Although my students were unaware of it, in a sense what they were questioning from the standpoint of literary criticism is not only the theory of postmodernism with its emphasis on race, class and gender, but the theory of naturalism as well: the idea that one’s social and physical environments can drastically affect one’s nature and potential for surviving and succeeding in this world.
In this article, I will explore Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye from a naturalistic perspective; however, while doing so I will propose that because Morrison’s novels are distinctly black and examine distinctly black issues, we must expand or deconstruct the traditional theory of naturalism to deal adequately with the African American experience: a theory I refer to as “black naturalism. ” But before I do this I think it is important to discuss why it is worth our while to “dig up” naturalism once again to explore not only earlier black novels but contemporary works as well.
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In Max’s stirring defense of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son, he warns us to “remember that men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread! And they can murder for it, too! ” (366). As the riots in Los Angeles and in cities across the country indicate, men and women are still forced to struggle for self-realization and one’s environment remains a key factor in influencing and limiting an indiVidual’s potentials and aspirations.
Is the cycle of poverty, hopelessness, and violence in South Central today significantly different from the ghetto streets of Harlem Ann Petry described in The Street? Throughout her naturalistic novel 116th Sheet is a living, breathing, menacing force that attempts to reduce Min to a whispering shadow and to twist Jones into a crazed wolf who has lived in basements too long; for Petty, filthy tenement-lined streets such as these are more than symbols of oppression, inequality and racism–they are the instruments themselves.
Does this mean that by focusing on the influences of environment in literature we are labeling our main characters helpless victims? Absolutely not. In The Street Lutie Johnson fights the ghetto with a determination that can only be called heroic; her tragedy is that she loses her battle against her surroundings, but her triumph consists of her willingness to break the boundaries that both white and black society had created for African American women in the 1940s.
In Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson,” though Silvia is deeply affected by Miss Moore’s lesson of “where we are is who we are,” she remains undaunted and vows “ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin” (94,96). During an interview of Alice Childress and Toni Morrison conducted by Black Creation magazine, Childress claims “that all black writers, whether they intended to or not have been writing about not being free. Always–from the beginning of America right up to now” (Walker and Weathers 92).
The theory of naturalism is also about the primal struggle for freedom– freedom to develop and realize all of the possibilities of our souls and intellects within a societal framework. One cannot think of African Americans without considering society’s insidious racist attempts to retain black men and women as cheap sources of labor, whether enslaved or ostensibly “free. ” A universal characteristic of Morrison’s published novels has been her depiction of male and female protagonists failing or succeeding on the difficult journey to freedom through self-awareness.
Of course, the struggle to realize one’s identity has surfaced repeatedly in literature; however, Morrison’s steadfast concentration on the importance of the past indicates that for her, self-realization for African Americans can only be achieved through an active acknowledgement of one’s cultural past. Only by understanding and accepting the past can African Americans achieve a psychological wholeness in the present and strengthen their power as a race in the future.
In Specifying, Susan Willis captures very well the importance of Morrison’s themes and the highly charged atmosphere of her novels: There is a sense of urgency in Morrison’s writing, produced by the realization that a great deal is at stake. The novels may focus on individual characters like Milkman and Jadine, but the salvation of individuals is not the point. Rather, these individuals struggling to reclaim or redefine themselves, are portrayed as epiphenomenal to community and culture, and it is the strength and continuity of the black cultural heritage as a whole that is at stake and being tested. 93-94) What is “at stake” in Morrison’s novels and in black fiction in general is a consistent emphasis on the need to resist forces stemming from society which may serve to destroy “continuity of the black cultural heritage” by a conscious embracing of the past combined with a concurrent quest for identity. When analyzing this pattern of creative reSistance of outside forces and rebuilding of the self in Morrison’s novels, one can perceive a distinct echo of naturalism. The word “echo” is significant because Morrison’s novels are not strictly naturalistic.
While Morrison’s works do exhibit naturalistic tendencies, she presents them in a new way, illustrating different challenges specific to minorities and offering alternate ways of dealing with these challenges. Morrison’s protagonists face a world that is more complex, oppressive, and destructive than either Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie or John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad because Morrison’s protagonists must battle against intraracism and interracism as well as poverty and sexism. In Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction, Keith E.
