Blue Eyes, Brown Skin: Remembering Toni Morrison

It was my sophomore year of high school. We were in the middle of a unit on African-American literature, which was taught by a nice Jewish professor. Our book was about a black girl and her two friends, or the closest ones that she can call friends. While Claudia and her sister Frieda try to plant marigolds to make a miracle happen for Pecola, the novel details why no flowers sprout that year. The miracle fails because the world itself is not kind to forgotten little girls. It was one of the most truthful books about double standards and beauty. Pecola ends up trapped, as an example of what happens when you ignore people that need help.

I have to admit I didn’t like most of my classmates. A few participated in the school’s academic team and we hung out practicing on weekends, but I liked being a loner. They did respond viscerally to this book and in righteous defense of Pecola. One expressed disgust at how Pecola’s mother acted towards her daughter. It gave me hope that perhaps basic human decency still existed. If the author wanted to strike a nerve with the class and give them standards, then they succeeded.

The book has stayed with me over the years. I answered an academic team question about the book and got it right. Toni Morrison went on the Colbert Report, to explain why she was frank about race. Maya Angelou was similarly honest regarding her pregnancy, kidnapping, and fears growing up, but she also told softer children’s stories on Sesame Street. Her tales of harsh truths often ended with hope.  Toni did write children’s books with her son Slade, but her perspective was sharper. She knew the world wasn’t kind to kids or adults alike. Sometimes hope does not guarantee a happy ending.

Toni Morrison’s Books

Toni Morrison was a remarkable writer. She had perspective on harsh truths and wrote about them through characters who grew through their failures. Milkman Dead in The Song of Solomon makes a large number of mistakes, due to being the baby of his family. Sethe in Beloved lives with the specters of her past, including when she killed her baby to save her from slavery. I sadly haven’t read more of her books, but I hope to do so.

The Bluest Eye is probably one of the saddest books, and one of the least exploitative in terms of making suffering a spectacle. We even learn that from the first line, “Quiet as its kept, there were no marigolds that year.” It’s the quiet suffering that Toni highlights, what happens behind closed doors and is whispered between adults over tea.

Toni also had frank views on race. She said in a famous Colbert Report interview that technically “race” doesn’t exist in a biological sense; they’re sociological biases that we use to designate each other as “different”. It’s a means to determine who is unequal in this world rather than looking at income level or social class. Toni accepts no white apologist nonsense about how they are “color-blind”; you have to see the world for what it is, rather than from preconceived biases.

What This Means For The World

Toni Morrison’s children have outlived their mother, apart from her youngest son Slade. They have to deal with losing their mother, and with the scrutiny of the media and readers. I send out my love to them, for things to get calmer and for the world to stop screaming long enough for them to have space to grieve.

We have lost a voice of reason who urged us to keep writing when the world decided to repeat history and start putting people in camps, with white supremacists committing mass murder. She was still writing when she died.  Toni understood that screaming in the solitude of her rooms wasn’t enough. We had to find the words to make sense of this painful absurdity. And we had to use words to make our impact, to the best of our ability. Toni also wasn’t afraid to call out white supremacist violence for what it was: a cowardly, craven response to a fear of change. You can’t make art in a vacuum; you have to respond to the outside world however best you can.

Toni, we’ll always remember you. I won’t forget when I first read The Bluest Eye and understood that writing about suffering didn’t have to be Game of Thrones nonsense and exploitation. When I went to the library, they had a special display of you, with your book. I made an effort to not cry and checked it out. This week I’ll read it, and remember why we love you.


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