In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison explores the relationships between race, beauty, and identity in the American South through the lens of several black women and girls. Just prior to this excerpt, Pecola had knocked a berry cobbler onto the floor, incurring the wrath of her mother, Polly. In this passage, Morrison uses personification and lists to argue that the proliferation and perpetuation of black stereotypes in twentieth century American society enables the continuation of the antebellum South’s assumption of whites as inherently superior and pure and blacks as inferior and soiled.
Morrison uses personification in the passage to assert that modern corporeal racial stereotypes have created a societal preference for white people and culture, one which both races now accept as congenitally true. The novel constantly explores the idea of beauty, which Morrison argues is idealized in the form of a blond and blue-eyed pure, white girl. Although the title of the book alludes to the eyes of this pedestalized image, the ideas of “good” and “bad” hair are also prominently explored. The narrator describes Polly’s sense of newfound power as the maid of the white, wealthy Fisher family, “she was queen of … special fondants and ribbon candy curled up in tiny silver dishes” (Morrison, 128). The crimped ends of these sugary fondant candies are reminiscent of the frizzy hair traditionally associated with African-American women. The untrimmed edges of dark beef Polly rejects as unsatisfactory for the Fishers evoke the same image. Likewise, bacon is the image associated with black female lips, which are stereotypically oversized and pink. Additionally, the large “shiny pots” bring to mind the notoriously large backsides of African-American women.
These foods have been personified to epitomize the stereotypical black body. By relegating the African-American race to the status of mere food, white society is expressing its disdain for, and superiority over, all things black. It is rejecting the competing ideas of beauty, such as the kinky hair, and asserting its dominance over the buttocks, a highly sexualized portion of the female body. This harkens back to the antebellum times, where sexual contact between masters and slaves was constant and revolved around the power dynamics of race. The narrator continues in its description, “The slightly reeking fish that she accepted for her own family she would all but throw in the fish man’s face if he sent it to the Fisher house” (128). Previously, Pecola, Frieda, and Claudia had entered the Fishers’ house and immediately soiled the pure white floor with the dark, almost black cobbler. The reeking fish is a personification of the disreputable blacks that found their way into the sanctuary of white purity that is the Fishers’ house. The bad smell of the fish corresponds with the supposed body odor of African-American men. Morrison is implying that society considers blacks to be inferior and troublesome, having to be cleaned up after like children. Blacks are “the white man’s burden”, as Kipling put it. Additionally, Polly’s flopping foot is reminiscent of a dying fish, reminding us that she is black, but switching allegiances, as she is also the one who serves the Fishers their food. In this way, she is symbolically serving herself to be eaten. Morrison insinuates that blacks are considered by some to only be meat. Polly is serving the white masters the stereotypical black body (the fondants and the beef) for dinner. And when she rejects the unsatisfactory poultry, white society (which Polly is a part of now) is symbolically rejecting the blackness that does not assimilate with the mainstream culture. Morrison also argues that the Baptist Church in the South has indoctrinated the black population. Polly does not see anything wrong with symbolically serving the black body to her white masters, because she is used to the sacrament of Communion. African-Americans are considered to be very religious, and Morrison implies that this faith is a tool of white society to keep blacks believing in their natural inferiority.
Morrison uses lists to argue that the stereotype of an impoverished and dysfunctional black family has created a powerful appeal of white culture within the African-American community, and thus caused Polly to value her menial labor for the Fishers more than her own family or culture. Polly escapes from her tumultuous family to the only haven of purity and authority she knows: a white home, where she finds beauty through order. The narrator describes in admiration, “She reigned over cupboards stacked high with food that would not be eaten for weeks, even months” (127-128). Polly’s household is disorganized and violent, and she is dazzled by the cleanliness and rigid organization of her employer’s home. But part of the awe in which Polly regards the canned food she lords over stems from her disbelief that anyone could be wealthy enough to own that much food.
The financial disparity between the two races at the time is indistinguishable from the social and cultural superiority, originating in the legal and financial ascendancy of masters over their slaves. Polly claims that her status in the Fishers’ house provides her with “power, praise and luxury” (128). The “power” for the white VIPs that run this Southern society, however, is indistinguishable from the “luxury”. Additionally, she seeks “praise” as if she were a proud pet that was presenting a dead mouse to her master-she even gets a nickname. Morrison implies that Polly is slowly getting pulled back into slavery, and that by causing the spread of the belief that white people are inherently superior to blacks, familial racial stereotypes allow this regression. The narrator notes that the “dark edges” of her black family contrasts with the “lighter, more delicate, more lovely” white family (127). Polly cares for the bright, white daytime, over the dark, black times of the early morning and evening. She values the organization of the Fishers’ canned vegetables more than her community or family. And since to her, order is beauty, she is trying to escape the ugliness in her house. Morrison argues that the idealization of white as the embodiment of beauty causes Polly to value her work over her family, thus furthering the assumption of whites as superior and blacks as inferior.
SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael once said, “The myth that the Negro is somehow incapable of liberating himself came out of the American experience. In books, whites are always good, [and] blacks are evil.” This view is Morrison’s main proposition in the novel, and she supports it through her exploration of stereotypes about blacks. For example, Polly uses royal language to describe her role in the Fisher house, such as “reigned” and “queen”. This diction echoes the antebellum clichés of house versus field slaves, and their competing spheres of influence within the plantation. Yet, they are all subordinate to the white masters, and therefore inherently inferior and soiled.
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