The Blues Aesthetic in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.
Readers of Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, are often so overwhelmed by the narrative's emotional content--the child Pecola's incestuous rape, ensuing pregnancy, and subsequent abandonment by her community and descent into madness--that they miss the music in this lyrically "songified" narrative.  Morrison has stated that her narrative "effort is to be like something that has probably only been fully expressed perhaps in music... " ("Interview" 408). The Bluest Eye is the genesis of her effort "to do what the music did for blacks, what we used to be able to do with each other in private and in that civilization that existed underneath the white civilization" (Morrison, "Language" 371). The catharsis and the transmission of cultural knowledge and values that have always been central to the blues form the thematic and rhetorical underpinnings of The Bluest Eye. The narrative's structure follows a pattern common to traditional blues lyrics: a movement from an initial emphasis on loss to a conclud ing suggestion of resolution of grief through motion. In between its initial statement of loss and its final emphasis on movin' on, The Bluest Eye contains an abundance of cultural wisdom. The blues lyrics that punctuate the narrative at critical points suggest a system of folk knowledge and values that is crucial to a young black woman's survival in the 1930s and '40s and which supports Claudia's cathartic role as storyteller. The lyrics also illustrate the folk knowledge and values that are not transmitted to Pecola--information without which she cannot survive as a whole and healthy human being.
In traditional blues songs, the singer is the subject, the I who tells her (or his) own story. In The Bluest Eye, however, Claudia tells Pecola's story. Except for a few fragmented lines of dialogue, Pecola remains silent within Claudia's narrative. Much of the critical discourse on the novel has focused on the relationship between voice and empowerment, and on the problematics of a narrative that silences its dispossessed protagonist while seeking to empower the dispossessed and to critique power relations. This essay addresses the apparent contradiction between The Bluest Eye's silenced protagonist and its traditionally African American equation of voice with empowerment by situating Claudia's narrative voice within African American oral traditions and a blues aesthetic. I posit Claudia as the narrative's blues subject, its bluest "I" and representative blues figure, and Pecola as the abject tabula rasa on which the community's blues are inscribed. I assert that, rather than singing Pecola's blues, Claudia "sings" the community's blues. Claudia bears witness, through the oral tradition of testifying, to the community's lack of self-love and its transference of this lack onto the abject body of Pecola.
In the first section below, I address the initial reference to a specific blues song in the novel by discussing the lyrics and structure of "The St. Louis Blues" as representative of traditional blues. I then lay the foundation for a discussion of The Bluest Eye as a blues narrative. In the ensuing section, I build upon this foundation to discern a female blues subjectivity in The Bluest Eye, a subjectivity constructed through African American oral traditions and embodied in the three whores' speech, song, and laughter, and in Claudia's narrative voice. Finally, I position Claudia's subjectivity within a blues aesthetic and her voice within the oral tradition of testifying.
The earliest reference to a specific blues in The Bluest Eye follows the scene in which Mrs. MacTeer harangues the girls after Pecola consumes what Mrs. MacTeer deems more than her share of the milk in the refrigerator, and it precedes the narrative of Pecola's first menstruation. This reference to the blues, then, forms a bridge between childhood (the milk consumption represents Pecola's effort to consume--and become--Shirley Temple) and womanhood. The blues to which Claudia refers exemplify the cultural knowledge and values transmitted orally to Claudia that ease and assist her transition into womanhood--folk wisdom that is not conveyed to Pecola. The blues are first represented in the text in Claudia's reminiscence about the Saturdays when her "mother was in a singing mood." Claudia recalls snatches of lyrics from "hard times" songs her mother frequently sings, including the phrase "hate to see that evening sun go down," a reference to one of the earliest recorded and most popular blues songs, "St. Louis B lues," by W. C. Handy (25).
Musicians from the early twentieth century to the present have revised, improvised, and recorded Handy's classic, whose lyrics convey a wealth of folk knowledge and cultural values. Hearing her mother sing the blues, Claudia finds herself
longing for those hard times, yearning to be grown without "a thin di-ime to my name." I looked forward to the delicious time when "my man" would leave me, when I would "hate to see that evening sun go down..."' cause then I would know "my man has left this town." Misery colored by the greens and blues in my mother's voice took all the grief out of the words and left me with a conviction that pain was not only endurable, it was sweet. (25-26)
The lyrical language in which Claudia describes her mother's singing is suggestive of the sweet and cathartic tone of traditional blues. The tone and the positive spectrum of emotion she describes as the colors of her mother's voice are more powerfully affecting than the pain signified by the words. Morrison tells us that music was one of "the most prominent elements" in her own early life ("Interview" 396). Her mother was a singer, and her home was filled with the seductive blues yearning that Claudia describes, a yearning at the emotional center of the "St. Louis Blues" and The Bluest Eye.
In referring to the "St. Louis Blues," Morrison has chosen a blues that registers all of the central concerns of The Bluest Eye. Both the song and the novel exhibit a lyrical progression from an initial statement of loss to a concluding statement of resolve to move on, literally and figuratively. The song opens on the traditional blues note of loss or lack: The speaker's man has left her with an empty bed, and consequently she hates to see the lonely nighttime come. The song then proceeds immediately, in the second verse, to the suggestion of resolution through the motion nearly always implied in the blues: "Feelin' tomorrow lak I feel today / I'll pack mah trunk, an' make mah getaway."
