Throughout the duration of this course, we have seen many examples of diaspora-related literature, both of the fiction and non-fiction kind. Toni Morrison's novel, however, seems to be different for there appears to have no migration that is usually reflected in works related to diasporas and immigration. Meanwhile, Toni Morrison's novel, The Bluest Eye, is different, as the characters figured there are almost exclusively Afro-Americans, not so much immigrants themselves, as the descendants of slaves, brought over to the USA a long time before the events in the book itself took place. Consequently, this essay will look at The Bluest Eye and several other novels and see how it fits with the rest of the novels as a piece of diaspora literature, especially one dealing with immigration-related trauma.
There are many sorts of migration, and Robin Cohen's book Global Diasporas describes several of the main types in detail. Two of those types were the so-called "victim/refugee" and "labour/service" diasporas, and the characters of The Bluest Eye fall into these two categories. Firstly, of course, it must be realized that the characters' ancestors were not so much immigrants, as slaves that were brought to the initial 13 colonies on ships in chains.
Digging up and replanting. This has a high state of failure, depending on the original condition, the journey and the new site. (On the skips taking "coolies" to the Caribbean 18 per cent died. Another 25 per cent returned to India at the end of their indenture.)
The quotation above describes primarily indentured workers (Indians, Chinese and Japanese, etc.), not slaves, but the principle remains the same, and the similarities, alas, are there too. Like the "coolies" in the example, the African slaves experienced a high rate of attrition on their way to America, and obviously, for every person who managed to "adapt" to a life of a slave in a new, foreign land (clearly different from their homeland), there were at least several who failed to do so, and died for various reasons.
There was, however, another factor involved, one more closely associated (according to Cohen) with a different type of a diaspora, the victim/refugee kind. Such type of a diaspora is associated with the so-called Traumatic dispersal (italicized by the author), and it is connected directly to the plight of the ancestors of the characters in Toni Morrison's novel:
Being dragged off in manacles (as were the Jews and African captives), or being coerced to leave by force of arms (as were the Armenians), appear to be qualitatively different phenomena from the general pressures of overpopulation, land hunger, poverty or an unsympathetic political regime. Jews were dispersed to such an extent that their diaspora population massively outnumbered the original homeland population, while the number of diaspora Africans amounts to about 40 million people, about one-tenth of the black African population.
In Cohen's system, that sort of diaspora is classified as that of a victim/refugee type. In addition, he writes that "[t]he equivalent for diasporas are the practices of expulsion, deportation, genocide and "ethnic cleansing", i.e. implying that diasporas are often, if not always, related to trauma. (Cohen, pg 178) Moreover, he was correct: the characters in The Bluest Eye are not the slaves-immigrants in question. However, The Bluest Eye is dealing with their relatively distant descendants, yet even they show traumas of life in the USA at the time described in the novel, due to the initial slavery-derived inequality of the first relations between Anglo- and Afro-Americans.
Now, this sort of inequality, coupled with the mention of Jews in Global Diasporas brings to mind a different piece of fiction, covered by this course - The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare. Just like the characters in The Bluest Eye, the Jewish diaspora in Shakespeare's Venice has to deal with the powerful and hostile population of Europeans, as well as the traumatic social inequality that was to the Jews' disadvantage.
Shylock, admittedly, is only a semi-sympathetic figure, especially initially, when he lends Antonio money, but even then one can see that the roots of his conflict with Antonio, the conflict of an "alien" and a "native" have begun beyond the play, and it is a double-sided conflict:
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances;
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,
For suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe;
You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help;
Go to, then; you come to me, and you say
`Shylock, we would have moneys.' You say so:
You that did void your rheum upon my beard,
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold; moneys is your suit.
What should I say to you? Should I not say
`Hath a dog money? Is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?' Or
Shall I bend low and, in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whisp'ring humbleness,
`Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last;
You spurn'd me such a day; another time
You call'd me dog; and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much moneys?'