Byerman claims that historically African American writers have not adopted an existing European or American literary form without significantly changing it to correspond to the black experience: From Phillis Wheatley’s early verses through the moralistic style of the slave narratives and Wright’s naturalism to Ellison’s symbolic and experimental novel, black writers have consistently turned European and white American forms and techniques to their own purposes, just as blacks in general have changed the religious and social institutions of the dominant culture to meet their special needs. 41) Furthermore, this “adapting of nonblack forms to black materials” is not always a conscious or even a voluntary act, but an inevitable one rising from the differing life experiences of African Americans due not only to the existence of racism throughout the history of this country, but to African American cultural heritage, folklore, and mores (Byerman 41).
In his comprehensive text, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition, Bernard Bell argues that dating back to W. E. B. DuBois them has been a history of African American fiction that can be identified as naturalistic. Bell also clearly supports an ethnic deconstruction of the traditional theory when he claims that when naturalism appears in black fiction it has been “refracted through the double-consciousness and double vision of black American novelists” (81).
However, although Bell does use the term “black naturalism” once when describing the naturalism of the 1940s, he does not appear to propose a new genre with this rifle. Moreover, my definition of naturalism in African American fiction is more liberal than the naturalism Bell describes and includes literature that could also be characterized as having strong pastoral romantic, mythic or folkloric elements.
In the following analysis of The Bluest Eye, I will attempt to illustrate that the naturalism in African American fiction has been “adapted” and altered to such a significant extent to justify a new literary genre that includes the following themes: the importance of cultural heritage or what Bell calls “ancestralism,” the problem of assimilation, the conflict between self and community, the psychological and economical barriers created by racism and the resulting quest for wholeness that is essential for overcoming these obstacles.
Before exploring black naturalism in Toni Morrison’s novel, it would perhaps be appropriate to briefly review the existing theory of naturalism in general. As many critics of naturalism, including Charles Walcutt, have noted, naturalism is an elusive genre, difficult to define. In his dissertation, Paul Baker Civello states that while naturalism has experienced significant transformations in its modern and postmodern forms, the root causes of the emergence of naturalism remain consistent: naturalism] arises from the collapse of man’s conception of an order in the material world–an order that had formerly imbued that world with meaning. As a result, a rift opens between the self and the material world, now perceived as one of meaningless, indifferent force. Naturalism depicts this rift, and points toward a resolution of it. (2)
As Civello and others have noted, for early American naturalists such as Norris, Crane and Drieser, the dissolution of “man’s conception of order” was a reaction to Darwin’s theory of evolution and the questions it raised concerning the existence of an ordered universe created by a benevolent God. This new perception of the world as “indifferent” and amoral created a psychological conflict between the self and nature, dramatized by Vandover’s eventual insanity in Norris’s naturalistic novel Vandover and the Brute.
Intellectuals of the late nineteenth century could no longer view nature as a reflection of one’s spiritual and rational being, could no longer feel secure in an inherent biological, and therefore moral, superiority to the other creatures inhabiting earth, thus creating the “rift” Civello refers to between man and an impersonal nature of indiscriminate force. For Civello, later naturalists like Hemingway also felt isolated from the environment, but the cause of the rift was World War i rather than Darwinism. Like Civello, Donald Pizer also focuses on how naturalism has evolved as society has changed and grown.
Yet, despite its transformations, Pizer claims that some naturalistic themes from the 1890s to the 1950s remain essentially the same: (1) the idea of the individual thwarted by natural or societal forces, (2) the emergence of the “common man” as hero, (3) the benefits of community as protection against repressive societal influences, and (4) the ability to gain knowledge about oneself and one’s world. Generally, perhaps the most well-known tenet of naturalism is its focus on the waste of an individual’s potential due to “conditioning forces” from the environment.
