By Toni Morrison
© 1970, 2000
Genre: coming of age; literary; growing up black in American South, ca. 1950's
(Shame shame shame. Shame on you, you should be ashamed of yourself aren't you ashamed I hope you're ashamed hang your head in shame you are a worm and no way worthy you should be shamefaced before yourself your irredeemable self your unacceptable self your fallen born in sin self)
Did I get your attention? did I open a can of worms? did the above litany spark a conflagration of feelings you thought had long been put to rest? Did it, if just for an instant, make you feel like the small, helpless, needy child you once were when those shame messages were your daily fare? If so then maybe I've given you a taste of my experience of reading The Bluest Eye.
I don't know whether it was Toni Morrison's intention to show the insidious power of shame to shape a child's soul or if I was just sensitive to the theme of shame because I happened to be concurrently reading a book called The Culture of Shame by a psychiatrist named Andrew P. Morrison. (Morrison--is that weird or what? No relation I'm sure.) Or maybe I pulled Mr. Morrison's book off the library shelf a couple months ago because I was already sensitive to the theme of shame.
At any rate, it was the experience of this blue eyed white woman reading Toni Morrison's story of a small black girl who wished herself blue eyed to identify so completely with that child's soul that her own soul was able to speak her pain--an infinite pain rooted in shame and nurtured by blame.
Some readers may take the story of a black child desiring a mark of beauty genetically unique to Caucasians at face value and see the indictment of racial prejudice as the theme. But that would not explain the power of this story to move so deeply. Only the universal theme of the shamed self can carry this story into the hearts of readers regardless of age, sex, race, status….
It is easy, even required by this story to notice the pain of young Pecola Breedlove, to empathize with her, to yearn to comfort her, to mourn her dissolution--the dissolving of her soul by the acid of rejection. But to notice and feel the pain of her tormentors and extend the same compassion to them--that is another story. Yet it is the Story for me. It is the whole point. And to get that point provides the only hope for healing the pain and breaking the endless cycle. For shame breeds shame ad infinitum. And it is my experience that most if not all the pain we inflict on self and others is rooted in this swamp of shame which drains the streams of our parent's unshed tears. Tears pent up for seven times seventy generations.
Now don't misunderstand me. I am not naming shame itself as the evil. The experience of shame is a necessary building block if not the foundation of our consciences. But when the fragile mind-in-the-making of a child conflates the necessary shame for unacceptable (unloving) behavior with the soul dissolving shame for an unacceptable (unlovable) being--that is the wound that keeps on wounding. A wound left to suppurate under layers of scabbing and scarring sending chock-waves of pain out from its hidden darkness.
The original wound is forgotten but the pain, constant and insistent, needs to be explained. So we blame the surface features of our particular lives--too little of this, too much of that, the wrong shape, the wrong size, the wrong skin shade, the wrong color eyes--for the sucking hole in our soul that is our profound sense of unworthiness. Until we can uncover the true source of that pain and root it out we are doomed to suffer and in our suffering germinate the pain of future generations. Stories like The Bluest Eye serve to bring the hidden wound to view and allow us to see ourselves from a different perspective where surface attributes are not the measure of our worthiness for love. Once we know, really know, that to be is to be worthy, then we will stop perpetuating the pain and begin to heal.
© 2000 & 2004 by Joy Renee Davis