Houston Baker writes that the notion of resolution of earthly problems through motion is implied in the sound of the blues:
The dominant blues syntagm in America is an instrumental imitation of train-wheels-over-track-junctures. The sound is the "sign," as it were, of the blues, and it combines an intriguing melange of phonics: rattling gondolas, clattering flatbeds, quilling whistles, clanging bells, rumbling boxcars, and other railroad sounds.... If desire and absence are driving conditions of blues performance, the amelioration of such conditions is implied by the onomatopoeic training of blues voice and instrument. 
Baker add that, "even as [the blues] speak of paralyzing absence and ineradicable desire, their instrumental rhythms suggest change, movement, action ..." (8). This observation certainly applies to the "St. Louis Blues," a traditional twelve-bar blues augmented with an eight-bar bridge and an additional twelve-bar blues. Its rhymed couplets, most of them obeying strict iambic pentameter, develop a complex iteration of cultural values and direct a black audience to sources of support and sustenance in times of trouble.
Like many other blues, the "St. Louis Blues" suggests a literal as well as a tropological resolution through motion: The speaker announces her intent to board a train and seek her lover who has left for St. Louis, invoking cultural wisdom that may be interpreted in literal as well as figurative terms. She suggests that looking up a friend employed by the railroad lines is the first step toward a way out of troubled times (verse seven). This is excellent practical advice in a time period when the railroads employed large numbers of black men in some of the better-paying, service-oriented positions in the urban North. For black people negotiating the route of the Great Migration, from the Jim Crow South to the urban North, friends on the railroad line were indispensable. A friend on the railroad could be a poor person's only ticket to ride. In figurative terms this verse suggests that there is a way out of troubled times and that this way out involves forming and relying on a close-knit community and making on e's needs known. It also suggests that the two-timing man may not be the speaker's only love interest ("mah ol' frien', Jeff / Gwine to pin mahself close to his side / If I flag his train, I sho can ride"), and that women can give as well as they get in the field of intimate intrigues. Figuratively, in referring to the train, the song suggests to the listener's imagination the sound of the train, echoed in the sound of the blues, and at this juncture of sound and reference to sound, the promise of motion and change is magnified and enhanced.
James McPherson, in Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture, notes that to nineteenth-century
backwoodsmen, Africans, and recent immigrants--the people who comprised the vernacular segment of society ... the [steam engine locomotive] might have been loud and frightening, but its whistle and its wheels promised movement. And since a commitment to both freedom and movement was the basic premise of democracy, it was probable that such people would view the locomotive as a challenge to the integrative powers of their imaginations. (6) 
Claudia tells the reader twice that Mrs. MacTeer is "all the time singing about trains and Arkansas" (98). Claudia, with her keen sense of justice, hears freedom and democracy in what Houston Baker would call the "trained" sound of her mother's singing voice. The Saturdays on which her mother does not sing are "lonesome, fussy, soapy days. Second in misery only to those tight, starchy, cough-drop Sundays, so full of 'don'ts' and 'set' cha self downs'" (25). The singing Saturdays are full of possibility; her mother's "voice so sweet and her singing-eyes so melty" (25) stir her imagination and yearning, and leave her with a sense of "conviction" (26) that sustains her in times of trouble.
The singing subject of the "St. Louis Blues" is a female,  and in verse seven she yearns for the sense of dominion, motion, and freedom represented by the masculine railroad line ("If I flag his train, I sho can ride"). The tone and tenor of Claudia's narrative express a similar longing. In employing the "St. Louis Blues" to provoke and represent Claudia's yearning, Morrison inverts traditional notions of the masculine and the feminine and claims for Claudia some of the "masculinity" that she will later claim for Sula. The notion that there is always somewhere else to go when hard times hit, and a way to get there, sustains Claudia. The only somewhere else for Pecola to go is insane. The poverty of her imagination, an imagination which has not been nurtured by the blues or any other source of cultural sustenance, is reflected in the destitution of the Breedlove home.
The traditional progression from cathartic statement of loss to announcement of the intent to achieve resolution through motion is accomplished in the first two verses of the "St. Louis Blues." The remaining eight verses that Claudia would have become familiar with through her mother's repeated performances affirm cultural values essential to her growth and development--and the growth and development of any young, black, working-class person. The third verse of the song iterates a theme that is central to this novel and that runs throughout the body of Morrison's work: The glitz of beauty industry consumer products that reify light skin and straight hair--the make-up and fashion apparel ruined in the rain on Hagar's fatal shopping spree in Song of Solomon, for example--can be both powerful and powerfully misleading. Verse three argues that it is not the St. Louis woman who has stolen the speaker's man, it is "diamon' rings ... / powder an'... store-bought hair." The St. Louis woman is not present in this ver se; rather, her presence is suggested solely by the reified products with which she adorns herself. Verse four of the "St. Louis Blues" recapitulates the song's initial sense of loss. It echoes the soulless emptiness that the speaker asserts (in the third verse) lies beneath the St. Louis Woman's patina of beauty and success. In The Bluest Eye, Maureen Peal is more a conglomeration of signifying products--"patent-leather shoes with buckles ... sweaters the color of lemon drops ... a brown velvet coat trimmed in white rabbit fur, and a matching muff"--than a presence (62). Her surname may be read as Morrison's signifying on the word peel to emphasize 'skin,' 'rind,' 'patina,' or 'husk.'
