Focusing on the wrong front: historical displacement, the Maginot Line, and The Bluest Eye.
Considered in light of this division between the unmarked and the marked, the disembodied and the hyperembodied, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye can be read as a commentary on the artificial boundaries of citizenship, gender, race, and history. While the theories of Berlant, Pateman, and Phelan enable us to understand the marking of the boundaries of citizenship, race, and gender, the difference between marked and unmarked history needs some explanation. Unmarked history refers to historical narrative that features as its prime actor the deeds of the abstract, disembodied citizen. Once this history is marked as having cultural value, its centrality is soon seen as unremarkable; that is, as representative. In order to centralize this one story, however, others need to be shifted to the periphery and soon become remarkable only in their relation to the center. According to Priscilla Wald, what unmarked history leaves out "resurfaces when the experiences of individuals conspicuously fall to conform to the defini tion of personhood offered in the narrative," and Morrison's Breedloves are certainly conspicuous for their "ill-fitting selfhood." By carefully outlining the history of their exclusion from the "terms of full and equal personhood," Morrison demonstrates that this family's unequal position is a product not of their intrinsic inadequacy, but rather of the systematic reinforcement of a racial and gendered criteria for full citizenship (10). This critique, in turn, disrupts the official stories that feature the United States as a brave defender of democracy and staunch critic of racialized nationalism abroad.
In setting her story of the quest for and repercussions of Pecola Breedlove's desire for blue eyes and the unmarked whiteness they represent against the backdrop of World War II, Morrison recounts the history of this significant year from the vantage point of those who have been marked as peripheral in accounts of this era of American history. (1) More particularly, it is significant that Morrison sets her story during 1940-41, because this year, during which the United States decided to intervene in World War II, is an important watershed date for the initial positioning of the United States as the crusader against racialized forms of nationalism abroad. The marked foregrounding of anti-racialist U.S. foreign policy during this year permits the backgrounding of racialist national history. More specifically, as Hitler's crimes against humanity came into sharp focus, the United States' own conflicts over race purity were displaced, and receded into the background.
Throughout her novel, Morrison explores several such historical displacements by which something of lesser significance comes to occupy a central position and, thereby, effaces a more disturbing issue: The domestic support for racialized nationalism is overshadowed on the international front by the United States' intervention in the war against racialized nationalism in Europe; the economic threat of black male labor to white male ascendancy is transformed by lynching rhetoric into a sexual threat of black males to white womanhood; black exclusion from the national family, especially the thwarting of the black male appropriation of the breadwinner role, is superceded by the inclusion of the ideal black female servant into the white family; black economic inequality is refigured as the retardation of black male progress by the presence of a matriarchal kinship network. In each case, the original exclusionary practice is rewritten through a counternarrative of reversal or justification. Morrison skillfully and subtly inserts each of these peripheral histories into her novel through a particular metaphoric description: naming the prostitute Marie "Maginot Line," describing Maureen Peal's "long brown hair" as "braided into two lynch ropes," depicting Pecola as a scapegoat, and characterizing the public sphere as a hemmed garment.
Through these metaphoric allusions to larger historical issues, Morrison constructs her novel as a subtle interplay between its foreground history of the Breedlove family and its background history of the racial determination of American citizenship. In other words, Morrison eschews the dramatic foreground of national history for the undramatized background.
Much excellent critical attention has been paid to the foreground story of the Breedloves, (2) but few commentators have considered the background stories in the novel. Understanding the implications of Morrison's subtle historical references can aid the reader in interpreting Morrison's text, and is the key to discerning the range of the cultural critique Morrison is making in The Bluest Eye. On one level, the novel is the personal story of a little girl's identity crisis, symbolized by her cataclysmic desire for blue eyes, but, on another level, it is a story about a national identity crisis. More particularly, it comments on the crisis produced by the post-war revelation of the gap between the United States' self-image as crusader against racialized nationalism and its well-known support of a racial basis of full American citizenship.
Although the details of political and military history of the era are largely absent from the main stage of Morrison's novel, she encodes subtle references to this history in her naming of the three prostitutes--China, Poland, and Maginot Line. That these three women function as the only positive domestic influences in the life of Pecola Breedlove is ironic, because as prostitutes they represent the unsettling of domestic respectability. Through these characters who blur the line between the reputable and disreputable on the domestic front, Morrison then establishes a reference to the blurring of the line between the reputable and the disreputable on the international front. In national terms, the United States' involvement in the fronts of World War II establishes the nation's respectability abroad. In turn, the fallout from the war and the international scrutiny of racialized nationalism unsettle this respectability.
