Here Is What’s Wrong With Banning The Bluest Eye
By: Laura Struve, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English, Wilmington College.
Late last week, Ohio State school board President Debe Terhar objected to the Ohio Department of Education using Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye as an example of works that could be used in Ohio classes under the Common Core Standards. Terhar described the novel as “pornographic” and stated that she did not want her children or the children of others to read it. According to Cinncinnati.com, she questioned “whether anyone at the education department had read any of the books mentioned in Common Core.”
This is a good question, as it seems clear that Terhar herself has not read The Bluest Eye. Or if she has, she did not understand one of the novel’s core messages.
The novel, set in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison’s hometown, sets out to explain why “there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941” (Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. 1970. New York: Penguin, 1994, p. 5) and connects that with the birth (and death) of 12-year old Pecola Breedlove’s baby after she is raped by her father. The town is scandalized by her pregnancy and says, “they ought to take her out of school” because “she carry some of the blame” (p. 189) and that Pecola will be lucky if her baby doesn’t live. Pecola becomes an outcast who descends into madness and wanders through alleys, picking at garbage, as “grown people looked away; children, those who were not frightened by her, laughed outright” (p. 205).
The novel ends as the narrator explains that the flowers won’t bloom because the town’s “soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture . . . when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong, of course, but it doesn’t matter. It’s too late. At least on the edge of my town, among the garbage and the sunflowers of my town, it’s much, much, much too late” (206).
Pecola is abused by her family and victimized by her society, which partially blames her for her own rape and pregnancy. The town wants her to be removed from school so other students won’t see her pregnancy and learn about rape and incest. Pecola’s society fails her deeply, and as the narrator of the novel makes explicit, it becomes too late for some individuals (like Pecola) to realize their potential in this kind of environment. To the extent that society blames the victim and chooses to ignore unpleasant facts, it is also to blame.
Saying that students shouldn’t read this book reproduces the very attitudes that the novel explicitly condemns. Just like the townspeople who want Pecola taken out of school so no one can see her, Terhar’s desire to prevent students from reading this book functions to hide problems of rape and incest that need to be brought out into the light so society can address them. As the end of the novel explicitly states, when society blames the victim and looks the other way, children suffer. Ignoring these problems does not make them go away; it just damages those who are already suffering. If Terhar had read this book carefully, she should have understood this point.
In addition, Terhar’s use of the term “pornographic” is particularly inappropriate.
Calling the novel pornographic is factually wrong. The novel does contain a sexually explicit scene of Pecola’s rape, but a graphic depiction of sex is not the same as pornography. Pornography may be sexually explicit, but it is also designed to titillate and excite. Pecola’s rape scene is hardly titillating or designed to evoke sexual feelings in the reader. It IS meant to realistically portray what happens to children in America every day. According to RAINN, 34.2% of juvenile sexual assault victims are attacked by a family member.
Moreover, calling a rape scene pornographic re-victimizes the victim. Pornography usually features willing participants who choose to engage in sexual acts. Pecola has no choice, so saying this is a pornographic novel insinuates that she consented. Importantly, the novel condemns this attitude, criticizing the townspeople who blame a 12-year old girl for her own rape.
Finally, calling this novel “divisive,” as Terhar’s fellow board member Mark Smith did, is puzzling. I can’t see what would be divisive about any of the novel’s core messages: racism is bad; children shouldn’t be abused; rape and incest are wrong; societies that tolerate or ignore child abuse are letting children suffer. Aren’t these ideas that everyone can get behind? Are we really divided on how we think 12-year old rape victims should be treated?
Terhar’s statement couldn’t be timed more perfectly to illustrate the need for Banned Books Week, which starts September 22. Banned Book Week was created to draw attention to the problems of censorship and book challenges in schools and libraries. The Bluest Eye is commonly challenged, ranking #15 on the ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged books of the last decade.
Laura Struve, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities Area Coordinator at Wilmington College in Wilmington, Ohio. Wilmington College will be having its annual Banned Books Read-in on September 26 at Watson Library in Wilmington, Ohio.