The last two verses of the "St. Louis Blues" relate cultural values absolutely crucial to Claudia's survival and Pecola's downfall, and speak to the sensitive issue at the emotional center of The Bluest Eye: caste prejudice, or intraracism based upon skin tone. Verse nine describes the sought-after man as "stovepipe brown" and links his desirability to his dark-toned skin; and verse ten inverts the caste hierarchy that has filtered down from the dominant white culture into Lorain's black community, a caste hierarchy that privileges light skin, blue eyes, and European features and that is embodied in Maureen Peal. The speaking subject of the "St. Louis Blues" constructs a striking visual image of the desired man as "Blacker than midnight, teeth lak flags of truce / Blackest man in de whole St. Louis." She then employs this image in a direct inversion of the dominant caste hierarchy, closing the verse with a popular aphorism, passed down through generations of African Americans, that assigns the highest aesthe tic value to the darkest skin: "Blacker de berry, sweeter is de juice...." While Claudia is regularly serenaded--on Saturdays, when her mother was in a singing mood--with this concise, confident, and lyrical deconstruction of the Shirley Temple aesthetic, Pecola is rejected by Pauline, who embraces the "corn-yellow"-haired child of her white employers. One of the novel's more chilling scenes, rivaled in emotional content only by the rape scene, is the one in which Pauline slaps Pecola for accidentally overturning the blueberry cobbler, throws her out of the house, and then tenderly embraces the white Fisher child, who calls her by her first name (Pecola must call her mother "Mrs. Breedlove" [107-09]). Clearly, Pauline has internalized the notion that black is not beautiful. Pecola and the dark berries in the bubbling cobbler with which she is associated are objects to be swept out of the way as Pauline rushes to embrace the rich white child.
Claudia's defiance of and Pecola's internalization of the Shirley Temple aesthetic are illustrated in the Maureen Peal "six-finger-dog-tooth-meringue-pie" episode (61-73). In rejecting Maureen and "calling her out of her name," Claudia rejects the intraracism implicit in the privileging of Maureen's "high yellow dream" complexion and her "two lynch ropes" of long brown hair (62). Pecola desires what Claudia rejects: light skin, straight hair, blue eyes, and the social status they represent. Claudia's defiance is a learned and nurtured defiance, encouraged by a severe but loving mother who sings to her on Saturdays. Pecola internalizes the caste aesthetic that the "St. Louis Blues" mediates against, an aesthetic that Morrison argues has insidiously infiltrated not only families like the Breedloves but whole communities.
Claudia tells us that she comes to embrace this aesthetic tentatively, reluctantly, and consciously. As IngerAnne Softing notes, "Claudia is the only character in this novel who consciously makes an attempt at deconstructing the ideology of the dominant society. This is seen in her dismembering of the dolls" (90). Describing her gradual awareness that her violent dismembering of white baby dolls was unacceptable, Claudia speaks of a conversion "from pristine sadism to fabricated hatred to fraudulent love.... I learned much later to worship [Shirley Temple], just as I learned to delight in cleanliness, knowing, even as I learned, that the change was adjustment without improvement" (23). This awareness of her reluctant capitulation to intraracism seems remarkable in a child. It is almost certainly the observation of the adult Claudia, who is engaged in the act of remembering and interpreting her childhood. Still, it is noteworthy that the child Claudia seems to stand alone in her critique of a "master" aesthet ic that is internalized by nearly everyone in her community, from the adults who give the gift of white baby dolls and Shirley Temple cups, to Geraldine, to the bully boys who taunt Pecola and whose words Maureen Peal repeats: "'Black and ugly black e mos'" (73).
Morrison has stated that her purpose in writing the novel was to "peck away at the gaze that condemns" Pecola's blackness as ugly ("Afterword" 210); Morrison critiques the "racial self-loathing" implicit in the community's valorization of Maureen Peal and the peel/skin color/caste hierarchy that she represents. Whereas Maureen Peal and Shirley Temple serve as icons of the destructive reification of caste and whiteness, respectively, the "St. Louis Blues" singing subject recognizes the vapidity beneath the husk of powder, rings, and store-bought hair. Claudia, too, even as a child, recognizes the self-loathing inherent in the condemning gaze, and the blues wisdom that fills the house on Claudia's mother's singing Saturdays has fostered this recognition.
Thus, Morrison implies that the MacTeers have retained a connection to ancestral knowledge essential to survival in their current situation, a connection lost to the Breedloves.
The Breedloves follow a trajectory away from the values of the black, poor, rural South and toward values that serve the interests of a privileged, white upper-middle class and of capitalism itself. This trajectory serves to instill in the Breedloves' own family a sense of worthlessness and lack. Morrison makes it clear that Cholly and Pauline Breedlove, and particularly Pauline, were once connected to a community that embodied the cultural values expressed in the blues. In Pauline's italicized narrative fragments concerning her girlhood in the rural South, she recalls a delicious yearning and pleasure associated not with consumer products but with community and with the associated fruits of the earth :
When I first seed Cholly I want you to know it was like all the bits of color from that time down home when us chil'ren went berry picking after a funeral and I put some in the pocket of my Sunday dress, and they mashed up and stained my hips. My whole dress was messed with purple, and it never did wash out. Not the dress nor me. I could feel that purple deep inside me. And that lemonade Mama used to make when Pap came in out the fields. It be cool and yellowish .... And that streak of green the june bugs made on the trees the night we left from down home. All of them colors was in me. (115)
Pauline's use of the word colors to name an abstract emotional yearning recalls the blues yearning instilled in Claudia by the sound of her mother's voice. The above passage is, in essence, Pauline's blues, and it expresses a longing for home and community and a choice to move on, to "go down to the crossroads," as Robert Johnson put it in his historic blues, and head north. In lyrically expressing a longing for the rural Southern community that revolved around church ("Sunday dress") and ritual ("berry picking," "funeral"). Pauline accomplishes what the blues singer accomplishes: She recreates that which is lost and for which she longs, transforming lack into poetry. Unfortunately, the transformation is temporary and exists only in her memory. Pauline's narrative traces her movement toward the white bourgeois values represented by the Hollywood films that seduce her, and by the flawless home of the Fishers. The lure of the material supplants her memories of community, even though she can never hope to posses s what she longs for.