By focusing attention on its intervention on the international front in other nations' racial and ethnic conflicts, the United States can repress its own domestic racial problems and histories of oppression. This tendency to concentrate attention on the wrong front is signified through Morrison's bestowing the name Maginot Line on the prostitute on whom most of the town's respectable black women focus their anger. While the names China and Poland (3) signify the European and Asian fronts of World War II, Maginot Line (4) refers literally to the failed French border fortifications and metaphorically to the tendency to focus on the wrong front that historian Sidney Lens calls "the Maginot Line syndrome." There is much focusing on the wrong front in the novel: The townswomen concentrate on vilifying the prostitutes for denigrating black womanhood, but do not acknowledge the economic inequalities that foster prostitution in the first place; the prostitutes focus on hating the townswomen, but exempt from their sc orn the churchwomen who seem most to embody the ideology of true womanhood that, in actuality, excludes black women (5); and the Breedloves focus on attaining the material goods that will enable them to maintain an aura of citizenship, instead of recognizing that the system of commodity compensation not only excludes black people, but also distracts attention from the growing economic inequalities between the rich and the poor of all races.
By focusing on the wrong front the characters participate in what Berlant calls "the will-to-not-know, to misrecognize, and to flee [their bodies]"; that is, in forgetting their own painful histories (113). Finding it easier, perhaps, to forget what they feel they cannot change, the black characters do not critique the culture that systematically excludes them; instead they reprimand each other for their personal failures and shortcomings.
One of the few characters who escapes reprimand is Maureen Peal, a green-eyed, middle-class mulatto. Because she already has the light eyes coded as unmarked by American culture, Maureen is the only character who is seemingly successful in achieving the status of disembodied citizen. Of course, on her person is marked the history of her embodiment and, more especially, that of the exploitation of black women's bodies by their white masters. When the townspeople look at Maureen, however, they focus on her presence and forget the history she represents. They see her ahistorically as a dream child instead of willing themselves to acknowledge that she is born out of the nightmare of the sexual exploitation of black women justified by a slave-owning culture's hierarchy of racialized personhood. Only Claudia MacTeer, the novel's narrator, is willing to recognize Maureen's whiteness for the painful history that it emblematizes, for its power to confer on her white acceptance and black homage. Only Claudia realizes that the "Thing" that makes Maureen the representative of beauty and her dark counterparts of ugliness is a racialized conception of full citizenship (62).
Significantly, Morrison uses the description of Maureen to introduce the submerged history of lynching in America. By characterizing green-eyed Maureen as "a high-yellow dream child with long brown hair braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back" (52), Morrison encourages the reader to look more closely at the interwoven history of sexual and racial discrimination encoded in that braided hair. This metaphor establishes a link to the intertwined history of ante-bellum miscegenation and its displacement in post-bellum lynching campaigns, a history well documented in the anti-lynching pamphlets written by Ida B. Wells, (6) who argued that Southern whites used lynching to undermine the political, social, and economic power of newly freed slaves. To offset this threat, whites terrorized blacks into submission by hanging, burning, and/or tarring and feathering them, with the primary intent, according to Wells, of keeping them from voting. Such terrorism was a response, W. E. B. Du Bois claims, to the fea r that freed slaves "might accumulate wealth, achieve education, and finally, they might even aspire to marry white women and mingle their blood with the blood of their masters" (167). Citing a correlation between increased economic tensions and lynching, Jacqueline Dowd Hall theorizes that lynching was always more about economic than sexual fears (130-33). To focus on the sexual front, of course, enabled attention to be distracted from the economic front.
Economics is also the primary reason that inroads were made in the battle against lynching. As Ida B. Wells put it, "Cognizance of the prevalence of this crime ... has not been because there was any latent spirit of justice voluntarily asserting itself, especially in those who do the lynching, but because the entire American people now feel, both North and South, that they are objects in the gaze of the civilized world and that for every lynching humanity asks that America render its account to civilization and itself" (72). Well-aware of this concern for reputation, Wells took her lynching campaign to England in order to draw international attention to the widespread and systematic use of lynching as a way to control newly freed Black Americans. Simply put, it took public scrutiny on the international front to effect domestic change.
After World War II, international scrutiny also brought reluctant acknowledgment of racial problems on the homefront. When in the years after World War II the United States tried to call Germany to account for its racial crimes, that nation launched a counteroffensive and censured the United States for its own history of racialized nationalism. As with the aftermath of Wells's anti-lynching campaign, these accusations presented in the international arena served to magnify the problem of recialized nationalism at home. Still concerned with the nation's reputation, policymakers, in the aftermath of this public scrutiny, had to balance an acknowledgment of the nation's well-documented and publicized racialized past with an assurance that the current administration was doing everything it could to tackle the heinous problem of racial inequality. Striking this balance, the Moynihan Report, the popular name for Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 Department of Labor report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action , acknowledges America's slave-owning past, but it overlooks the lingering impact of this history, most especially, of the slavemaster's sexual exploitation of his slaves. Its inattention to the sexual aspects of slavery is particularly ironic since its effects are so indisputably visible in the physical features of those whom Morrison calls "high-yellow dream" children (52). Ignoring this sexual dimension of slavery as well as the subsequent post-bellum displacement of economic exploitation and sexual guilt onto the cultural fiction of the black rapist, the Moynihan Report attributes current black economic "impotence" to the inherited matriarchal family structure that places black men outside the norm of American society. By redirecting attention from the convoluted familial and sexual relations inherited from the patriarchal American plantation slavery system to the matrilineal kinship ties associated with African ancestry, the Moynihan Report uses the specter of the emasculating black matriarch to shield f rom blame the American patriarchal system and its policies of social and economic exclusion.
