Children of Wrath: The Search for Love and Beauty in a Racist Society
“The search for love continues even in the face of great odds,” cries out a painted wall to a passing generation in bell hooks’ book All About Love (XV). The search for love and acceptance is something not limited to recent times or to particular races. There appears to be this great desire to be acceptable and loved, to be seen as beautiful by one’s beloved. Indeed, the concepts of beauty and love are closely intertwined. Where ugliness abides, whether physically or mentally, there seems to be a choke on emotions and love. Ugliness and lack of love are present in the novel The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Each character who believes in their own ugliness or the ugliness of their situation is always negatively affected in some way. The root cause of the novel’s major conflicts is internalized racism because the comparisons to white beauty, the dysfunction of the Breedlove family members, and the rape and destruction of Pecola are all a result of the pertinent characters believing what white society says about their physical looks. Furthermore, the belief that white America’s standard of beauty will lead to love (a belief that is a result of internalized racism) is what destroys Pecola.
There are constant comparisons to white beauty throughout the novel. The novel begins with the story of Dick and Jane, children who belong to what society believes is the typical and preferred form of family. The story is broken into epigraphs throughout the novel and act as a foil or contrast to the Breedlove family. The pristine description of the children, parents, animals, and house are completely different from the loveless description of the ironically named Breedloves and their thoughtless house. The effect of the Dick and Jane narrative in the story is to show just how much many families do not live up to that standard. The narrative does not reflect the reality of non-White America, and probably not even the reality of most white Americans.
The next incidence of comparing white beauty with black Americans is the Shirley Temple cup given to Pecola when she stays with the MacTeers. Shirley Temple was the quintessential cute girl with white skin, a little button nose, bouncing ringlets, rosy lips, round cheeks, and, of course, sparkling blue eyes. She made numerous films and produced a lot of memorabilia like the cup that Pecola drank milk out of. Pecola stares at the cup and tries to think of a reason why Shirley Temple is so loved, adored, and accepted by society while she has no love or comfort in her own family and community. She then sees the distinguishing characteristic – blue eyes. It is at this point in the novel that beauty and love become intertwined. Pecola rationalizes in her head that beautiful things will automatically be treasured and loved. Ugly things will not be loved, and she believes she is ugly because of the community’s abuse of her. And so her desire for blue eyes begins (Morrison 19).
In the same section titled “Autumn”, Claudia MacTeer describes her severe hatred for Shirley Temple and white baby dolls. She calls Shirley Temple “old squint-eyed Shirley” and rejects white baby dolls, to the dismay of everyone around her (19). She has no desire to play at being a mother, but the doll is forced upon, which is a false patriarchal belief and stereotype that little girls should be given baby dolls for toys to train them for future child rearing. Another reason she has no interest in the doll is because the fake, cold, hard stare and physical features of the white doll. This doll is ugly to her, and yet everyone is saying how beautiful and desirable it is. Claudia resorts to dismembering the doll in order to find the source of society’s adoration of the doll, similar to Pecola’s meditation on the Shirley Temple cup. Again, adoration and love are coupled with beauty. She finds nothing beautiful about the doll, but after rage and disinterestedness she too learns to love white beauty (23).
This quest to find what makes people love something is taken on by both Claudia and Pecola, yet the path is much more destructive for Pecola. Pecola asks at the end of the section “How do you do that? I mean, how do you get someone to love you?” (32). Although Pecola does not get her answer immediately, sadly the answer repeatedly demonstrated to her and Claudia is that you become beautiful in order to get someone to love you.
Intra-racial racism reinforces white ideals about whiteness and beauty. Although black people can never be beautiful like white people, they create a hierarchy within the black community that adopts the white desire for beauty. Intra-racial racism is a form of community internalized racism, which is the discrimination within the black community against those with darker skin and more African features (Tyson 383). People with lighter skin are believed to be closer to white America’s idea of beauty and are therefore praised within the community. Buying into the belief that lighter is better is a form of internalized racism.