Pauline seeks acceptance and success in terms defined by a white power structure that excludes her, whereas Claudia possesses an altogether different understanding of social structures. She seems intuitively to understand a central tenet of blues wisdom embodied in the "St. Louis Blues": Seek alternative forms of knowledge and understanding within the community, not in the white power structure. These forms are represented by the song's reference to the "gypsy,"  a figure who has a long history in African American literature and oral culture. 
The "gypsy" fortune teller or root doctor figure is negatively personified in The Bluest Eye by Soaphead Church. Claudia understands that Soaphead Church may reside within the community, but he is not of the community. She seems instinctively to understand that Church despises blackness and lives in thrall to a value system that excludes him. Because Claudia is part of the community, she is privy to information circulated orally about Church's "nasty" habit of molesting young girls. But Pecola, because she is treated as an outcast, is not privy to this knowledge. She sees in Church an outcast like herself, living on the fringes of the community, and in her first visit to him she is made to understand that he despises blackness just as she despises her own blackness. Pecola visits Church hoping for some magic, but Morrison twists the root doctor/fortune teller figure into a self-loathing, obsessive-compulsive child molester in order to underscore the dangerous nature of the only alternative sources of knowled ge and succor available to children like Pecola, whose families and communities are not looking out for their well-being.
The cultural values and knowledge embodied in the blues and transmitted orally to Claudia enable her to develop what would much later come to be called a black aesthetic.  Claudia does not, however, passively absorb this body of cultural knowledge and draw strength from it. She not only hears the blues, but she listens to and, more importantly, "sings" the blues. Indeed, the blues define her storytelling voice and style. Claudia is a blues subject engaged in what Kalamu ya Salaam calls the act of "reclaiming the black blues self."
As a singing subject, Claudia has some talented and versatile models in The Bluest Eye. Mrs. MacTeer and Poland serenade the reader with only a few lines, but these lines constitute a rich variety of blues expression that reflects the range of techniques Claudia employs as a blues narrator. Like Mrs. MacTeer singing the "St. Louis Blues" and Pauline reconstructing the rural South in blues prose, Poland transforms lack into poetry:
I got blues in my mealbarrel
Blues up on the shelf
I got blues in my mealbarrel
Blues up on the shelf
Blues in my bedroom
'Cause I'm sleeping by myself. (51)
The transformation of lack, loss, and grief into poetic catharsis is the constitutive task of the blues singer, and it is the labor that Claudia accomplishes in narrating The Bluest Eye. Central to the transmogrification of lack into poetry in Poland's "Mealbarrel Blues" is an assertion of subjectivity: In singing to affirm not having (blues, not meal, fill the mealbarrel), Poland establishes a desiring self. In desiring, she exists, and in naming her desire, she acts to fulfill it.
In the act of naming the blues (which Poland does five times in the verse above, in every line but the last), she calls down the power of Nommo, defined by Angela Y. Davis as a "West African philosophical concept ... 'the magic power of the word' ... the very basis of music" (6). In naming the blues, Poland activates the catharsis that holds the promise of ameliorating the blues. Davis goes on to assert that, in keeping with the tradition of Nommo, black women blues artists historically have shaped and interpreted a female blues subject who yearns for freedom. She emphasizes that the yearned-for freedom is not to be confused with Western notions of symbolic freedom; rather, given the material conditions of blues production, freedom must be understood first as literal--ownership of one's body--and, later (in history), as material--control over the means of production, and freedom from poverty, discrimination, debt, and disenfranchisement. Davis asserts that the sexual desire expressed in African American wome n's blues lyrics is a "camouflaged dream of a new social order" (14). It is also an assertion of women's control over their bodies.
When a woman is living in desperate material conditions, with nothing but the blues in her pantry, her body is all that she owns and controls; thus, assertion of ownership and control is a courageous political statement. Women blues singers from Ma Rainey to Koko Taylor have boldly and boastfully asserted their sexuality. When Mr. Henry molests Frieda and Frieda explains to Claudia the nature of his transgression, Claudia attempts to insert her voice into this tradition, and Morrison emphasizes the humor and naivete in the guileless child's attempt. Claudia enthusiastically asks, "'Really? How did it feel?'" (99). She then asks if it didn't feel good, and displays an innocent jealousy at Mr. Henry's choosing Frieda instead of her, aligning herself with the blues singer who complains of an empty bed.
The three whores embody the blues singer's assertion of sexuality, desirability, and ownership of their bodies. Nowhere in the novel is this clearer than in the paragraph describing their laughter:
All three of the women laughed. Marie threw back her head. From deep inside, her laughter came like the sound of many rivers.... China giggled spastically. Each gasp seemed to be yanked out of her by an unseen hand jerking an unseen string. Poland, who seldom spoke unless she was drunk, laughed without sound. When she was sober, she hummed mostly or chanted blues songs, of which she knew many. (52-53)
Inger-Anne Softing writes that Poland, in addition to carrying "on the old tradition of blending the sweet and the sad," introduces into the text "true carnival laughter... nonauthoritarian and nonhierarchical" (88). Softing points out that all three of the whores in The Bluest Eye laugh with their whole bodies, from the depths of being, constituting "true carnivalesque" in "a novel which, on the whole, is not filled with the liberating force of laughter" (88). The whores' laughter is the quintessential blues utterance: It wells up from within, with the force and rhythm of a freight train, and it erupts into pure catharsis. It is a public communication of emotions that are both private and shared.
