I’m not sure when, but many years ago I purchased my first 2 Toni Morrison books, Sula and The Bluest Eye. Sula because the premise sounded interested and that was my great grandmother’s name, which I think might have been the first reason I picked it up. The Bluest Eye was one I’ve heard so many of my friends talk about for years (Beloved is well known and I might read that next but more on that later).
Since Sula was my classics club pick and it was short, I decided I’d read another book from my list by Morrison to balance things out, since I was reading a longer classic already.
My experience with Sula in the past has been start and stop. If I’m honest m I’ve probably abandoned the book more times than I care to admit, but the audiobook was 100% helpful. I also realize, for me, Morrison has to be taken in smaller doses. Sula was just shy of 200 pages but it took me a few weeks to chew this book over.
I wasn’t sure what I felt during the beginning of the book and by the end, I wasn’t sure if I liked the book all that much. Sula is opposite of her friend Nel, but during their childhood, they are inseparable. Both girls are a byproduct of their upbringing which rings true, all of us are shaped, for the good or bad, by how we are raised. Nel seems to be driven to do what’s right and good according to what she’s been taught by her mother, Helene. Helene we learn chose a different life than her own mother but I believe that one of the things Morrison draws attention to in this book.
Sula on the other hand, as an adult, has led a more promiscuous lifestyle, “like a man” Nel tells her one point.
“You can’t do it all. You a woman and a colored woman at that. You can’t be act like a man. You can’t be walking around all independent-like, doing whatever you like, taking what you want, leaving what you don’t.”
Sula’s mother and grandmother didn’t hide from her or anyone the or aside they found in the company of men, Sula seems to follow suite, although she never marries. Sula seems to be the complete opposite of most black women of her time, many content to marry and care for their families. Sula defies this ideal and charts a path of her own. She seems to take on the role of a male in her promiscuous lifestyle. But I feel she emulated the behavior of her mother and grandmother. Her friend Nel has chosen a more traditional position, marrying and having children but things change when Sula returns home.
Morrison tells the story over time and there are several characters in the lives of Sula and Nel, but I think the author wants us to look for the subtle nuances in the community (and the women) individually and collectively.
This conversation between Nel and Sula was one that left a lasting impression towards the end.
“Really? What have you got to show for it?”
“Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me.”
“Lonely, ain’t it?”
“Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else’s. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain’t that something? A secondhand lonely.”
The Bluest Eye
“A little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes.”
The Bluest Eye had a COMPLETELY different impact on me. This book pierced a very deep part of my heart. The perspective of the narrative, from young girls who witnessed one tragedy after another befall one of their peers is not even close to encompassing what this book is about.
We know from the outset, young Pecola Breedlove has suffered a deplorable tragedy, she’s having her father’s baby when she’s just a child herself, about eleven years old.
“There is really nothing more to say–except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.“.
Morrison begins the book this way and I knew I was in for an emotional and taxing experience. Morrison managed to do in The Bluest Eye what didn’t happen with Sula. I connected with the narrators, these young black girls. Claudia, the youngest between her sister Frieda and Pecola (eleven) drew me in from the beginning.
Her very honest and relatable feelings about the young “pretty girls” like Shirley Temple and the blue-eyed baby dolls they received as a gifts transported me to my own childhood. I can recall a picture when I was maybe 3 years old, I was crying, I don’t know why, but in my hand was a blonde hair white baby doll.
Claudia’s disdain for those dolls, to the point where she would destroy them or take them apart was enough to make me stop reading and think back to my own childhood. At what point did I receive a black doll, a doll I could identify with? For Claudia, her sister, Pecola and other black girls like her, that never happened.
When the adults chastised her for not “taking care of nothing” I thought about how in their minds, they were giving the girls things they would have loved to have at their age. But for Claudia, this doll, was the personification of what was beautiful, a representation of what society says is pretty and attractive.
Morrison peels away the layers of many central characters, Pecola’s mom, Mrs. Pauline Breedlove. Yes even Pecola calls her mom Mrs. Breedlove. How did she end up with Cholly, Pecola’s father? And how did Cholly end up being the man he is, a man who rapes his own daughter?
The Bluest Eye has a rawness that’s piercing and honestly has left me without a voice. The self-loathing, how it starts, how it shapes our conduct and decisions, how a child, like Pecola becomes a victim not just to others, but herself. How people who look like her, young black girls, have experienced similar attitudes about their hair, skin, even the way you speak, can internalize their reactions to such and spit it like venom to other victims.
This poison has manifested itself and many of us have been a victim to its effects. It also makes you stop and think about the times you personally, maybe unintentionally, or not, with malice or frustration in your heart, you’ve done to others what’s been done to you. You’ve been Pecola, you’ve been mistreated because of your skin color, or you’ve been mocked because you aren’t black enough.
Have you read any Toni Morrison books? What’s your favorite?
If you’ve read Sula or The Bluest Eye please let’s discuss it more here in the comments? I have a Tar Baby and A Mercy waiting for me on my shelf.