I picked up Toni Morrison’s book The Bluest Eye 4 months ago. A story about a little girl, Pecola, who is pregnant with her own father’s child. She believes she is ugly, and wishes to have beautiful blue yes. She is black.
The story annoyed me. (I thought myself of harder steel than that!)
Then I found out that at numerous times people have requested that the book be banned in the United States, due to its exploration of incest.
This was not the reason for my annoyance. I felt her representation of God believing folks in her book stereotypical. All her characters who expressed anything about God, and the bible showed skewed views of God as a ‘mean judge’, those who went to church like Mrs Breedlove continuously reminded their husbands of their sin, and shoved the fear of being punished by God in their children’s faces. Religion for them was a means of escape, a way of being out-of-touch with reality.
And when I saw the prostitutes ‘glorified’ as women who held a subculture of freedom, fun and light-heartedness little understood by the believing folks…That is when I decided ‘I have had enough’.
In December we moved into our new home in Madadeni (in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal). The first time my wife and I have ever lived in a township since our childhood days. Newcastle is my hometown, everything looked familiar, but now no longer under the perspective of my parents house in the suburbs or the tranquil invitation of my grandparents’ home.
As I watched city-slickers flood the town for the festive season, as tent-after-tents were being installed in the township, 4-roomed houses transformed—for the purposes of weddings, ancestral cleansing rituals, imembeso, coming-of-age (umemulo) parties, it all seemed new. I watched goats being hurled out of Isuzu bakkies, I heard cows bellowing at odd hours of the night, awaiting the edge of the knife.
Seeing all this action as a newcomer in the neighbourhood, I felt a bit lonely. I was left out of the fun of the festivities.
Time allowed the kindling of interest in the book I abhorred.
I then got it. Toni’s own bias caused her to represent God-believing characters in the way she did. It was fitting to the statement she wanted to make.
She wanted to say something about the damage of internalized racism, how a little black girl can desire blue eyes. At the same time, she did not want to dehumanize the people who wounded this girl, by portraying them as villain. Because by withdrawing their humanity, she would simply be repeating the same mistake. How we perceive the ones who have created the little girl’s self-hate would remain unchanged. Toni wanted to provide an account for the perpetrators of Pecola’s rape, and those who stood and watched.
Keeping in mind that the book was written in the 1960s, this was a courageous attempt on her part. To speak and to humanize those whom we have deemed in advance as evil-doers; to portray the violence of their action, and explain it, but without excusing it is a great feat—demanding from the author humility in the treatment, if not madness.
Those who were churchgoers and should have known better, they did not. And those who didn’t go to church (the prostitutes, the children) responded from their own wounded positions, with empathy and understanding.
All of a sudden I understood the social challenge she was presenting. Once this became apparent to me, I no longer hated the portrayals in the book.
I realized that for God: there is nothing new under the sun. Even the difficult and wicked things that human beings do, the pain we inflict on one another does not lie outside His totality of creation. Not that He approves of our transgression, but He understands our position.
I am reminded of the scripture that says “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin”. It tells me that although the origin of evil cannot be explained by human means, we have an occasion to come to Him for healing. That although evil pervades all corners of our existence (I am thinking here of even the interior desire for annihilation I have experienced in my mind), that we who have watched (and surreptitiously visited in the dark) have permitted evil to spread, even as we have pointed fingers of accusation, and that little Pecola’s rape is of our own doing. We repeatedly rape many other Pecola’s around the world; as we sip on cocktails and dance to our house music.