Although the blues typically feature a first-person singular subject, and exhibit a concern "with the problems and/or experiences of the individual" (Southern 335), Davis observes in women's blues a "public communication of private troubles" that "allows for the development of a collective social consciousness within the black population" (14-15). Houston A. Baker, Jr., describes the blues as "an anonymous (nameless) voice issuing from the black (w)hole" (5). Poland's "Blues in my bedroom / 'Cause I'm sleeping by myself" may be read as a sensual and a political expression of collective need. Her "Mealbarrel Blues" conflates the language of sexual desire and the desire for freedom from poverty.
The conflation of material lack and sexual desire is humorously developed, in storytelling rather than singing form, in exchanges between Marie and China as China attempts to insert herself into the legend of John Dillinger. Marie and China enact a tradition that blends call-and-response, an erotic blues sensuality, and tongue-in-cheek humor--signifying. Miss Marie responds to Pecola's earnest "'How come they [men] all love you?' " with, " 'What else they gone do? They know I'm rich and good lookin'.' " Marie proceeds to tell a tall tale of how she came to be rich, the story in which she claims to be the mysterious Lady in Red who turned John Dillinger in to the " 'F. B. and I.' " China responds with guffaws and interrupts Marie's story, first with questions mimicking Pecola's earnestness (" 'Yeah.... Where you get it from?' "), then with affirmations (" 'We know that' "), and finally with goading insults, to which Marie responds playfully and aggressively:
"I was little and cute then. No more than ninety pounds, soaking wet."
"You ain't never been soaking wet," China said.
"Well you ain't never been dry. Shut up ...." (53)
China hoots, " 'She makin' like she's the Lady in Red that told on John Dillinger. Dillinger wouldn't have come near you lessen he was going hunting in Africa and shoot you for a hippo' " (54).
China and Marie engage in the black vernacular tradition of signifying, which Geneva Smitherman defines as "the verbal art of insult in which a speaker humorously puts down, talks about, needles--that is, signifies on--the listener" (118). Signifying has been enacted in musical forms from blues to rap; it is a component of some of the earliest recorded blues, and it has remained a staple in the blues repertoire. Pecola hears Poland singing, and she listens to China signifying on Marie's story, but she lacks the cultural knowledge necessary to understanding. She is exiled from the collective consciousness; it is as though she doesn't speak the language of the blues, although she most certainly lives the blues. Although she is close in age to Claudia and Frieda, she lacks Claudia's sense of irony and humor and both sisters' mastery of language.
Throughout the novel, Claudia's observations are guided by a sharp-edged humor. Her narrative is characterized by the adaptive laughing-to-keep-from-crying perspective that is central to the blues and that Bernard Bell, in his study of the African American novel, terms "double vision." Some of the most humorous moments in The Bluest Eye occur in the scenes following Frieda's molestation by Mr. Henry. Claudia and Frieda's unwitting play on the meaning of ruined and their misinterpretation of vague and confusing adult speech leads them to believe that the only cure for the ruination that has been wrought on Frieda by Mr. Henry is for Frieda to become an alcoholic. Their youthful logic and the examples of China and Poland lead them to conclude that drinking whisky will prevent Frieda from getting fat, the ruinous result, they believe, of molestation. When Claudia and Frieda signify on Maureen Peal and play a child's version of the dozens when Maureen goads them, Pecola "fold[s] into herself, like a broken wing, " because she is ashamed and lacks the double vision necessary to participation in this ritual (73).  Listening to China and Marie signifying, Pecola misses the humor and the innuendo; she responds with guileless earnestness: "'You rich, Miss Marie?'" (53); "'But what about the money?'" (54). Her responses to the whores' language play foreground her focus on the lack and need (" rich...?...money?'") that always marks the first verse(s) of a blues song--in this case it is material, a material desire, later reified in her desire for blue eyes. But Pecola's development as a blues subject stops at the first verse: She is entirely defined and consumed by lack. It is as though she is entrapped in the opening lines of a blues song; her character is never developed, as blues subjectivity is always developed, to the point of agency.
In Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior, the narrator's mother explains "'the difference between mad people and sane people'": "'Sane people have variety when they talk-story. Mad people have only one story that they talk over and over'" (159). By the closing pages of The Bluest Eye, Pecola has only one story, the story of her beautiful blue eyes. Her identity is hopelessly fragmented; and, as Madonne Miner notes, "tragically, even when combined, [Pecola and her 'imaginary friend'] do not compose one whole being....she no longer exists as a reasonable human being" (181). Claudia's voice gathers strength as Pecola fragments. Guided by a blues aesthetic, Claudia constructs a wealth of stories and a variety of perspectives from which to interpret her childhood experiences and Pecola's story. Even as a child, Claudia subverts the consumer culture and the outside gaze that seek to impose impossible standards of beauty on her community; she subsumes the master narrative into a blues narrative.