(Shakespeare, pg 27-28)
Undoubtedly, even at the best of times, Shylock is only a semi-sympathetic character; his demands on Antonio when the latter's fortunes begin to fail are cruel (and ridiculous), but the adult characters of Dionne Brand's novel What We All Long For are a different story, namely a more modern version of the adult characters of The Bluest Eye, and just like the characters of The Bluest Eye, they are very concerned about, if not obsessed, by their attempts to fit in:
[...] There was an assumption among them that their families were boring and uninteresting and a general pain, and best kept hidden, and that they couldn't wait for the end of high school to leave home. Only once in a while did they sigh in resignation at some ridiculous request from their families to fit in and stop making trouble.
"Yes, Ma. I'll get a blonde wig and fit in all right!" Tuyen once yelled at her mother. At which her mother looked wounded and told her to stop making jokes and try harder.
It may look as if Shylock's daughter Jessica is going in an opposite direction to Tuyen and her friends, yet in reality Jessica's marriage to Lorenzo is also the same desire for the "bluest eyes" as that of Pecola Breedlove, albeit more attainable. Just like Pecola, Jessica wanted to fit with the dominant society described in the play. Like Maureen Peel in The Bluest Eye, she succeeds to a certain extent, and just like Tuyen and Tuyen's friends in Dionne Brand's novel, she rebels against the older generations. Thus, Jessica can be considered to be as traumatized as Pecola (though probably to a different extent).
There is more, however, to The Bluest Eye to make it a diaspora-related novel than just the characters' obsession with their appearances. Their behaviour, too, is nomadic, as is the very nature of the novel, its background:
There is nothing more to say about the furnishings. They were anything but describable, having been conceived, manufactured, shipped, and sold in various states of thoughtlessness, greed, and indifference. The furniture has aged without even having become familiar. People have owned it, but never known it.
This is a description of an impersonal, inhospitable, unsettled place - not a home. A home is one's final destination, in a matter of speaking; this place is more of an intermediary fill, a place that is partway between other two points, not a true home, but more of a place to take a break...and in this case, it is not very inviting. There is a sense of nomads, of moving from place to place, a sense of homelessness, but also, perhaps, of freedom. Cholly, one of the characters in The Bluest Eye, perhaps embodies this freedom the most, but in the case of this novel, this freedom is not a good thing.
In addition, the epithets of "thoughtlessness, greed, and indifference" also help to create a mental image of a stark, inhospitable place, possibly coloured white, for to Toni Morrison the colour white was always negative, at least in her books.
If we follow through on the self-reflexive nature of these encounters with Africanism, it falls clear: images of blackness can be evil and protective, rebellious and forgiving, fearful and desirable--all of the self-contradictory features of the self. Whiteness, alone, is mute, meaningless, unfathomable, pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable. Or so our writers seem to say.
This quotation is not from The Bluest Eye, but from Playing in the Dark, a non-fiction book by Morrison. Nevertheless, the message of this quotation can be applied to The Bluest Eye as well. Essentially, the characters in that novel are all of Afro-American descent, but they do not get along with each other any better than all-Caucasian or multicultural characters would. That said, their interaction with any Anglo-American characters is always negative. Rosemary, though a minor character, is clearly a tattletale, trying to get Claudia, Frieda and Pecola into trouble, while in the latter part of the book, Mrs. Breedlove is discovered by Pecola and MacTeer sisters to be working for a Caucasian family - this is not only a throwback to the pre-Civil War times, but also a clear preference of Mrs. Breedlove of strangers over her own family. Put otherwise, the Afro-American characters in The Bluest Eye encompass the spectrum of characteristics mentioned in the quotation from Playing in the Dark, while the other characters always have only negative connotations.
All of the above demonstrates that the characters in The Bluest Eye are as badly traumatized by their world and in a similar way, as characters in other diaspora literature, such as In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh or The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. This is made ironic by the fact that the world of The Bluest Eye is a world populated by the Afro-Americans; the Anglo-Americans exist almost only off screen, but their influence is just as profound, as if they were right in the thick of the novel, and this a relationship that is typical in literature, but also possesses a special twist in the diaspora-related literature in the character of "the other".
