly home, but some having lost their wings and/or their ability to fly are left behind. Taken together we might see a commonality in the tendril’s need for support, underscored by the immaturity implicit in “sap-green,” and an inability to reach or see any conception of black-ness ( located perhaps in Africa…where those in the folktale fly to) which might provide it. Ultimately, whatever might be devoted to attempting to enhance the ‘negro soul’, or in the parlance of the Black Power Movement(s) to conceive of black as beautiful, is used by the community to stand “astride her ugliness” to make themselves beautiful and to clean itself on her. Its humor, health, eloquence, generosity and character are all constructed through the lack THEY CREATE in Pecola and all of those girls and boys who “sat in little rows on street curbs, crowded into pews at church, taking space from the nice, neat, colored children”(92). When Claudia concludes that the “land of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year” the insistent ‘we,’ which seems certainly to be the black community is also shown to be the white or American community. The foundation of their shared imagining becomes the creation of and acquiescence to the myth that “the victim had no right to live” (206). This grotesque merger of two souls, this American soul is only accessible as Baldwin theorizes by recognizing an absolute bottom in someone, something, else.
To reiterate the opening, this is a conversation I look forward to continuing, via the blog, in office hours over coffee.