Central to Claudia's narrative style is the oral tradition of testifying. Geneva Smitherman defines this oral tradition that came out of the traditional black church as "a ritualized form of black communication in which the speaker gives verbal witness to the efficacy, truth and power of some experience in which all blacks have shared" (58). She adds that "to testify is to tell the truth through story"; testifying is not "plain and simple commentary but a dramatic narration and a communal reenactment of one's feelings and experiences" (150) Testifying is a tradition which, like call-and-response, is rooted in African American religious practice and can be traced to West African sons and speech. The testifying utterance is a chronicle initiated by an individual--a registering of emotion rather than an outpouring of emotion in response to a call. In Song of Solomon, when Pilate stalks into the church at Hagar's funeral and calls out "'Mercy'" and Reba sings out "'I hear you,'" and they continue in this vein, s inging back and forth," In the nighttime. / Mercy/ In the darkness. / Mercy ...," they are performing call-and-response (317). Moments later, in the same scene, when Pilate repeats, "'My baby girl,'" as she gazes into the coffin, and then speaks these three words to the audience, she is testifying. Yvonne Atkinson observes that the emotional impact of this scene is the result of the layering of call-and-response and testifying, and that the layering of these two and of other residually oral forms throughout Morrison's fiction is central to her artistry.
The accomplished blues singer blends these two oral forms, as does Claudia in The Bluest Eye. When she offers up Pecola's story, she is testifying to the community's failings and the community's unspoken desire, which Pecola vocalizes. Morrison places Claudia in a position similar to that of Pilate gazing into the coffin. Claudia is gazing, in the novel's final pages, at Pecola picking among the garbage, and she turns her gaze outward toward the reader and testifies that Pecola is the site of inscription of a communal shame. This act of testifying is a narrative act that is central to Morrison's work. Morrison asserts that her
... work bears witness and suggests who the outlaws were, who survived under what circumstances and why....All that is in the fabric of the story in order to do what the music used to do. The music kept us alive, but it's not enough any more. Whenever I feel uneasy about my writing, I think: what would be the response of people in the book if they read the book? That's my way of staying on track. Those are the people for whom I write. ("Language" 371)
Inherent in testifying is the assumption of commonalties between the testifying subject and her audience (Atkinson). Claudia skillfully bridges the dramatic distance she has constructed as a blues narrator--just as Morrison bridges that distance as a blues writer--and she assumes crucial commonalties with the community she speaks from, to, and about, critiquing it firmly but lovingly and absolving its guilt and shame.
Throughout The Bluest Eye, Claudia sets herself up as an individual who questions the community's tastes and judgments and often finds them suspect; but she is not outside of or in opposition to the community--she critiques the community from within. Morrison places her in a call-and-response dialectic with a community chorus.  The traditional blues singer did not speak for the community, but she did speak from the community. As Giles Oakley puts it,
Many black people would have been ... offended by the idea that the blues singer "spoke" for them, in much the same way that others would reject the spokesmanship of the preacher. Nevertheless, there did exist what almost amounted to a blues community. Its significance was in the process of communal creation and participation in a shared culture....the idea that the blues were an expression of deeply felt emotions made the music more than simply entertainment. (47)
In addition to Claudia's voice, we hear Pauline's, an omniscient narrator's, and fragments of dialogue representing nearly every quarter of the community, from the three whores to Geraldine and Junior to Soaphead Church to unidentified gossips. Claudia develops an individual voice that taps into the community's repressed racial self-hatred and its deeply concealed guilt at displacing that self-hatred onto Pecola. Hers is not what Robert Cataliotti calls "a traditional country blues, which were most frequently performed by solo artists."
The country blues was thought of and enacted, for the most part, as a masculine tradition. Claudia's blues are what Cataliotti and others before him have termed a "Classic Blues ... performed by a female singer with accompaniment provided by a pianist, possibly augmented by a small instrumental combo. Nonetheless, the singer certainly remained the dominant personality in the performance" (75). Claudia's is the dominant voice in the novel, and Frieda frequently responds in the affirmative to Claudia's blues" call," as do Mrs. MacTeer's and Poland's blues and China's signifying. They are the blues chorus that mediates against the buzzing of voices that condemns Pecola.
The playwright August Wilson has said that the blues provide "a way of processing information about Black life, particularly information about the nobility ... the beauty ... and the resiliency of Black life." Claudia's embodiment of the blues aesthetic enables her to "process" precisely the "information" to which Wilson refers. The Bluest Eye does not appear to be a novel about beauty and nobility; it seems largely bereft of these elements. Even marigolds fail to grow in this fictional world.
"Beauty" is a deeply problematic concept in Morrison's work. In fact, the omniscient narrator of The Bluest Eye asserts that "physical beauty" and romantic love "are probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought" (122).  As Morrison interrogates a master narrative of beauty, her blues aesthetic lends structure, style, and form to the interrogation. The emphasis in Claudia's blues narrative is on resiliency, and the resiliency she develops as a blues subject allows her to appreciate the beauty and the nobility even in a community that fails its most destitute resident. At the novel's close, after blame has been assigned ("we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved" ) and limited absolution granted ("I even think now that the soil of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year"), Claudia is able to look "among the garbage.., of [her] town" and focus, in the novel's final l ine, on beauty: "sunflowers" (206).