There is a literary element known as "the other", an entity that is used to contrast, or compare, the existent values of the author's society, somebody who is something of an outsider, looking at the mainstream culture of a country... from the outside, obviously. The diaspora-related literature gives this element a particular twist, by equalizing him or her with the immigrant character in the immigrant-native conflict of such pieces of fiction.
Admittedly, Tuyen and her friends in What We All Long For are outsiders or "others" involved in a conflict not so much with the native population, but by refusing to follow the main rules of their contemporary society (essentially, looking down on it), and following their own path, they become a side in a cultural conflict all the same. In The Bluest Eye, however, the situation is different: the majority, if not all of the characters there, belong to the outsiders, looking at the mainstream culture, which, in this instance, dictates that the blue eyes are the best. The author of The Bluest Eye, though, does disagree with it, and so does her main mouthpiece, Claudia, as it is shown in Claudia's long monologue about dolls: Claudia does not like her very much Anglo-Americans dolls, but everyone else seems to be enamoured with them precisely for that reason. This difference in opinions makes Claudia (and perhaps her author) very irritated and she tries her best to tell that being white is not the same as being beautiful, something that seems to be the main driving force of the novel's characters. This sort of dichotomy, i.e. "beautiful-ugly" brings back the idea of "the other", with "the other" being different from the mainstream culture, with ugliness as good a difference as any.
"The other" is obviously featured in all sorts of literature, both fiction and not, but in literature that is related to diasporas or immigration, that "other" often has one particular twist: the racial barrier. Often, in such literary pieces as The Merchant of Venice or In an Antique Land, the outsider, "the other", is a foreigner, who does not belong to the place, yet who seeks to be accepted all the same, with various results. Often, money plays a role: Maureen Peel may also be of Afro-American descent, but because her family is rich, she is treated much better than any other Afro-American children, especially Pecola, whose family is near the bottom of the social ladder instead. Alternatively, in The Merchant of Venice, the prince of Morocco is given an equal chance to that of other suitors, and though he fails, it is not because of his appearance or race, his speech notwithstanding.
As a matter of fact, characters of Caucasian descent may be the outsiders, "the others", instead. J. Coetzee's novel Disgrace is written precisely along that idea, demonstrating how the Africans of European descent fair no better in apartheid South Africa than Afro-Americans do in the USA. Disgrace, of course, is also a diaspora novel, but the diaspora here is white instead of black; the end result, though, is still the same: the outsiders are still being abused and ill-treated as they do in The Merchant of Venice or The Bluest Eye.
Colour, however, is not the only way a character can be differentiated from others - in case of Cholly, the father of Pecola, colour is not as important as in the case with his family members:
Except for the father, Cholly, whose ugliness (the result of despair, dissipation, and violence directed toward petty things and weak people) was behavior, the rest of the family--Mrs. Breedlove, Sammy Breedlove, and Pecola Breedlove--wore their ugliness, put it on, so to speak, although it did not belong to them.
(Morrison, pg. 38)
This quotation differentiates between different kinds of differences, between the Breedlove family members. Later on, these differences will show how these different sorts of ugliness brought forth some very different results as well as the tragic end of The Bluest Eye, but for now let us just understand that there are various dimensions to the trauma experienced by the characters of The Bluest Eye. Consequently several different ways of understanding the characters' experiences are required.
Ruth Leys in the chapter "Freud and Trauma" discusses these differences, these different sorts of trauma, at length. "Trauma was originally the term for a surgical wound, conceived on the model of a rupture of skin or protective envelope of the body resulting in a catastrophic global reaction in the entire organism." (Leys, 19) (Incidentally, even in modern times the word "trauma" is used both in psychological and medicinal terms.) The "skin" concept leads directly to Toni Morrison's novel, for it is skin that separates the Afro-Americans from their Anglo-American counterparts, or, more precisely, the colour of the skins does. The novel's narrator, admittedly, does not appear to be thinking that this is such a bad thing, but she also admits that this is how things are. Maureen Peel (who is either a mulatto or is lighter in colour than the other Afro-Americans) is given a special treatment because of her colour (among other things):
She was rich, at least by our standards, as rich as the richest of the white girls, swaddled in comfort and care. The quality of her clothes threatened to derange Frieda and me. [...] There was a hint of spring in her sloe green eyes, something summery in her complexion, and a rich autumn ripeness in her walk.
