The Bluest Eye, the African-American Experience and the Importance of Art

I read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison last week and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. I can only marvel at Morrison’s narrative genius, the love she invests in each of her characters, from the most vulnerable to the most vile, but mostly at the magnitude of suffering upon which her brutal and devastating story shines a light. The book is about an ugly, poor black girl who yearns for blue eyes and the recognition of beauty blue eyes represent. It is a heart-breaking┬ápremise rich with so many truths about how the beautiful and privileged see and treat the ugly and suffering, how the absence of love is filled so often with addiction, self-loathing and violence and how this perpetuates itself from generation to generation. In the broadest possible sense, the book is about humanizing an African-American experience. It is about becoming a vulnerable black girl or even an abusive alcoholic black man and understanding the beauty, yearning and intelligence behind all that which we demonize or ignore.

Morrison’s project is more important today than ever before. The race narrative in America is being dominated by fear and distrust when it should be dominated by compassion, sorrow, regret and a recognition that the legacy of slavery persists today. The African-American experience is unlike the experience of any other racial minority in the United States. They have not been simply victims of stereotypes regarding work ethic or driving skills. They were dehumanized, in the most literal sense of the word, for 246 years of America’s history. They were regarded by society as nothing more than chattels. Bought and sold, traded, whipped and disposed of when no longer useful. They labored without compensation for 246 years, building infrastructure, industry and wealth for privileged classes to pass on to subsequent generations of privileged classes and the only thing they were left to pass on were the scars.

Today, 150 years after the abolition of slavery and fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, camera phones and social media are documenting and exposing the unacceptable regularity with which unarmed black men are being shot, ran over, choked or otherwise subject to deadly or excessive force by white police officers. There is a widespread assumption today that blackness alone is a suspicious activity that justifies intrusion into sacred spheres of personal liberty, that blackness alone is grounds to believe that one’s physical safety is so threatened that the use of deadly force on unarmed men is being judged by our legal system to be okay. This insidious brand of racism is conspiring with the criminalization of addiction and privatization of prisons to modify the directive of our police from “protect and serve” to “arrest and imprison,” to try and sweep under the rug the ugly and complex consequences of building a country on the backs of slave labor and then profit from it. When excessive force from the police results in deaths of unarmed human beings, deaths that are either met with no prosecution or bungled and halfhearted prosecution from the officers’ colleagues and lunch-buddies at the local DA’s office, something has to break. Such blatant failures in the system of justice, such “intolerable conditions,” in the words of Martin Luther King, “are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention.” The riot, according to King, “is the language of the unheard.”

The problem with indiscriminate destruction of private property or the use of violence in any protest, however, is that it weakens the credibility and moral standing of the protester. Committing injustice in the protest of injustice only results in more injustice. People pay attention, but they pay attention to fires and broken glass, to crimes against innocent members of the community. They do not pay attention to the message that needs to be heard, they are downloading images that support the very narrative that oppresses the protestor in the first place and the vicious cycle rages on.

The truly radical and revolutionary acts of protest are anchored to a steadfast commitment to nonviolence. Organized, sustained disruptions of the unjust systems with strikes, peaceful blockades or sit-ins in the spirit of King and Gandhi. Pressure on law-makers to reform prison and drug policy, to require body cameras on all police and recuse local DAs offices from the job of prosecuting their investigating officers/slow-pitch softball buddies.

But perhaps the most effective and potentially world-changing thing we can do is take the time to understand each other by expressing ourselves and our stories truthfully and authentically and, most importantly, listening when others do the same. We can make less judgments and more art. We can watch less “news” and read more literature. It is one thing to know something intellectually and another thing to experience it through the magic of brilliant writing, writing like that of Toni Morrison, that puts us in the shoes of the disenfranchised and suffering and forces us to feel what it’s like to feel ugly, unwanted, invisible or hated for things beyond our control.