Morrison constructs Claudia as a blues subject: sensuous, brutally honest, poetic, ironically humorous, and adept at call-and-response, signifying, and testifying. She learns to sing from her mother, and her blues is The Bluest Eye. Her storytelling mode is a blues mode in its sensuality, honesty, lyricism, ironic distance, humor, dialectic with the community, and open-endedness. Blues narratives, like blues lyrics, never end on a closed note, and The Bluest Eye is no exception. At the end of a "typical" blues there is affirmation, as there is in "St. Louis Blues" (of the beauty in blackness), and there is movement, or a statement of intent to move, but there is no closure, no neatly wrapped-up ending. 
The subjects of blues narratives achieve, by their narratives' close, an ironic distance--and often a physical distance--from the lack and loss expressed in the narratives' beginnings. Indeed, the construction of ironic distance and open-endedness is a primary function of the blues, which codify a means of resistance to oppression and a call to "move on" up and out. Claudia's blues narrative may be understood as a sustained signifying on the master aesthetic of physical beauty and the racial self-loathing that this master aesthetic produces. Hers is a complex and polyvocal signifying, involving a call-and-response dialectic with her community. Claudia could not carry on this dialectic, could not "sing" this blues without first living the blues. As Janie in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God puts it," 'It's uh known fact. ... you got tuh go there tuh know there'" (183). Claudia's narrative traces a trajectory from the childhood experience and naming of lack--her community's lack of a sense of the intrinsi c beauty of blackness and hence its scapegoating of the Breedloves and of Pecola, in particular--to a sense of resolution through movement.
At the novel's close, Claudia claims membership in the community ("my town"), but she has achieved sufficient distance from her subject to enable her to reconstruct Pecola's story. She sees Pecola in her mind, or on the streets of her present-day community, "searching through the garbage--for what?" but she also sees across the dramatic distance between the blues subject and her narrative (206). Claudia does not see this traversing of distance as unequivocally positive, but she sees it as necessary. She has stood at a blues crossroads and resolved to assert her independence. She has distanced herself from Pecola and from her community in order to engage the community in a dialectic, but she looks back upon this move with a nostalgia for a time and place that no longer exist. Claudia can look back in time and see clearly because she has achieved a metaphoric distance, albeit at a price. The novel closes with a sense that Claudia has moved on while Pecola remains frozen in time--a child, trapped in the tragic first verse of her own blues, with her imagined blue eyes and the lack and self-loathing they signify, "frozen in the glare of the lover's inward eye" (206). The loving eye is Claudia's, and The Bluest Eye is her testifying to Pecola's pain and the community's shame.
The "Eye" of the title may refer to Pecola's disastrous longing for blue eyes, but it also refers to the eye that takes Pecola as its subject, and to the J who narrates her story. The Bluest Eye is Claudia's blues for Pecola and her community. The novel's central paucity is the community's lack of self-love, a lack precipitated by the imposition of a master aesthetic that privileges the light skin and blue eyes inherent in the community's internalization of this master aesthetic. Claudia is the voice for the community's blues, and Pecola is the site of the inscription of the community's blues.
Cat Moses is an independent scholar living and working in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has published essays on the fiction of Zora Neale Hurston and David Bradley, among others. Her book Sabotage and Subversion, Then, Are This Book's Objectives is currently in press.
(1.) Geneva Smitherman uses the term songified, which she attributes to the poet Eugene Redmond, to describe the speech patterns of Black English (3).
(2.) Morrison is aware of the train as a blues syntagm. In an interview with Robert Stepto, she discusses it as a gendered phenomenon. Stepto observes that most "of the major male characters in black literature are in motion." Morrison concurs and comments, "Trains--you hear those men talk about trains like they were their first lover--the names of the trains, the times of the trains! And, boy, you know they spread their seed all over the world. They are really moving! Perhaps it's because they don't have a land, they don't have dominion" (391). On the road, on the railroad lines--in motion--black men, in Morrison's literary imagination, experience dominion. She acknowledges that in sociological terms that is described as a major failing of black men"--that black men have been faulted for not being stable, for not always being "in place" or at home with their families, but she asserts that "that has always been to me one of the most attractive features about black male life ... the fact that they would split in a minute just delights me." Morrison goes on to talk about how she endowed Sula with this predilection for motion, how Sula "is a masculine character in that sense" (392). I suggest that Claudia, too, is endowed with a predilection for motion, and that this is a central characteristic in her construction as a blues subject.
(3.) Houston Baker cites McPherson in his discussion of "Blues and Vernacular expression in America" in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature (11). Giles Oakley, in his history of the blues, provides an opposite, outsider's (he is British) reading of the travel theme in the blues: "Over and over again the theme of [blues] songs was travel.... In this respect the bluesman [sic] reflected a tendency to be found in American society at large and in black society in particular, where, especially since Emancipation, movement had symbolized freedom. Notions of 'boundlessness' have often been taken to be a part of the American Dream, but the constant migrations, over long or short distances, over all parts of the Southern states and increasingly to the North were more a reflection of the arid and sterile quality of life for most poor blacks. Trapped into a kind of economic servitude by sharecropping, with few opportunities to break out of those limitations, travel could itself be a assertion of independence" (57). In Morrison's work, travel is nearly always a form of or a means to independence. The quality of life for poor black folk in her fiction, however, is rarely "arid and sterile"; aridity and sterility tend to come with the trappings of middle- and upper-class success in her oeuvre.
(4.) I am assuming a heterosexual subject. The many recorded versions that I am familiar with feature a female vocalist singing about the man who has left her.