At last the struggles of common men and women who are propelled into a life of poverty were seen as not merely unfortunate, but as a tragedy. Another familiar theme of naturalism concerns the problem Of knowledge. Although the Aristotelian tragic hero may fail to understand himself or his condition during his descent, he does in the end ascertain who he is and what has caused his fall; in contrast, early naturalistic fiction indicates that writers came to doubt that knowledge of oneself and one’s reality was even possible (Pizer 6-7).
According to Pizer, in the 1930s the concept of wasted human potential evolved into a focus on the relationship between the mores of society and the individual. The perception of individuals being thwarted and oppressed by an elite group also included its opposite-that is, that a group, united together to protect their collective interests, can prevail. Naturalistic iction in the 1930s such as Stein-beck’s The Grapes of Wrath included, then, a transformation from an inherent protection of oneself and one’s family to an increased awareness of a responsibility to others, demonstrated when Rose of Sharon shares her mother’s milk with a starving stranger (15). In the early twentieth century, characters in naturalistic fiction are not only prevented from realizing their capabilities, they are also frequently “wrenched by their desires or by other uncontrollable circumstances from their grooved but satisfying paths into the chaos of life ‘outside”‘ (7).
As naturalism evolved, writers also came to regard the issue of knowledge of the self differently, believing that knowledge of oneself and one’s world was difficult but not impossible. In the 1940s and 1950s there arose a distinct distrust of society-formed groups– whether it be the army, the family, or the citizen committee. Largely in response to World War II, many traditional naturalistic authors believed that although the common man or woman is still thwarted by forces beyond control, the only protection or validation he or she can find lies not in the community but in the individual.
If knowledge was at all possible, it could only be found through individual experience, though it may be self-destructive in nature (87). It seems, then, that naturalism evolved from an exclusive reliance on community to an equally exclusive reliance on the self. It is in this breach between these two extremes that the theory and its evolution prove inadequate in dealing with black fiction. Black naturalism in Morrison’s novels explores the challenges African Americans experience as they contend with the conflicting responsibilities to the self and the community that arise to a great extent due to racism.
In order tO gain a better understanding of the complex psychological struggles minorities experience as they attempt to resist influences from a dominant society, it might prove helpful to consider Elaine Showalter’s discussion of the three phases that subcultures go through in their search for independence and cultural identity. In “The Female Tradition,” Showalter describes the first phase a subculture or minority experiences as an extended period of “imitation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition, and internalization of its standards of art and its views on social roles” 1108). As a subculture values the unique characteristics of its identity and gains a better sense of its power, it progresses collectively into a second phase that includes a “protest against these standards and values, and advocacy of minority rights,” while she describes a third phase as a period of “self-discovery, a turning inward freed from some of the dependency of opposition, a search for identity” (1108). Although Showalter is discussing female “literary subcultures” in her article, I think we can profitably apply her phases of development to subcultures in general.
Her analysis is perhaps especially helpful for those of us who are members of the dominant society and do not have a direct experience with the psychological pressures inherent in being a minority. It is no coincidence, then, that all of Morrison’s novels present characters striving with these same issues: the danger of indiscriminate internalization of white Western mores, the need for advocacy of African American values, and the importance of self-discovery.
The first two stages Showalter describes elucidate the psychological barriers African Americans must travel through before they can acknowledge the past and consequently achieve self-identity. Thus a character like Paul D in Morrison’s Beloved must unlock the steel box of memories in his chest before he is able to reap the benefits of self-love. For all minorities, the journey to self-realization is a journey of survival for the individual and for the race.
When analyzing Morrison’s characters, therefore, it is important to remember that along with combatting prejudice and injustice stemming from society, they are also overcoming inner struggles that are unique to a member of a minority. And because Morrison suggests a healing, vital process to freedom and self-awareness, her novels go beyond protest literature and well into the realms of art and black naturalism. Morrison incorporates the naturalistic theme of the “waste of individual potential” due to environmental circumstances in many of her novels and most emphatically in the character of Pecola Breedlove in The Bluest Eye.