In this way, the Moynihan Report claimed to address African American inequality, but did not confront the United States' own implication in racist nationalist policies based on assumptions about race purity; instead, it took as its focus the assumption that the black community needed to overcome its inadequate preparation for taking on the "rights and responsibilities" of full citizenship. Focusing on these inadequacies allowed the Moynihan Report to strike the needed balance between discussing obvious inequality and distracting attention from it. The report achieved this balance by transforming a supposedly tangential discussion of national reputation into its central focus. Its admission of the heinousness of the slave system, for instance, is overshadowed by the subtle assertion that slavery was really only a temporary divergence from the nation's destined role as the world exemplar of liberty: "it is clear that what happens in America is being taken as a sign of what can, or must, happen in the world at l arge." Such phrasing transforms the United States' stance on Civil Rights from antagonism to sponsorship. The report goes even further, recuperating the struggle for Civil Rights as evidence of the persistence of the American spirit of democracy: "The course of world events will be profoundly affected by the success or failure of the Negro American revolution in seeking the peaceful assimilation of the races in the United States" (1). This reference to "assimilation" subtly introduces the one condition that the report later claims is necessary for overcoming the problem of inequality: the willingness of African Americans to embrace the nuclear family structure as a means of placing them on an equal footing with whites. The report asserts that the matriarchal structure of the black family is "so out of line with the rest of American society" that it "seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole" (29). With this redirection of attention from the documented pathology of plantation patriarchy to the sup posed pathology of African matriarchy, the Moynihan Report, one might argue, exemplifies the "Maginot Line syndrome."
Morrison indirectly comments on this process of acknowledging the existence of a national racial division followed by a subtle denial of responsibility for it when she characterizes Pecola Breedlove, a child who is the product of what Moynihan would certainly term a pathological family, as a scapegoat. It is clear from her description that Morrison intends the scapegoating of this one young girl as a microcosm of the larger scapegoating process (7) necessary for the bolstering of a narrative of national innocence. Significantly, Claudia's commentary on scapegoating ends the novel:
All of us-all who knew her-felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous .... We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength. (159)
With these remarks, Claudia links the transference of the town's self-hatred onto a hyperembodied Pecola to the widespread scapegoating of Blacks in America, concluding, "The land of the entire country was hostile" (160). In a nation obsessed with purity, whether it be racial, sexual, or ideological, there need to be scapegoats. As Sander Gilman theorizes about the pathologizing of the Other, when "self-integration is threatened" stereotypes arise because they are "part of our way of dealing with the instabilities of our perception of the world" (18). Because the history of slavery and miscegenation threatens the American iconic identity as champion of liberty and equality, it needs to be redescribed so as to deflect attention from national culpability. With this scapegoating reference, Morrison seems to be commenting on the displacement of blame for black inequality from a racially structured economic and social system in the larger culture onto the matriarchal structures of the black community.
In shifting blame from systematic inequality to the structural inequality of the black social structure, the Moynihan Report ignored several obstacles in postwar America to the black community's adoption of the gendered divisions of the nuclear family model: the exclusion of black males from breadwinner roles and the corresponding re-channeling of black females into domestic servant roles, the de facto exclusion of black families from the commodity culture through which families publicly display their success at achieving economic power through consumerism, and the need for black families to pool resources in order to consolidate their economic weakness and maintain some semblance of economic and social stability. Morrison refers to these issues in her description of the public sphere as a garment. As Claudia explains, "Being a minority in both caste and class, we moved about anyway on the hem of life, struggling to consolidate our weaknesses and hang on, or to creep singly up into the major folds of the gar ment" (18). To compare the public sphere to a garment has several ramifications. The first is that citizenship is measured by one's ability to purchase the commodities that identify one as looking American. Neither the MacTeers nor the Breedloves have this ability because they are black and poor; in contrast, the Peals can "creep singly up into" the folds of the garment because their near-white skin and their penchant for winning bias lawsuits enable them to move up from the hem to the skirt. Through their generations of marrying lighter, they are slowly peeling away the layers of blackness that prevent them from seamlessly integrating themselves into mainstream culture. To do so in a celebratory manner is to will themselves not to remember the sexualized economy of slavery, of which their whiteness is a sign, and to fail to recognize that legally their blackness still marks them. Above the Peals would be the Villanuccis, the Italian American neighbors of the MacTeers who, while not in the main class of citiz ens because of their own foreignness and darker skin, can intermarry and "creep" more inconspicuously into the "folds of the garment." (8)
Morrison's references to a garment with a hem and folds is intriguing because it conveys an image of a woman's full-skirted, calf-length dress, the emblem of the mid-twentieth-century domestic ease and the division of separate spheres that still characterized the pre-war period. (9) That Morrison chooses a particular feminized image of the public sphere is important because the ability to maintain this division of separate spheres was thought to be central to one's ability to embody American citizenship fully. The MacTeers are able to maintain this separation between breadwinner and homemaker, but it produces a strain within their family. They barely survive, and the mother takes in boarders and foster children such as Pecola. The state's intervention in the affairs of the Breedloves signals the extent to which they are totally cut off from kinship networks that at least to some extent help families like the MacTeers pool their resources. Of course, that Mrs. MacTeer complains that, if she keeps helping othe rs, she'll never have anything for her own family indicates how vulnerable that kinship system is to social and consumer pressure to adopt the nuclear family model. Succumbing to this pressure, Pauline and Cholly Breedlove, Pecola's parents, embrace the nuclear family model, but are not able to maintain this gendered division; consequently, they are forced by economic circumstance into a role reversal in which the wife is the primary breadwinner.
