--2 Lee on Literature: The Bluest Eyes and Obama's legacy
Sept. 23, 2017

Lee on Literature: The Bluest Eyes and Obama's legacy

Is dysfunctional role play at play in Washington?

September 30, 2013, 10:00 am
By Lee Miller

  The Bluest Eye was 1993 Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s first book. The work derived from the shock, outrage, horror and sadness that Morrison felt during childhood when one of her African-American grade school friends hungered for blue eyes instead of brown. Through the character of Pecola, Morrison explores “how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable: a female.” The Bluest Eye explores young Pecola’s negotiation of a “crippled and crippling” family, the racism of a larger society, a struggle that shines unique light upon the legacy of Barack Obama’s presidency.

The Bluest Eye begins with a retelling of the “Dick and Jane” story, the simplest first book for many children. As the novel progresses, this “Dick and Jane” story fragments and echoes in a Faulkneresque manner, creating a crumbling frame around the concepts of house, Jane, Mother, Father, cat, and Jane’s play with friends. 

Pecola’s “house” is symbolized by a broken couch that is paid for on credit and has no history or character. “Father” is played by Cholly Breedlove, a man who moved from the south to Loriane, Ohio for greater economic opportunity, yet slipped into alcohol and incest. In the South, his Master had said, “You are ugly people” and in the North, every billboard supported this idea.

Pecola’s “Mother,” Polly Breedlove, funnels her husband’s faults into her own intense role as a martyr. Pauline defines herself through fights with Cholly, dramas that broadcast her higher morality to her children and friends. Like all characters relative to Pecola, Polly makes herself beautiful by facilitating Cholly’s ugliness.

This leaves Pecola “experimenting with methods of endurance.” She must negotiate her own family and a larger society where she is either “ugly” or “invisible.” For example, at a white immigrant’s candy store, the owner never “sees” Pecola, a phenomenon echoing Ralph Elison’s central premise in Invisible Man. 

The most popular (and lightest skinned) girl at school, Maureen, only interacts with Pecola to probe lurid stories about her father Cholly. When Pecola’s sister will not divulge any sordid details, Maureen snaps at the Breedlove girls, “I am cute! And you are ugly! Black and ugly. I am cute!” 

Similar knee-jerk reactions, backed by decades of role playing, taint Pecola’s visit with Junior. She is lured into his house to see a cat, but the encounter is really an awkward teen bullying. Junior beats the cat to intimidate Pecola, but when his mother discovers the pair, Junior blames Pecola for the cat’s accidental death. Instead of investigating the situation, Junior’s mother looks over Pecola and sees “the destitute eyes of the poor in Mobile” and every other dirty cranny of her own experience. The mother instantly rejects Pecola and instinctively supports long-established stereotypes with the words, “Get out you nasty little black bitch.  Get out of my house.”

At the heart of The Bluest Eye, all characters slip into dysfunctional role play. All sides are uncomfortable when long-established stereotypes are challenged, and quickly revert to historical roles, no matter their destructiveness. Recognizing this phenomenon is important to evaluating the presidency of Barak Obama to date. Do some Republican and Tea Party conservatives consciously or unconsciously revert to a historical roles when obstructing every move that Obama initiates? Or is it pure politics? Does President Obama play a deeply ingrained role by repeatedly engaging his adversaries with an excessively polite manner? Does Obama facilitate martyrdom and ugliness within a crippled and crippling family like Polly Breedlove? Or is Obama simply an incompetent administrator, free of racism? Maybe incompetence and racism are the only sides working together in Washington? 

So far in the second term, all of Obama’s initiatives—including gun control, budget proposals, immigration reform, NLRB appointments, and hardline action in Syria—have all disintegrated. His “disapproval” rating is now 49% according to a recent poll New York Times poll. Is the Affordable Care Act next in line? Dysfunction shrouds Obama like it shrouded Pecola. Some “honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength” while others experimented with methods of endurance.

Lee Miller is the author of the historical novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of a traditional Bengali mother, Mrs. Sona Choudhury, who raises a family amidst 20th Century India’s great challenges.



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