Stanford educators, students criticize bans of Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’

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Following the anniversary of author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s passing on Aug. 5 a year ago, Stanford educators and students criticized the decision of many high schools to ban “The Bluest Eye” from their curricula.

“The Bluest Eye” is a fictional novel about the experiences of a Black girl named Pecola Breedlove in post-Great Depression America. This novel is “Morrison’s first time saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ in her own accord,” according to Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) lecturer Harriet Jernigan. 

“What exactly depicted about Black life through Black eyes has ever been fully accepted into the American canon?” asked Jernigan. “Are there any Nobel Prize-winning authors who are challenged as much in the classroom as Morrison is challenged?”

“The Bluest Eye” has faced many book-banning controversies. On the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books, the novel took fifth in 2006, second in 2013 and fourth in 2014. Most recently in February, Colton High School in California banned teachers from assigning the novel after multiple complaints from parents.

Opponents have cited “offensive language” as a reason for banning the book, according to the American Library Association. However, other books on school syllabi that contain similar language have not faced the same level of opposition. 

Jernigan said this may be the case because “The Bluest Eye” is an instance where a Black person narrates Black life in a way that creates “a Black world in which white people exist on the margins.”

Novels such as “Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” instead examine stories where “white eyes and white hands and white pens still control the narrative of Black life,” said Jernigan. 

PWR lecturer Donna Hunter said that she found the backlash to the novel unsurprising.

“Anytime Black people move up in any way and challenge their oppression, we have this backlash,” she said. “It’s like this call-and-response.” 

Janice Goerun Lu ’24, who read the novel in high school, wrote in a statement to The Daily that books usually assigned to high school students tend to present a “narrow one-dimensional perspective” that doesn’t cover the perspectives of those struggling to make sense of their identities. 

Lu wrote that this perspective has aided racism in becoming “rooted into the backbone of American history”; learning about racism from the viewpoints of those who were victimized and marginalized, like Pecola, “is the most important step in prompting change.”

​”‘The Bluest Eye’ takes a bold but extremely necessary step in destigmatizing the perpetuating harmful narrative imposed on people of color and begins conversation and efforts to empower and craft positive visuality for people of color,” Lu wrote. 

Yet these discussions are often resisted — Jernigan said that the dominant culture in American society relies on maintaining the American dream, a dream that has no room for discomfort. Morrison makes her readers uncomfortable from start to end: Reading her writing is not “supposed to be a vacation,” said Jernigan. 

Many school districts where the book has been challenged are areas populated by a white majority. Hunter said that discomfort from this novel may reside more with families and parents rather than students, given that primarily white neighborhoods may not have had discussions around race and probably do not have the tools for them. 

The American Library Association also notes that challengers of the novel often describe it as “sexually explicit.” Past Ohio Board of Education president Debe Terhar and former Alabama State senator Bill Holtzclaw have even described the novel as “pornographic” and “divisive.” The novel contains one scene with incest. 

Jernigan said that the issue of incest makes the book “hugely challenged” as it’s a sensitive topic that’s easy to point out.

Hunter said that these passages raise discomfort by forcing parents and students to have uncomfortable conversations. According to Hunter, the idea of incest happening within a family can be difficult to confront, given that sexual abuse and incest are not exclusive to Black households.

Jernigan said that defining pornography as “I know it when I see it” — a famous definition of pornography created by Justice Potter Stewart in the 1964 Jacobellis v. Ohio case — introduced room for bias.

According to Jernigan, this definition depicts the nature of the issue. The descriptions of “pornographic” and “divisive” are the reactions of people who feel that they best understand what the dominant culture deems as appropriate. According to Jernigan, it’s no different from those who criticized Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee at a football game. 

“I would call it graphic,” Jernigan said. “I would call it disturbing. I would call it upsetting. I would call it tragic, but ‘pornographic’ indicates that there is some push towards gratification. Anyone calling it divisive is not reading it in the way Morrison has written it and offered it and put it out to the public sphere.”

Jernigan said that when novels like “The Bluest Eye” that cover important topics of racism, colorism, abuse, incest and rape become censored, it sends the message that the dominant culture is not interested in having those conversations because they find them unnecessary. 

Lu wrote that it’s especially important to have these discussions since the topics covered in the novel are also relevant in today’s world. 

“When girls of color constantly see the narrow definition/standard of beauty projected by society as those with light, fair skin, they start associating whiteness with beauty,” Lu wrote. “They start questioning where they fit in with the definition of beautiful.” 

While she believes that the novel shouldn’t be banned, PWR lecturer Ruth Starkman wrote in a statement to The Daily, “I’ve never taught this book, I’ve always felt unprepared as a white teacher to assign it.” According to Starkman, teachers must be prepared to properly guide their students and mediate potential tensions.

Similarly, Jernigan said that teachers and readers must take care in ensuring that the novel does what Morrison intends for it to do. It urges people to contemplate beauty standards, the rejection of Black beauty, the desire to maim oneself in order to fit in and the circumstances that lead up to these situations. 

Hunter said, “This book is another way to illustrate what’s been happening to Black people forever and what the ramifications are.”

“Now more than ever, it should be on every school shelf,” Jernigan said.

Contact Sophie Wang at sophie.my.wang ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Sophie Wang is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.