When Pauline Breedlove realizes that she cannot achieve full citizenship in her own domestic space, she contents herself with occupying the space of her employers. Morrison's hemming metaphor takes on added significance here because, as the Fishers' servant responsible for domestic tasks such as hemming and cooking, Folly is able to hang on to the hem of their lives. In her role as the Fishers' cherished servant Folly, Pauline feels what it's like "to wear their white skin" and, as Berlant phrases it, to assume the "privileges" of citizenship that such whiteness affords her (111-13). At their house, "she could arrange things, clean things, line things up in neat rows.... Here she found beauty, order, cleanliness, and praise" (Morrison 101). Living in this house vicariously fulfills her consumer desire, just "knowing there were soap bars by the dozen, bacon by the rasher, and reveling in her shiny pots and pans and polished floors." Pauline is the perfect advertisement for these domestic products, and as the Fishers say, "'Really, she is the ideal servant'" (101). If to name is to "arrest, and fix, the image of that other," then the Fisher's renaming of Pauline as Folly (10) is an act of containment (Phelan 2). As a representative ideal servant, Folly becomes safely part of the everpresent but overlooked background of their household. The Fishers turn Folly into a fetish; she is the signifier of happy servitude, of benevolent rescue from her own culture's inherent debasement. When they look at her, what is reflected are the "constituent forces of their desire" to reconceptualize an exploitative relationship as a mutually beneficial one (Phelan 26).
For Claudia, the novel's narrator, Folly is the signifier of the intimate forms of exploitation inherent in the relationship between black and white families; in other words, she realizes that it is the black-white interfamial relationship that is inherently flawed and not the black family itself (as pollcymakers like Moynihan would later argue). When Claudia witnesses Pauline's mothering of the Fisher girl, she recalls, "The familiar violence rose in me. Her calling Mrs. Breedlove Folly, when even Fecola called her mother Mrs. Breedlove" (86). That her role as Folly detracts from the quality of mothering Pauline gives her own daughter is not surprising given the historical precedent set in the plantation household. The mistress-mammy relationship allowed the white woman to maintain the idealized status of mother, while freeing her from the actualities of mothering." In turn, this transference of mothering established a burden of superhuman mothering on the black woman. (12) Thus, Mrs. Fisher, like a plantat ion mistress, remains associated with the "universal qualities of nurturance and self sacrifice" despite the fact that she leaves the mothering to Pauline (Bridenthal 232; Fox-Genovese 113). Because the mammy is represented in Hollywood films as "satisfied, even pleased, with this inequitable arrangement," Jeremy G. Butler argues, the mammy "does not just represent nurturing; she also promotes black women's exploitation as nurturers of white characters who hire and use her" (292). Thus, the viewer is led to believe that this seemingly familial relationship cannot be exploitative.
Only by glossing over the continuing discrimination against freed Blacks could one claim that black people naturally gravitate toward such roles, since they still performed and seemed content with them after slavery. What is overlooked in such an argument is that black men had little opportunity to become breadwinners (13) while black women who became family wage-earners did so by taking jobs that imitated the service positions they would have held during slavery. (14) Gloria Wade-Gayles writes about how women often slipped back into their pre-Emancipation roles as mammies, caretakers, and cooks-jobs as plentiful in the North as in the South. Black men had a harder time finding a niche as white immigrants crowded the low-level industrial sector. It is this economic reality and not a flaw in their "natures" or abilities that denied black men breadwinner status and sometimes, consequently, a secure place in the home. In order to find work they often had to travel.