An example of this in the text is the character of Maureen Peal. Maureen is described as “a high-yellow dream” with hair that hung down her back in braids (62). Claudia notes the preferential treatment from teachers and classmates this girl receives because of her looks, again reinforcing the idea the beauty equals love. Maureen takes a special pity on Pecola, making the MacTeer sisters agitated and jealous. Accompanied with the benefit of love, beautiful people seem to have material things. Rosemary, the snotty white girl who lives next door, has a family that is able to afford a Buick, from which she taunts the MacTeer sisters. Maureen Peal is said to be “as rich as the richest of the white girls” (62). She is able to buy treats and ice cream with no second thought. The world seems to give love and money to the beautiful, so if one does not fit into particular definitions of beauty he or she cannot expect the world to love him or her the same way.
In his article “Malcolm’s Conk and Danto’s Colors; or, Four Logical Petitions Concerning Race, Beauty, and…” Paul C. Taylor explains the dichotomy between beautiful and ugly and notes that features considered ugly are common African American features. Furthermore, the very way in which these features are described is in a negative connotation rather than an object observation of physical features. He says:
The most prominent type of racialized ranking represents blackness as a condition to be despised, and most tokens of this type extend this attitude to cover the physical features that are central to the ascription of black identity. [. . .] black folks—with our kinky hair, flat noses, thick lips, dark skin [. . .] are ugly (16).
Rather than describing these features in more pleasant terms such as curly hair and broad noses, derogatory adjectives are chosen to describe African American features. Taylor calls these phrases “evaluative overtones” (17). The prejudice is subtle, but undoubtedly present.
In his article “Morrison’s The Bluest Eye” James Mayo terms the major themes of the novel as “society’s image of ideal beauty” and “racial self-loathing” (231). Self-loathing (or internalized racism) and a desperate search for acceptance are just a few of the consequences of one group in a society trying to standardize and define something that is abstract and intangible, such as beauty. It cannot be defined, and any attempts to define the indefinable will only result in disappointment and disillusionment when the realities do not fit into the predetermined paradigm.
The Breedlove family is microcosm of the black community at large in regards to the effects of internalized racism. They believe that they are ugly, and because of this should not even attempt to live a different life. Following the text’s description of the poor living conditions of the Breedloves, the narrator explains, “They lived there because they were poor and black, and they stayed there because they believed they were ugly” (38). The narrator goes on to say the Breedloves “wore their ugliness, put it on, so to speak, although it did not belong to them (38).
The Breedloves also seem to internalize the belief that ugly people do ugly things, especially Cholly. Cholly’s childhood and sexual experiences build up an anger in him that is directed towards females. He constantly beats his wife and has loveless sex with her. When he encounters feelings of tenderness and pity for his daughter, he does not know how to handle such emotions and results to a harsh and horrible expression of emotion: incest. In this terrible act, Cholly treats his daughter the same way the community treats his daughter – as a container for all the wrath and embarrassment of being so very black in every sense of the word in white-controlled society. The community projects all the qualities they are told to hate about themselves by white society onto this little girl. This is also a form of displacement because Cholly and the community at large choose something that cannot defend itself to act out aggressions on. He hates his feelings of affection towards her because society is telling him that people like her are not desirable. What kind of a sick person would like something as undesirable as a black girl? When he does feel for her, he gets angry at her and ultimately resorts to hurting her.
Pecola deals with her ugliness by wishing she would disappear or have blue eyes, while her brother Sammy runs away from home (39). Mrs. Breedlove’s form of internalized racism is the most blatant with her love for the white family she works for. It is as if she is two different people; she shows care, cleanliness, and comfort to the white family and total disregard to her real family (109). This shows a belief that white people deserve love and attention because of their racial superiority.
How sad it is that standardizing beauty neglects the appreciation of all types of looks and beauty from around the world. The belief that white America’s standard of beauty will lead to love (a belief that is a result of internalized racism) is what destroys Pecola and confuses Claudia. It is children who pick up the tab for the adults’ acceptance of white beauty and internalized racism. Attempts to rationalize the intangible result in nothing but disappointment, as the following quote suggests: “Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another – physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought” (122).
hooks, bell. All About Love: New Visions. New York: Perennial, 2000.
Mayo, James. “Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.” Explicator 60.4 (Summer 2002): 231-234.
Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Taylor, Paul C. “Malcolm’s Conk and Danto’s Colors; or, Four Logical Petitions Concerning Race, Beauty, and…” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 57.1 (Winter 1999): 16-21.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. New York: Garland Publishing, 1999.