Monday, October 1, 2012

You've Got To Be Carefully Taught

I read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye last week, just before I went out of town, so I didn't have time to write more about it.

As I read it, I was watching for the aspects Samuel Delany had criticized, not just the Fantasy Police but the demonizing of lighter-skinned African-Americans.  He was right, I think, but I'm not sure I'd have noticed it if he hadn't pointed it out.  I try to be alert to such things, but not being black, let alone lighter-skinned black like Delany, they don't hit home personally for me.  (He was also right about the uneven quality of the writing, but then The Bluest Eye was Morrison's first novel.)

The copy I read was an edition commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Bluest Eye's publication, and it included an afterword by Morrison that confirmed Delany's Fantasy Police accusation.  The afterword begins:
We had just started elementary school. She said she wanted blue eyes. I looked around to picture her with them and was violently repelled by what I imagined what she would look like if she had her wish [209].
On the next page:
Implicit in her desire was racial self-loathing. And twenty years later I was still wondering about how one learns that. Who told her? Who made her feel that it was better to be a freak than what she was? Who had looked at her and found her so wanting, so small a weight on the beauty scale? The novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her [210].
A "freak," huh?  A couple of pages later Morrison remarked:
Because that moment was so racially infused (my revulsion at what my school friend wanted: very blue eyes in a very black skin; the harm she was doing to my concept of the beautiful)… [211]
I don't blame the schoolgirl Morrison for her visceral reaction to her friend's wish.  Children aren't nearly as open-minded as many sentimental adults like to imagine.  What disturbs me a great deal, and I do consider it blameworthy, is that the adult Morrison still hasn't gotten over it.  Her "gaze" condemns and shames a child for her fantasy.  I don't think the child wished to be a freak; that's Morrison's judgment.

As Delany remarked, if the girl had expressed the same wish after the 1960s, someone would just have told her to get tinted contact lenses.  True, white-centric standards of beauty have been harmful to black women's self esteem (though also to white women's -- let's not forget the long debates among white feminists on that subject), but Afro-centric standards would be no less restrictive.  Any time one kind of body is held up as a standard, it will exclude and downgrade those who don't conform to it, and most won't conform to it.  This isn't helped by African-Americans' own color prejudices: the standard beautiful African-American woman is lighter-skinned than her man, if I go by popular films made for and by African-Americans.

I immediately thought of what Robert Reid-Pharr wrote in Black Gay Man (NYU Press, 2001) a decade ago:
[George Jackson] warns Angela Davis of his brother Jonathan, “Tell the brothers never to mention his green eyes and skin tone. He is very sensitive about it and he will either fight or withdraw.”

Those telltale green eyes and that never quite dark enough skin create a rather precise index of the traditions of racial commingling that exist more or less comfortably under the sign of blackness. The black in America has the maddening tendency to reveal in her eyes, skin, hair, in her body a history of contact and conquest, of slavery and rebellion, in which the African is certainly central, but never alone. Thus, when George Jackson nominates the black domestic unit as one of our basic weaknesses, when he argues that there are deep structures that produce these weakness[es], he begins to turn us, however awkwardly, toward serious consideration of the fact that the black family is perhaps not quite so black as we might imagine. The work of the black family is precisely to enable the maintenance of a coherent structure of American racialism. Blacks, browns, yellows, red, and whites are given in black families access to a black body, the original body stolen from Africa, the innocent body, the body imagined as the site of revolution [65-6].
In fact, then, black babies have been born with green eyes and probably with blue eyes.  Morrison surely knows that as well as I do.  What is wrong, though unfortunately not freakish, is moralizing skin or eye color.

And then this turned up on the Intertoobz: some guy took a photo of a young Sikh woman with facial hair whose appearance he found confusing.  Word got around, the young woman heard about the picture, and posted her own commentary, forthrightly asserting her difference and her right to it.  Amazingly, the guy who'd posted the picture apologized for his original attitude, and it reads like a genuine heartfelt apology, not the I'm-sorry-I-got-caught kind that's the norm in American public life.  I admire the young woman's attitude, though I have some troubles with her dismissal of those who do modify their bodies: "By crying 'mine, mine' and changing this body-tool, we are essentially living in ego and creating a separateness between ourselves and the divinity within us."  That goes back to Delany's notion of Fantasy Police, and as one commenter at Jezebel pointed out, cutting fingernails and bathing also modify the "body-tool," to say nothing of wearing clothing.  Some body modifications, like circumcision, are demanded by some deities.  But it is still a moving exchange, and it inspired some interesting discussion in the comments.