Despite these systematic obstacles to the Breedloves' achieving this gendered model, Pauline sees her failures as individual and familial ones. She learns to measure herself against a cinematic scale of style (15) that measures the difference between white and black, beautiful and ugly: "She was never able, after her education at the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen." The movies have also revealed to her the idea of the perfect family, of which she desired to be a part: " 'I'd move right on in them pictures. White men taking such good care of they women, and they all dressed up in big clean houses' " (97). After she loses her front tooth eating candy at the movies, she concludes that she is destined never to be so beautiful or cared for as those women on the screen. (16) She does not understand that her rotten tooth is the physical embodiment of her inability to be an unmarked citizen wh o has the economic power to erase the unwanted traces of her body by purchasing a new artificial tooth. Instead, she directs blame inward and loses interest in her physical appearance and her home: "Soon she stopped trying to keep her own house. The things she could afford to buy did not last, had no beauty or style, and were absorbed by the dingy storefront" (101). Not understanding this systematic aspect of her situation, Pauline imagines that her inability to be beautiful or stylish stems from some inherent fault; in so doing, she fails to account for the economic barriers to her attainment of the privileged homemaker position in one of those white houses.
With white houses as the standard of beauty, Pauline finds everything in her home decor wanting. She compares her zinc tub to her employer's porcelain one, her "stiff, grayish towels" to their "fluffy white" ones, her daughter's "tangled black puffs of rough wool" with the Fisher girl's silky, yellow hair (101). Measuring her own success by a consumer yardstick, Pauline employs what Joan Kron terms a "semiotics of home decor," in which one's home furnishings are read as part of a "system of symbols" indicating one's social status and self-perception (80). The fuller description of the Breedloves' decor makes apparent that they feel demoralized by their inability to use their possessions to convey a positive self-image. Morrison uses a description of this decor to signify their disenfranchisement and the histories of their furnishings to tell of their systemic oppression, not individual shiftlessness. Their sofa "had been purchased new," the narrator explains, "but the fabric had split straight across the back by the time it was delivered. The store would not take the responsibility" (32). The Breedloves are held responsible for the sofa and the debasement it represents, but Morrison makes it clear that the accountability should be directed elsewhere. The sofa functions as a sign of the Breedloves inability to compete in American consumer culture. The literal humiliation of the ripped sofa and the metaphorical shame of consumer impotence also affect other parts of the family's life: "If you had to pay $4.80 a month for a sofa that started off split, no good, and humiliating--you couldn't take any joy in owning it. And the joylessness stank, pervading everything" (32). The ripped sofa is just the outward manifestation of the Breedloves' all-pervasive alienation from themselves, from any political or personal constituency, and from industrial and consumer culture.
When the narrator details the history of Pauline's life, her apparent preference for the white family over her own is revealed to be much more complicated and at least partially connected to her overcompensation for the unhappy reality of her own family life, especially as it contrasts to Mrs. Fisher's. It is apparent from the description of the Breed loves' home, (17) where they remain "festering together in the debris of a realtor's whim," that systematic obstacles stand in the way of their successful adoption of the breadwinner/homemaker model (31). Considered in this light, Pauline can be understood to embrace her role as the Fishers' servant in order to trade in her own troubling body and history. As their servant she can "move unconsciously and unobstructed through the public sphere" (Berlant 111) in a way that she cannot as Mrs. Cholly Breedlove: "The creditors and service people who humiliated her when she went to them on her own behalf respected her, even were intimated by her, when she spoke for the Fishers" (Morrison 101). As Polly she gets as close as she can as a black woman to experience the privileges of disembodied citizenship. Embodying the role of Polly becomes a substitute for what Pauline wants: a satisfying and substantial self. When she cannot access that self on her own, through her family or the black community, she accepts the self imposed upon her by the Fishers. Pauline wills herself not to know her own history because it is too painful. She seems to forget her own role in creating the seeming naturalness of Hollywood's image of" 'white men taking such good care of they women, and they all dressed up in big clean houses'" (97). This comment makes apparent Pauline's acceptance of the equation that home decor equals identity: Because she believes that she is squalid and dark like her apartment and the Fishers are stately and clean like their house, Pauline can only maintain a positive self-perception by affiliating herself with the Fishers. Yet houses such as theirs are clean because she and others like her labor in them; they are big because white employers can still find black labor to exploit. Moreover, the white men are viewed as good caretakers because they protect white women not only from economic vicissitudes but also from the supposed threat of the rapacious black male predator.
White men maintained their status as chivalric protectors, in other words, by contrasting themselves to the dishonorable defilers embodied in the figure of the black rapist. Yet, when "chivalrous white men" of the South cried rape, Ida B. Wells argues, they did so to "shield themselves by their cowardly and infamously false excuse" in order to "escape the deserved execration of the civilized world" for their own institutionalized practice of the rape of slave women (12-13). In other words, this chivalric pose is a false front:
To justify their own barbarism they assume a chivalry which they do not possess. True chivalry respects all womanhood, and no one who reads the record, as it is written in the faces of the million mulattoes in the South, will for a minute conceive that the southern white man had a very chivalrous regard for the honor due to the women of his own race or respect for the womanhood which circumstances placed in his power.
