By Ben Olson
More than 1,600 books across 32 states were banned during the 2021-2022 school year alone. In Idaho, 26 titles were banned across three school districts, underscoring a trend spearheaded largely by right-wing religious groups pushing for censorship of books that feature LGBTQ+ characters, as well as sexual and racial situations. In an attempt to shed light on this development, I have pledged to read all 26 books banned this year in Idaho and share with our readers what they are all about, why they were likely banned and what we are missing by promoting censorship of the written word.
American novelist Toni Morrison was born in 1931, with her works later earning several prestigious awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award for Song of Solomon, the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, Morrison was one of four children from a working class Black family. Her father moved from segregated Georgia to the integrated town of Lorain, Ohio after witnessing two Black businessmen who lived on his street lynched.
She enrolled in Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1949, where she encountered race-segregated restaurants and buses for the first time. After graduating in 1953, she married, had two children, divorced and eventually began working as an editor for L.W. Singer, a textbook division of Random House. In 1967 she became the first Black senior editor in Random House’s fiction department. It was in this capacity that Morrison played a vital role in bringing Black literature into the mainstream, fostering a new generation of Black writers. She passed away in 2019, leaving behind 11 novels, seven children’s books, two plays and a handful of other works.
The Bluest Eye was Morrison’s first novel, set in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio. Published in 1970, the book was favorably reviewed at first, but did not sell well until the City University of New York placed The Bluest Eye on its reading list for a new Black Studies Department. Other colleges soon followed and the book gained a footing.
Filled with rich language, raw emotions and bold statements on race, socioeconomic equality and gender, the book tells the story of 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove, who prays for her eyes to turn blue so she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blonde, blue-eyed white children.
Told through the eyes of multiple narrators, the novel is divided into four sections named for the different seasons. Pecola is sent to live with another Black family, the MacTeers, because she was, “a girl who had no place to go,” after Pecola’s father, Cholly, burned down the family’s house.
Claudia and Frieda MacTeer befriend the similarly aged Pecola, who, though she is also Black like them, is teased because she is poor, ugly and has a dysfunctional family life, discovering that she’ll never be “beautiful” or as desired as white or light-skinned Black children.
The book culminates in a tragic situation for Pecola, in which her father Cholly rapes her and the townsfolk largely shrug, concluding that “she probably deserved it.”
After the rape, Pecola consults with a spiritual healer called Soaphead Church, who claims he can perform miracles for the Black community. When Pecola asks him for blue eyes, Soaphead initially sympathizes: “Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty,” Morrison wrote. “A little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes. His outrage grew and felt like power. For the first time he honestly wished he could work miracles.”
The novel ends after Pecola, tossed aside by her family, friends and community, loses her mind. She becomes pregnant with her father’s baby, which dies after being born prematurely.
One powerful section of the book involves Pecola’s mother, Pauleen, who works as a servant for a wealthy white family. Claudia and Frieda visit the white family’s home to locate their friend Pecola, surprising a young white girl who informally calls her servant “Polly” instead of “Mrs. Breedlove.” It comes to pass that Polly begins liking her time working in the white family’s home more than time with her own family.
In one scene, Polly bathes the white child. Morrison writes about how they use a porcelain tub with infinite hot water from silver taps and fluffy towels. She then compares it to bathing her own children in a zinc tub, with buckets of stove-heated water smelling of firesmoke, flaky gray towels washed in kitchen sinks and dried in a dusty backyard. The comparison between races is vivid, harsh and emotive.
Why it was banned
The Bluest Eye has been challenged and banned by numerous school districts in recent years. Reasons cited have included, “sexually explicit material,” “lots of graphic descriptions and lots of disturbing language,” and “an underlying socialist-communist agenda.” One complaint simply called it a “bad book.”
It’s true, some passages are difficult to read, as are any depictions of sexual abuse involving children. The scenes are not gratuitous in nature, though, and fairly brief, but help the reader feel the pain and anguish that comes from sexual abuse — especially when it comes from inside the family.
When Morrison accepted her Nobel Prize in 1993, she spoke of “Laureates yet to come,” saying that, “Their voices bespeak civilizations gone and yet to be; the precipice from which their imaginations gaze will rivet us; they do not blink nor turn away.”
My first thought after reading just a couple pages of Morrison’s novel was, “How in the world would anybody ban this book? Think of what they’re missing.” Morrison’s scenes are painted with a rich brush. It’s a difficult book to read, because it doesn’t make you feel good. That’s fine, because we don’t read books to feel better about ourselves, but to step into a perspective we wouldn’t normally have otherwise.
I believe that’s the biggest loss that comes from censoring books like these: the loss of perspective. I read books for many of the same reasons I travel internationally — mainly the exposure to cultures and climates I would not have had otherwise being born a middle-class white kid in North Idaho in the 1980s. To experience Morrison’s identity, if only for a couple hundred pages, is like stepping inside someone else’s skin to see how they view the world. It’s not always neat and easy to live in another’s shoes, but if we are to evolve further into compassionate, caring human beings, we must first understand those elements that we use to divide ourselves and work from there.
To read The Bluest Eye and come to the conclusion that it had to be banned means the reader took nothing from Morrison’s painfully meticulous writing. It is a raw and powerful novel that I never knew existed until it was banned, which is the ultimate irony when it comes to censorship; try as one might, the moment you try to ban a book, it grows larger than it ever would have before.
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