She enchanted the entire school. When teachers called upon her, they smiled encouragingly. Black boys didn't trip her in the halls; white boys didn't stone her, white girls didn't suck their teeth when she was assigned to be their work partners; black girls stepped aside when she wanted to use the skin in the girls' toilet [...]
(Morrison, pg 62)
The narrator and her sister Frieda are completely ambiguous towards Maureen. They both despise her in secret, and want to be her friends, also in secrets. Their dislike of Maureen stems from her superior status, though, and not from the colour of her skin - until their confrontation with her and Pecola Breedlove in the streets.
"What do I care about her old black daddy?" asked Maureen.
"Black? Who you calling black?"
"You think you so cute!" I swung at her and missed, hitting Pecola in the face.
Safe on the other side, she screamed at us, "I am cute! And you ugly! Black and ugly black e mos. I am cute!"
(Morrison, pg 73)
This quotation demonstrates that in the world of The Bluest Eye black is ugly, and it is considered so not at a rational, but at an emotional level. Both Pecola and Maureen and others believe that black is ugly, and it is not as much as Anglo-Americans (because they almost do not appear in this novel), but the Afro-Americans themselves.
Dolls we could destroy, but we could not destroy the honey voices of parents and aunts, the obedience in the eyes of our peers, the slippery light in the eyes of our teachers when they encountered the Maureen Peels of the world.
(Morrison, pg 74)
If the world of The Bluest Eye is differentiated along the lines of skin colour, where does trauma enter it?
For Freud, trauma was thus constituted by a dialectic between two events, neither of which was intrinsically traumatic, and a temporal delay or latency through which the past was available only by a deferred act of understanding and interpretation.
(Leys, pg 20)
What lies in the past of the Afro-American characters of Toni Morrison's novel? As it was said before - slavery and forced relocation that was discussed above. One needs to know only the basics of American history before the Civil War to learn that before that time the African slaves were considered inferior to their Caucasian masters, and that after the Civil War that situation did not improve overmuch at the time described in the novel. The Afro-Americans in The Bluest Eye may no longer be enslaved, but their interactions with the other races (i.e. Anglo-American in the case of this novel) still show their definite inferiority complex. (In addition, it ought to be kept in mind that The Bluest Eye occurs in the 1970s, about a decade after the racial segregation has ended in the United States: many, especially among the elder generation, characters have developed an inferiority complex in relation to the Anglo-Americans and are suffering from it besides from anything else.)
Another door opened, and in walked a little girl, smaller and younger than all of us. She wore a pink sunback dress and pink fluffy bedroom slippers with two bunny ears pointed up from the tips. Her hair was corn yellow and bound in a thick ribbon. When she saw us, fear danced across her face for a second. She looked anxiously around the kitchen.
"Where's Polly?" she asked.
The familiar violence rose in me. Her calling Mrs. Breedlove Polly, when even Pecola called her mother Mrs. Breedlove, seemed reason enough to scratch her.
(Morrison, pg 108)
This scene, and the ones that follow it, are a variation of the older times, the before mentioned times of the slavery and social inequality. Mrs. Breedlove might be free, her own person even, but she still considers herself inferior to the little girl and her family, because the girl and her family are white, and Mrs. Breedlove is black. The abolition of slavery after the Civil War only served as the temporary delay or latency mentioned by Ruth Leys in the earlier quote. The past of Mrs. Breedlove, and Claudia and her sister, and the other characters of The Bluest Eye is still available to them only through their own understanding and interpretation, and that is not of a very good quality, ether.