They can only reassert their chivalric reputations by once more recreating the figure of the black rapist, thereby justifying the need for a corresponding chivalric, white avenger. Focusing on this chivalric front distracts attention from the real issue that during and even after slavery white men could sexually exploit black women without any fear of retaliation. Moreover, focusing on the figure of the black male sexual predator coupled with that of the emasculating black matriarch distracts attention from the entrenchment of racialized conceptions of citizenship that justified economic inequality.
The history of Cholly Breedlove suggests that his demoralization over his exclusion from full citizenship is the emasculating force in his life. Contrary to the Moynihan Report's claim that it is the matriarchal structure of the black family that imposes a "crushing burden on the black male," Morrison demonstrates that it is the attempt to embrace patriarchy that crushes Cholly's spirit. Although Morrison begins Cholly's section with the line "SEEFATHERHEISBIGAND-STRONG," the experiences detailed therein reveal the negative impact of the patriarchal assumptions inherent in the artificial social demarcations intrinsic to the nuclear family (105). Within the kinship network of his Aunt Jimmy, Cholly's manhood is nurtured, even though he is surrounded by females. One night as he sleeps by his aunt's bedside the women's "lullaby of grief envelops him" and he dreams that "his penis changed into a long hickory stick, and the hands caressing it were the hands of M'Dear," the root doctor who treats Aunt Jimmy (110). Along with this healthy model of sexuality, the kinship network encourages an understanding of manhood that involves nurturing as well as strength. Exemplifying this nurturing masculinity, Cholly's relationship with a local man named Blue Jack is based on sharing: "Together the old man and the boy sat on the grass and shared the heart of the watermelon. The nasty-sweet guts of the earth" (107). From Blue Cholly learns that any man in the community can father a child. This conception of masculinity as something that is nourished in harmony with the community of women and with nature is opposed to a more hierarchical conception of manhood which is determined by the work a man does, the authority he has, or the mastery he achieves. Significantly, Cholly also learns about the history of lynching from Blue, a man who had "talked his way out of getting lynched once" and who tells stories of others who hadn't (106). With this second reference to lynching in the novel, Morrison demonstrates again what a false front lynching is because the almost-lynched Blue, Cholly's father-figure, is the antithesis of the stereotype of black brute/buck upon which the justification for lynching relied.
Morrison further undercuts the chivalric justification of lynching not only by having a member of the black community offering a counternarrative to standard lynching history, but also through depicting Cholly's encounter with two white hunters while he is engaged in sexual experimentation with a neighbor. Before the hunters arrive, Cholly's sexual awakening is described in organic terms-"His mouth full of the taste of muscadine... The smell of promised rain, pine, and muscadine made him giddy" (115)- but, after the hunters leave, all of this becomes rotten. For these white men, black male sexuality is simply an entertaining spectacle, reinforcing their own inherent manliness and superiority. That Cholly accepts their superiority and adopts their perspective is evident by his reaction. He blames his partner Darlene, "the one who bore witness to his failure, his impotence. The one whom he had not been able to protect, to spare, to cover from the round moon glow of the flashlight. The hee-hee-hee's" (119). The se two hunters bear little resemblance to the white men who are depicted in chivalric lynching scenarios as "patriarchs, avengers, righteous protectors" (Hall 218). Instead, they more closely resemble Wells's characterization of white men in a lynch mob that "did not embody white manliness restraining black lust--it embodied white men's lust running amok, destroying true black manliness" (220). They destroy Cholly's idea of mutually nurturing natural relations between people learned at Aunt Jimmy's bedside, and replace it with the artificial hierarchical power relations revealed by flashlight. After his encounter with them, fourteen-year-old Cholly flees his kinship network and feels the need to find his own father and his own place within the patriarchal hierarchy. But when he locates his father in Macon after an arduous search, and his father abandons him for the second time, Cholly forsakes his connection to all of his kin. The brutishness Cholly has developed is a product of his experiences trying to assi milate into the consumer culture of the North and has nothing to do with any sense of impotence caused by his family's matriarchal structure. In short, an innocent black boy's feelings of impotence, to borrow from Wells's anti-lynching rhetoric, can be attributed to his encounter with two "unmanly" and "unrestrained" white men who revel in their own lustiness.
This lustiness recalls the fact that historically it was the white masters and not the black servants who were the sexual aggressors. Elizabeth FoxGenovese claims that the slaveholder's often-used metaphor "'my family, white and black,'" effaced the economic heart of slavery by representing the plantation household as an "organic community" (100). This metaphor conjures an image of mutual devotion, of responsibility, but leaves out the mitigating factor of bondage. As Catherine Clinton and Hazel Carby (Reconstructing) have argued, black and white intra- and inter-family relationships in such a sexualized plantation economy were pathologically entangled, especially when white masters sold their own black offspring and white children played with and later owned their black half-brothers and sisters. Moreover, relations in the plantation household were quite pathological because, as Fox-Genovese argues, "the beneficent paternalism of the father was ever shadowed by the power of the master, just as the power of the master was tempered by the beneficent paternalism of the father" (101). The slaves were children, in a sense, but not the legitimate children worthy of comfort and care. This reality caused contradictory feelings: "Intimacy and distance, companionship and impatience, affection and hostility, all wove through their relations" (144).