(5.) The third-person narrative of Cholly's journey from boyhood to manhood later in the novel provides a counterbalance to this idyllic view of the rural South. Cholly's post-funeral romp in a wild vineyard with Darlene stains her Sunday dress with purple juice, but Cholly and Darlene's adolescent lovemaking is interrupted by the white men with the lantern. Both Cholly's and Pauline's narratives, however, construct a rural South in which black people shared what they had and lived by a value system that privileged community over the accumulation of individual wealth and consumerism.
(6.) The "gypsy" fortune teller of mixed race or exoticized ethnicity who dispensed advice and alternative remedies that often blended African, European, Christian, and secular knowledge systems was a significant figure in (or on the fringes of) many communities like the one Morrison depicts in The Bluest Eye's Lorain, Ohio, of 1931.
(7.) The fortune teller/root doctor figure appears frequently in African American literature, most famously in Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman stories (1899); in Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative in the person of Sandy, who empowers the enslaved Douglass successfully to resist the brutality of Mr. Covey; and, more recently, in lshmael Reed's neo-hoodoo fictions.
(8.) I refer to the Black Arts Movement's foregrounding and naming of a distinct aesthetic sensibility during the 1960s and 1970s that nurtured radical African American creative and artistic production.
(9.) Playing the dozens, a black vernacular tradition, involves the exchange of explicit insults about one's adversary's parents, usually the mother. When Maureen shames Pecola for having seen her father naked, Claudia responds, "'Who else would she see, dog tooth?'" and suggests that all Maureen thinks about is her own naked daddy (71-72).
(10.) See, for example, the "fragments of talk" condemning the pregnant Pecola that Claudia and Frieda overhear and to which Claudia then responds in her narrative (188-90).
(11.) Claudia's narrative is intertwined with an omniscient narrative voice. I focus primarily on Claudia's voice.
(12.) Even blus that "end" in death typically, and comically, explore an afterlife with its own blus moments.
"St. Louis Blues"
I hate to see de evenin' sun go down
I hate to see de evenin' sun go down
Cause mah baby, he done lef' dis town
Feelin' tomorrow lak I feel today
Feelin' tomorrow lak I feel today
I'll pack mah trunk, an' make mah getaway
St. Louis woman wid her diamon' rings
Pulls dat man aroun' by her apron strings
'Twant for powder an' for store-bought hair
De man I love would not gone nowhere
Got de St. Louis blues, jes as blue as I can be
Dat man got a heart lak a rock cast in de sea
Or else he wouldn't have gone so far from me
Been to de gypsy, to get mah fortune tol'
To de gypsy, done got mah fortune tol'
Cause I'm most wild 'bout mah jelly roll
Gypsy done tol' me, "Don't you wear no black"
Yes, she done tol' me, "Don't you wear no black
Go to St. Louis, you can win him back"
Help me to Cairo; make St. Louis by mahself
Git to Cairo, find mah ol' frien', Jef
Gwine to pin mahself close to his side
If I flag his train, I sho can ride
I loves dat man lak a schoolboy loves his pie
Lak a Kentucky Colonel loves his mint an' rye
I'll love mah baby till de day I die
You ought to see dat stovepipe brown o' mine
Lak he owns de Dimon' Joseph line
He'd make a crosseyed 'oman go stone blind
Blacker than midnight, teeth lak flags of truce
Blackest man in de whole St. Louis
Blacker de berry, sweeter is de juice ... (Donalson 13-14)
Atkinson, Yvonne. "Creating Community: Call/Response and Witness/Testify in Toni Morrison's Beloved, Jazz, and Song of Solomon." Unpublished paper. Twentieth Century Literature Conference, U of Louisville, Louisville, KY, 24 Feb. 1996.
Baker, Houston A., Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1984.
Bell, Bernard. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1987.
Cataliotti, Robert H. The Music in African American Fiction. New York: Garland, 1995.
Davis, Angela Y. "Black Women and Music: A Historical Legacy of Struggle." Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance. Ed. Joanne M. Braxton and Andree Nicola McLaughlin. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1990. 3-21.
Donalson, Melvin, ed. Cornerstones: An Anthology of African American Literature. New York: St. Martin's P, 1996.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., and K. A. Appiah, eds. Toni Morrison: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad, 1993.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. 1975. New York: Vintage, 1989.
McPherson, James Alan. Railroad: Trains and Train People in American Culture. New York: Random, 1976.
Miner, Madonne. "Lady No Longer Sings the Blues: Rape, Madness, and Silence in The Bluest Eye." Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Ed. Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985. 176-91.
Morrison, Toni. "Afterword." Bluest 209-16.
--. The Bluest Eye. 1970. New York: Penguin/Plume, 1994.
--. "An Interview with Toni Morrison." With Nellie McKay. Gates and Appiah 396-411.
--. "'Intimate Things in Place': A Conversation with Toni Morrison." With Robert B. Stepto. Gates and Appiah 378-95.
--. Jazz. New York: Knopf, 1992.
--. Song of Solomon. 1977. New York: Penguin/Plume, 1987.
--. Sula. New York: Knopf, 1973.
--. "That Language Must Not Sweat: A Conversation with Toni Morrison." With Thomas LeClair. Gates and Appiah 369-77.
Oakley, Giles. The Devil's Music: A History of the Blues. New York: DaCapo, 1997.
Salaam, Kalamu ya. What is Life?: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self. Chicago: Third World P, 1994.
Smitherman, Geneva. Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America. 1977. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1985.
Softing, Inger-Anne. "Carnival and Black American Music as Counterculture in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye." American Studies in Scandinavia 27.2 (1995): 81-102.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed. New York: Norton, 1997.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1999|
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