As many critics have noted, Pecola is victimized by a society that conditions her to believe that she is ugly and therefore worthless, because she doesn’t epitomize white Western culture’s idea of beauty. In her book Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976, Barbara Christian seems to support a naturalistic interpretation with her claim that “Pecola’s destiny is ultimately determined by the myth of beauty and goodness one culture has foisted on another” (153,emphasis added). In both fiction and poetry in Western culture, outward beauty has often been an indication of inner virtue.
Pecola believes that if her eyes were blue she would be pretty, virtuous, and loved: friends would play with her at recess, teachers would smile at Pecola the same way they smile at Maureen Peel, and even her parents might stop fighting because they would not want to “do bad things in front of those pretty eyes” (TBE 40). For Pecola, beauty equals happiness, and it is difficult to fault a young girl for the misperception; certainly both white and black communities in her world seem to support the idea.
Maureen Peel, “a high yellow dream child,” is treated with respect and awe by students and teachers alike not only because of her economical superiority, but because of her light skin, her brown hair, her green eyes, her “whiteness” (TBE 52). For African Americans there is a direct relationship between economic gain and light skin: a black individual’s chances of achieving both social and economic advantages is in direct correlation to his/her ability to correspond more closely to the images of beauty and common ideologies of the dominant society.
Morrison indicates how damaging careless adoption of Western values can be for African Americans in two memorable incidents. The first incident occurs when neighborhood boys dance “a macabre ballet” around Pecola, berating her for the darkness of her skin, singing “Black e too. Black e mo” (TBE 55). In describing the episode, Claudia remarks that “it was the contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth” (TBE 55).
In Pecola’s clash with the group of boys, Morrison is demonstrating “how these ideas can invert the natural order of an entire culture,” creating young men who feel an awful contempt for the color of their skin and, by implication, their culture (Christian 152-53, emphasis added). By subscribing to a false white standard of beauty, African Americans assist the repressive efforts of the majority culture and bury their identities, following an unhealthy path of self-hatred rather than self-love.
When the young black boys chant “Yadaddsleepsnekked” they chide Pecola for not being “civilized” according to Western standards, again indicating an unnatural inversion of values and an unwillingness to take pride in one’s own culture in the black community. As Claudia listens to the boys, she recalls accidently glimpsing her own daddy naked one night as he passed her bedroom: “we had seen our own father naked and didn’t care to be reminded of it and feel the shame brought on by the absence of shame” (TBE 59, emphasis added).
Therefore, unlike some critics, I do not view the fact that Pecola saw Cholly nude as a foreshadowing of his later molestation. As Claudia and her sister lie with wide-open eyes in the dark after seeing their father, his nakedness remains in the room as a soothing “friendly-like” presence. Furthermore, Morrison herself indicates that even while the boys were harassing Pecola “their own father[s] had similarly relaxed habits” around the house in ostracizing Pecola for looking black and having a black family with black mores, the boys censure their own cultural identities.
Pecola is an easy victim, responding with tears rather than insults because, like her mother, she has completely assimilated the values the majority culture presents in billboards, advertisements, and motion pictures. In studying Pecola from a psychological perspective, one can say that Pecola and much of her community are trapped in Showalter’s first phase of growth for a subculture–“imitation of the prevailing modes of the dominant tradition, and internalization of its standards of art and its views on social roles” (1108,emphasis added).
Another incident Morrison provides to illustrate the debilitating effects of the infiltration of Western ideas on African Americans is the scene in which Pecola is expelled from the neat, orderly, and sterile house of Geraldine. By straightening their hair, clothespinning their noses and suppressing “the dreadful funkiness of passion” (TBE 64), these brown women from Mobile and Meridian have groomed away their identifies with the hot comb of self-hatred. Although Junior tells his mother that Pecola killed the cat, Geraldine’s strong reaction against Pecola goes far deeper than her cat’s death.