African Americans have the same fraught relationship with the United States itself: All children of the nation are supposed to be equal citizens, but it is clear that some are more worthy of comfort and care than others. As Morrison phrases it, the American "soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers" (160). Many Black Americans, like the Breedloves, seemed during this era to will themselves not to know this history and optimistically tried to embrace consumer culture and its promises. Without their kinship networks, however, many found that they had no reliable social and economic support. Their loss of any connection to a kinship group is precisely what, according to Claudia, puts the Breedlove family "outdoors," a condition which does not merely entail the loss of a roof over one's head, but signifies more precisely the state of being completely outside the community and its help. Claudia explains the irrevocable nature of this condition, "If you are put out, you go somewhere else; if you are outdoors there is no place to go." She recognizes that economic fluctuations are inevitable for those on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, for those who "moved about anyway on the hem of life," but the Breedloves forsake kinship networks that function as a safety net for the back community, enabling them to "consolidate [their] weaknesses and hang on" (18). Other black people in Lorrain, even if they are on the periphery--like Della Jones, whose sister from North Carolina comes to take care of her when she has a stroke--still have "people"; that is, a community of kin who can pool their resources (15). Thus, while the Breedloves' poverty is not unique, their lack of "people" is. The hemming metaphor is significant here because it can refer to the hemming of clothes and, thereby, signify a non-consumer network of sharing and recycling items through which the black families in the South remained afloat even when their needs were not met by consumer cub hire.
Viewing kinship networks as failed nuclear families, U.S. society in general and the Moynihan Report in particular fail to consider the importance of these kinship networks that share household spaces, services, and goods among non-blood as well as blood relations. In addition, they take no account of the elaborate system of male and female responsibility among these extended networks that guarantee financial support and child care as long as obligations and connections are maintained within the networks. (18) As Carol B. Stack concludes, (19) "A pattern of cooperation and mutual aid among kin during the migration north... and the domestic cooperation of close adult females and the exchange of goods and services between male and female kin" were strategies these communities used for coping with poverty (9). Ann Zollar qualifies Stack's argument, claiming that these networks were not just reactions to conditions, but rather that they are inherent features of African American family units. (20)
Such a network was certainly part of Cholly Breedlove's life until he came north. While his life in Georgia wasn't easy, it was marked by the care of people like Blue and Aunt Jimmy. Jimmy's network of women is described as truly free, a liberation which arises from the strength of their mutual bonds. The extended network of care that these women provide for each other is distinct from their other lives as maids and housekeepers for white women. Their experiences outside of this protective realm are harsh; everyone orders them around, drawing from their strength as if it were inexhaustible. But because of their circle, they transform these indignities into something usable: "They took all of that and re-created it in their own image" (Morrison 109). Moreover, as the reader learns later in the book when Pecola is crushed by her inability to create an image of herself outside of the images of full personhood and citizenship that a white consumer society has manufactured, their having these images of themselves makes all the difference in the world:
The hands that felled trees also cut umbilical cords; the hands that wrung the necks of chickens and butchered hogs also nudged African violets into bloom.... They plowed all day and came home to nestle like plums under the limbs of their men. The legs that straddled a mule's back were the same ones that straddled their men's hips. And the difference was all the difference there was. (110)
Their internal perimeter of strength enables Aunt jimmy and her community of women to be free in their minds and hearts. While this network cannot change the harshness of their lives, it can mediate it.
Morrison describes the importance of this network even more clearly in an interview in which she discusses techniques that have enabled African American survival: "Taking that which is peripheral, or violent or doomed or something that nobody else can see any value in and making value out of it or having a psychological attitude about duress is what made us stay alive and fairly coherent" (Jones and Vinson 175). Morrison uses embedded metaphors throughout The Bluest Eye in order to take that which seems peripheral in American history and foreground it. By demonstrating how destructive it is for her characters not to know their history, she suggests how damaging such an amnesiac approach also is for the nation. Writing about this amnesiac approach to national history, Ann Douglas contends that by the 1920s a few American writers attempted to re-centralize the "sin [of slavery] in modern consciousness," but those who took an "amnesiac approach" to that history dominated. Douglas laments that the latter thereby consigned slavery--the "tragic nexus of black and white--with all other signs of cultural miscegenation to a death sentence of oblivion and denial" (272). While Michael Rogin (21) describes such an approach as a form of public "inattention to what continues to be seen" (Ronald 234), Morrison uses her metaphoric references to draw attention to the histories of those marked by their conspicuously ill-fitting personhood. In short, by telling the story of her characters' will-not-to-know their painful history, Morrison is also able to relate the parallel story of the national misrecognition of its history.
(1.) For historical background, see Gregory; Langer and Gleason; Blum; Kennan.
