I was 4 years old when Toni Morrison first published The Bluest Eye. It was the Lorain, Ohio author’s very first novel.
This new work, alongside countless other fiction and non-fiction books by African-American authors, filled the bookshelves of my home.
This then-new book, which I loaned in recent years to a young neighbor nearly 50 years after its publication, made its way on my family’s bookshelves near the tattered book jackets and dog-eared pages of numerous stories chronicling Black voices and experiences.
These narratives and tales, most often examining and exploring the dawning of Black self-actualization, sat in perfect harmony alongside works that would later impact the world, and shape the girl I was becoming, such as Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
The year was 1970. America was still reeling from struggle for social justice for Blacks, women, Chicanos and so many other marginalized groups to gain equal rights under the law. Fast forward to today, and the nation is tragically grappling with similar attempts.
Popular culture during this dawning year of the 1970s was more preoccupied with The Beatles disbanding and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. That is, until the audacity of Toni Morrison releasing an unapologetic novel of immeasurable significance, giving voice to a young black girl named Pecola struggling so much with her beauty, dark skin and the ‘ugliness’ around her that it stirred her desire for blue eyes.
This was a period in my life where bedtime stories and conversations at home were often a delightful case study and intersection between Dr. Seuss and Nikki Giovanni’s poem My House, along with Fun with Dick and Jane and Mari Evan’s poem I Am a Black Woman. The literary treasures of my girlhood were what I know now, as a Mother of young adult twin African-American daughters, to be a preparatory course of what life was then and now for a Black girl – a dance of duality between coping and armor, and strength and beauty.
Little did I then know how profoundly impactful this first Morrison book would be to who I was and how the world viewed me, until later, during my high school years in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was now the 1980s, where Morrison, no longer a debut novelist, would resurface as required reading in an English course. Although already familiar with her works due to the vast home library of my childhood, I praise my high school for ignoring the challenging calls to ban The Bluest Eye from schools and libraries for its subject matters of racism, incest, molestation and other lurching realities. The book remains on the American Library Association’s list of Most Challenged Books.
By my undergraduate years at Michigan State University, I was well versed on what I knew then to be one of the most deeply moving writers I had ever experienced. Morrison was clear and unwavering about the unfiltered exposure for her readers of the Black woman’s voice, which had largely been silent and unrecognized in literature. Beloved, which garnered her a 1988 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, rocked me to my core during my junior year in 1987, the book’s debut. Beloved, based on an actual 1850s newspaper article, was set in post-Civil War Ohio. It was about a slave mother named Sethe who attempts to kill her three children to avoid their capture and her return to slavery. She is successful with killing only one child, her older daughter, by slitting the child’s throat with a handsaw.