The situation, however, is not as monolithic as it may initially appear:
However, Freud's rejection of the notion of trauma as a direct cause and his emphasis on psychosexual meaning involved a tendency within psychoanalysis to interiorize trauma, as if the external trauma derived its force and efficacity entirely from internal psychical processes of elaboration, processes that were understood to be fundamentally shaped by earlier psychological desires, fantasies and conflicts.
(Leys, pg 21)
Here a certain disagreement with Dr. Freud might be in order, namely his "rejection of the notion of trauma as a direct cause [...] to interiorize trauma", especially in Pecola's case. The external peer pressure from Maureen Peel and others was traumatic, but the final stroke came from the actions of her father, Cholly, when he had successfully sexually assaulted his daughter Pecola later on in the novel. The reasons behind Cholly's actions are also psychological, caused by his clearly traumatic and dysfunctional childhood, when his father had abandoned him and his mother before Cholly was born, and when his grandmother, the only person who truly cared about Cholly, died when he still was very young. Cholly is a man that is not so much broken, as unrestrained by emotional and social ties of the human society, a human version of the room described on page 35 of The Bluest Eye.
In a certain meaning of the word, Cholly is a monster of sorts, a man who is not like other men, namely he is "the other" described by Derek Attridge in his essay "Innovation, Literature, Ethics: Relating to the Other", as well as by the other philosophical authors. As it was mentioned earlier, Cholly is different from the rest of his family - while they appear to be ugly on the outside ("[...] wore their ugliness, put it on, so to speak, although it did not belong to them" (Morrison, 38), Cholly's ugliness is his behaviour; he is "the other" in this instance. Not unlike how Abraham's actions in Genesis 22 - his sacrifice of Isaac - put him outside of the rest of the humanity and its socio-ethical norms, so did Cholly's rape of his daughter, Pecola. (His foot fetish is not something publically acceptable either.) In Genesis 22, the Angel interrupts or alters Abraham's process of becoming "the other", but in Toni Morrison's novel that is not the case - both Cholly and Pecola become "the other" by the end of the novel, even though most of the novel's characters are of the same, Afro-American race. Their society is not monolithic, just as the Anglo-American society described in different novels, is not either. The characters in The Bluest Eye can be considered as a collective "other" in regards to the aforementioned Anglo-American society - namely another society that existed alongside the mainstream one, creating a sort of a mirror to the original. That is what Toni Morrison's novel did.
In addition, however, this "other" society is different from the mainstream one, for it is traumatized. Essentially, almost all of the main characters in the novel are obsessed with the colours of black and white, with beauty and ugliness, or with any combination of these groupings. Their diasporic past and uncertain present and future traumatized them, altered their perspective of the reality, and made them more different from their counterparts than just by their skin. They differ mentally, and not in a good way.
To add to that, there are such characters as Cholly and Soapbox, the preacher, who stand-out, differentiate themselves even from such an already different crowd by separating themselves from the rest of the humanity, white, or black, or any other colour. Their traumas, too, stem from the initial differentiation of Anglo-Americans and Afro-Americans, from the historical trauma that their distant ancestors had experienced, when they came to the United States in chains, but in their particular cases, their journey of differentiation from the rest of the human society, went further than the rest, resulting, perhaps, in total separation from the rest of the humanity, regardless of race.
Toni Morrison's novel The Bluest Eye is a diaspora-related novel: the characters in it are immigrants, or, more correctly - acclimatized descendants of immigrants who accomplished this with varying degrees of success. It is also a psychological novel of mental traumas that shows the role of traumas in such a diasporic world. Combined, these two factors have created a very successful novel and a winner of the Nobel Prize.
Brand, Dionne. What We All Long For. Canada: Vantage Canada Edition, 2005
Cohen, Robin. Global Diasporas. An Introduction. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997
Leys, Ruth. Trauma: A Genealogy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000
Morrison, Toni. Bluest Eye, The. New York: First Vintage International Edition, 2007
--------. Playing in the Dark. Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1993
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. John Russell Brown. London and New York: Rutledge, 1996