Geraldine calls Pecola a “nasty little black bitch” because Pecola reeks with the funkiness and the poverty Geraldine has so stridently avoided. As Geraldine stares at Pecola over the silky black back of her dead cat, she notes Pecola’s soiled clothes, muddy shoes, slipping socks, and loosely plaited hair, despising the little girl for being poor and too black: “She had seen this little girl all of her life . . . . They had stared at her with great uncomprehending eyes. Eyes that questioned nothing and asked everything. Unblinking and unabashed, they stared up at her. . . And this one had settled in her house” (TBE 75). As critics such as Otten and Willis have noted, young women like Geraldine who forever strive to expunge their blackness and “creep singly up into the major folds” (TBE 18) of mainstream white society continue the corruption of the white community by spawning a brown race that revers white standards indiscriminately, denying their ancestral heritage and denying their passionate natures, believing the myth broadcast by white society that black skin represents inferiority and bestiality.
In her novel, Morrison also demonstrates the forces in white society that eat away at Pecola’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth with her encounter with Mr. Yacobowski. Pecola visits Mr. Yacobowski’s store eagerly willing to spend her pennies on a handful of Mary Jane candies. Although Pecola is a paying customer, Mr. Yacobowski’s glazed eyes betray a “total absence of human recognition” while his hand gingerly takes the pennies from the little girl’s fist, careful not to brush her black skin (TBE 43).
When Pecola leaves the candy store, she once again sees herself as ugly, and meaningless as a weed straining through a crack in the sidewalk. It is interesting to note that Gwendolyn Brooks’s autobiographical character, Maud Martha, also envisions herself as a plain dandelion due to her too-dark skin: “it was hard to believe that a thing of only ordinary allurements–if the allurements of any flower could be said to be ordinary–was as easy to love as a thing of heartcatching beauty” (qtd. in Washington 389).
In Maud Martha’s world, the “thing of heartcatching beauty” is represented by her sister Helen, a light-skinned girl. As other critics have noted, Pecola’s next gesture of eating the Mary Janes indicates her strong desire to lose her black identity in a transporting ecstasy of chewy caramel delight: Each pale yellow wrapper has a picture on it. A picture of little Mary Jane . . . . Smiling white face. Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort. The eyes are petulant, mischievous.
To Pecola they are simply pretty. . . . To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane. (TBE 43) Therefore, in black naturalistic fiction, minority characters begin their struggle with me outside forces of society with the additional handicaps Showalter’s stages of progression indicate. Although characters like Tom Joad were often compelled to tight malicious stereotypes such as “hick” and “Okie,” they were never denied person-hood, never overpowered by the vacuum of acknowledgement that Pecola experiences with Mr.
Yacobowski or that Richard Wright experiences as a bellboy in a Southern hotel or as a worker who is forced to tight another “Black Boy” for the amusement of white managers. Tragically, both black and white communities unwittingly join forces to extinguish Pecola Breedlove’s fledgling sense of self-worth, driving this little girl to her ultimate destination: the garbage heaps on the outskirts of town.
In The Bluest Eye there is a palpable condemnation for African Americans who sacrifice vulnerable members of their community to attain the benefits of assimilation into white society. In Down from the Mountaintop, Melissa Walker discusses the tragic waste of people like Pecola Breedlove and the communities who fail them: Claudia acknowledges that she and others like her who have managed to rise above their origins use the Pecolas of the world to bolster their own sense of belonging in the mainstream . . . The culprits in the crimes against Pecola, then, are not just the social conditions that destroyed first her parents and then Pecola herself, but those within the black community who use the less fortunate to facilitate their own success in a racist society. (58) Thus the white majority culture is both a direct and indirect sup-pressor, withholding money, power and prestige to turn blacks against blacks, creating an inverted and aberrant community, whose little boys and girls sing songs of self-hatred: “Black e mo!
Black e mo! ” Not only is Pecola prevented from developing her nature and growing to her fullest potential, she is also wrested from existence “into the chaos of life” first when she is “put outdoors” and forced to live with Claudia and Frieda, and second when her father, Cholly Breedlove, rapes her. In the opening pages of the novel, Claudia describes the significance and horror of Pecola’s plight: “Outdoors, we knew, was the real terror in life . . . . There is a difference between being put out and being put outdoors.
If you are put out, you go somewhere else; if you are outdoors, there is no place to go . . . . Outdoors was the end of something, an irrevocable, physical fact” (TBE 18). In The Bluest Eye Morrison does not exonerate Cholly Breedlove from committing his family to the outdoors or violating his daughter. Instead she presents some possible explanations of circumstances stemming from his environment that may have contributed to his actions and his nature.
