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Toni Morrison intertwines the concerns of two main Themes in her novel The Bluest Eye. She explores the tragedy of the oppression or violation of children, especially poor children and she explores a problem specific to groups targeted by racism, that of internalized racism. This is a kind of thinking produced when members of the targeted group, in this case African Americans, begin to believe the stereotypes about themselves and imagine that European Americans are superior in beauty, morality, and intelligence. Morrison focuses in on this problem of internalized racism as if affects children. The psycholgical mechanism of internalized racism hinges on the cycle of oppression.
The cycle of oppression is a complex phenomenon that affects all people who are touched by oppressive systems, whether they are assigned the role of oppressor or oppressed. The child is oppressed and because s/he is a child, she/he is unable to combat or resist her/his oppression. She/he is taught to react to injustice and hurts with different kinds of disempowered responses--silence, self-abuse, depression, rage. When the child grows up in this oppressive system, her/his position often shifts and she/he assumes the role of the oppressor. This cycle is especially clear when seen in the oppression of children, but it is also visible in the oppression of groups of people based on their ethnic identity.
In The Bluest Eye, the oppressors of Pecola have themselves been hurt by oppressive adults and/or racist ideology. Morrison is very careful to point out that people are not born with the tendency to hurt other people; instead, they are taught to do so when they themselves are hurt. A perfect example of this phenomenon is Pauline, Mrs. Breedlove. She is rejected by the women in the Lorain community because she bears the marks of her color and class too overtly she wears her hair natural, she wears the clothing of country people, and she speaks with a southern accent. Pauline responds by adopting the oppressor’s discourse, particularly the discourse on physical beauty. Measured against it, Pauline is ugly and her white employers are beautiful and deserving of all her care and love. Pauline thereby accepts her assigned role on the hierarchy of color, beauty, and privilege. This role leaves her incapable of caring for her daughter or anyone in her family. According to its script, they do not deserve any of her care.
Pecola is born into this ideology of racialized beauty. She doesn’t have a chance from the beginning. Her mother has placed all her care in her job and she has internalized the message that black is ugly and white is beautiful to such an extent that she sees Pecola as an ugly ball of black hair when she is born. She and Cholly seem to have given Pecola no love and no nurturance. They are so preoccupied by their own war on each other that they never seem to notice the damage it is causing their daughter.
Echoing the situation of the Breedloves is that of the MacTeers. Morrison constructs these two families as a sort of plot and subplot along the lines of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The MacTeers do not have it as bad as the Breedloves do. While the parents seem to be quite embattled by poverty, they retain their allegiance to their home. Mr. MacTeer regards it as his steadfast duty to provide for his family. Mrs. MacTeer regards it as her steadfast duty to provide for her family and to ensure her daughters’ upbringing in the accepted morality of their time. Neither parent has the time or the emotional energy to nurture their daughters. They treat Claudia and Frieda as peices of furniture, which are inconvenient, but necessary to care for. Mrs. MacTeer treats them with rough care, but care nonetheless. She dispenses punishment arbitrarily and too swiftly, not recognizing their physical or moral integrity, but she stops short of abusing them for the mere sake of releasing her own pent up frustations.
When Frieda is sexually molested by Mr. Henry, her parents believe her story and act on it swiftly, punishing Mr. Henry, and leaving Frieda to draw her own conclusions about what it meant. Mrs. MacTeer unwittingly foists on her daughters the ideology of white supremacy when she gives them white dolls to love and cherish, but she never directly says her daughters are ugly.
The MacTeer family seems to represent the mainstream African- American family in Lorain, Ohio at the time the novel was set. Most African-Americans were poor, and most attmepted to make it by adopting the code of respectability. The poor treatment of children was the norm, but the violation of children’s innocence was done ideologically more than physically. The Breedlove family represents all the faults of this African-American community writ large. In stucturing her novel in this way, Morrison avoids the simplistic analysis which would simply regard the Breedloves as an unfortunate abberration. Instead, they are the logical extension of the norm.