(2.) See Awkward; Christian; Harris, "Reconnecting"; Hedin; Towner; Weinstein.
(3.) If China and Poland are nations that during World War II could metaphorically be considered damsels in distress who need to be protected from violation by aggressors, the use of those names for two black prostitutes is ironic. As Ida B. Wells argues, the chivalric rhetoric of lynching positioned some women as worthy of rescue while leaving others unprotected. The second irony here is that, as Cynthia Enloe points out, American chivalric rescuers were often "serviced" by the women channeled into prostitution precisely because of the presence of these foreign servicemen in their countries. For an insightful discussion of the role prostitutes have played in maintaining masculinity, especially in times of war, see Enloe, Bananas 145-56; Enloe, Morning.
(4.) The "Maginot Line" refers to France's fixation in World War II on a series of strategic points from which artillery could be fired. While France was assuming that World War II would mirror World War I and be a war of positions in which soldiers could defend the country in trenches one hundred miles from the enemy, this war was completely different. In 1939, German troops invaded Poland, unleashed a blitzkrieg, and destroyed all resistance. In 1940, Nazi armies invaded northern France by going through neutral Holland and Belgium, bypassing the Maginot Line and its defensive fortifications. See Chelminski; Lens.
(5.) Useful here is Gail Bederman's discussion of how black women were depicted as "unwomanly harlots" and contrasted to "high-minded and sexually pure" white women (230).
(6.) For a discussion that contextualizes Wells's anti-lynching campaigns in terms of ideologies of manhood and womanhood, see Carby, "On the Threshold."
(7.) For more on scapegoating see Mary Douglas 9.
(8.) Even though American culture of the 1940s may have marked Italian Americans as darker and akin to black, they were not labeled legally "other," as were those with black ancestry, such as the Peals. The Villanuccis are representative of the minorities who are able to make their presence in the public sphere less noticeable.
(9.) The stability of this division was briefly threatened by the entrance of women into the workforce during World War II, but recontained by the post-war emphasis on the attractive and efficient homemaker. See May; Coontz.
(10.) See Trudier Harris's argument ("Reconnecting" 72-73) that the nicknaming of Pauline is a perversion of the communal claiming function of African American nicknames.
(11.) See Anderson; Harris, From Mammies; Parkhurst 353; Jones 233-36.
(12.) For more on how the idealization of "motherhood' is separated from actual mothering," see Bridenthal 232.
(13.) May discusses how many advertisements of the era focused on the way the male breadwinner could be the cornerstone of a stable family structure. They played on "men's guilt at a time when many men felt responsible for placing the security of their families in jeopardy" (49). Of course, black men were excluded from the fundamental idea of American manhood. Roland Marchand claims that advertisements of the 1920s and '30s portrayed blacks as contented porters, janitors, and maids and never portrayed them as "consumers, or as fellow workers with whites, or as skilled workers. Primarily, they functioned as symbols of the capacity of the leading lady and leading man to command a variety of personal services" (193). Several other chapters in Marchand's book also examine these issues. See esp. 248-54.
(14.) See Ottley and Weatherby for a discussion of the channeling of black women into domestic work and the exclusion of black men from public utilities and trade unions, leaving them either unemployed or working as messengers, porters, and cleaners. Especially interesting is their discussion of maid auctions in New York City (260). With continued discrimination and second-class status in the North, conditions for Blacks in New York became a refiguration of slave conditions and Jim Crow laws of the South (270).
(15.) For a discussion of the record attendance at movies in the 1930s, see May. Significantly, the motion picture industry was one of the few economic enterprises that did not suffer serious losses during the Depression (41).
(16.) Hollywood film has its roots in racialized entertainment spectacles such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and the scientific racism of the World Columbian Exposition's anthropological exhibits. For an analysis of how the fair's grammar positioned black and white as antonyms, see Bederman. For treatments of the cinema in the novel, see Gerster; Fick.
(17.) The Breedloves' storefront shares a similarity to Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's description of a typical slave cabin: "Even with improvements slave cabins hardly offered a solid foundation for an independent domestic sphere over which the mother of the family could preside. Primarily places to sleep, take shelter, eat the last meal of the day, they did not harbor the real life of slave families, much less of the slave community" (15).
(18.) For the way black slave women responded to this loss of family ties by developing networks with each other, see Hine.
(19.) For more on Stack's analysis of a community in a Midwestern city on the rail line between the South and Chicago, see All Our Kin.
(20.) For a similar claim, see McAdoo.
(21.) Rogin also discusses political amnesia in "'Make My Day.'"
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Jennifer Gillan is Associate Professor of English at Bentley College. Among the journals in which her articles have appeared are American Literature, Cinema Journal, Mosaic, American Drama, and Arizona Quarterly. With Maria Mazziotti Gillan, she has edited three multicultural anthologies: Unsettling America, Identity Lessons, and Growing Up Ethnic in America (Penguin Books).
[c] 2002 Jennifer Gillan
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|Title Annotation:||Toni Morrison|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2002|
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