First, as previously stated, both black and white society have become aberrant; as long as one culture is allowed to dominate and exploit another, there will be unnatural acts such as Sethe killing her “already crawling” baby in Beloved and Cholly showing his confused love in the incestuous act of rape. When Cholly sees his daughter standing in the kitchen cleaning a frying pan, “her head to one side as though crouching from a permanent and unrelieved blow,” he is filled with pity, rage and helplessness (TBE 127).
Cholly feels pity because his daughter should be enjoying the freedom and innocence of childhood and cannot, largely due to racism; he feels rage because he unconsciously senses that economic disadvantages (a given in most African American experience at this time) and a life in a rundown storefront amongst battling parents have contributed to the “permanent and unrelieved blow” exhibited in her demeanor; he feels helpless because as an illiterate black man too long estranged from is family and his responsibilities, he does not know how to assuage Pecola’s broken, “crouching” spirit. In a drunken, confused state, Cholly gropes for something to give his daughter to demonstrate his love and tenderness and return to himself a sense of self-respect. Therefore, like Bigger Thomas and many of the “grotesques” in Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Cholly remains mute, helpless, and in turmoil, unable to communicate his changing feelings Of tenderness and hatred.
In part, then, Cholly rapes Pecola to demonstrate his love: “He wanted to fuck her tenderly” (TBE 128). But Cholly also does it because like many early naturalistic protagonists, he is driven by an inner force almost against his desires, a force he does not fully comprehend in his drunken, muddled brain to do this “wild and forbidden thing” that “excited him” (128).
Two circumstances in Cholly’s youth succeed in severing him from a connection with the rest of human nature and human morality: his mother’s desertion prompted by strained economic conditions and the exploitation and humiliation he experienced at the hands of the two white hunters. The inner forces governing Cholly’s behavior with his daughter are born from this dangerous disconnection and the corresponding rage and helplessness it has produced in Cholly Breedlove.
When Pauline finds Pecola lying on the kitchen floor with her dingy underwear still hovering about her ankles, she beats Pecola, almost killing her. Thus Cholly’s deranged act of love produces yet another terrifying, brutal blow in Pecola’s young life, finally compelling her into madness. It is worth noting that unlike naturalistic tragic figures, when Pecola is thrown “into the chaos of life ‘outside,”‘ she does not fall from “midway”; her life is not on a “grooved but satisfying” path.
Living in a grubby storefront, taunted and alienated by her classmates and either beaten or ignored by her parents, Pecola is a tragic figure who begins life at the bottom the moment her mother, brainwashed by the white movie industry, decides her daughter is irretrievably ugly: Pauline Breedlove “was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen” (TBE 97).
Sitting in the local cinema day after day, Pauline Breedlove dreams of looking like Jean Harlow, parting her hair on the side and pulling a curly lock over her forehead. When Pauline looses her front tooth, she realizes how terribly impossible and foolish her dream was. Pauline begins to hate herself, unconsciously believing the messages paraded on the silver screen–that only beautiful women like Jean Harlow and Norma Shearer deserve love and happiness. And when her daughter is born, regardless of Pecola’s pretty head of hair and soft wet eyes, she sees Pecola as ugly too.
Not only is Pauline’s awful sense of self-worth passed on to her child, her impossible dream of blond blue-eyed beauty is passed on as well. Samuels and Hudson-Weems claim that readers must not overlook Pecola’s own responsibility for her abdication of freedom and descent into madness. The authors compare Pecola’s passive reactions to situations of repression (such as the cruel attacks on Pecola’s dark skin color by Maureen Peel and the neighborhood black boys) with Claudia, who welcomes an occasion to express her anger and scream insults.
Samuels and Hudson-Weems argue that even children “must consider the direction of their lives” (22). The authors are correct when they claim that unlike Pecola, Claudia “is determined to overcome any definition of self that is externally ascribed” from the white or black community (22). However, can one ignore the roots of Claudia’s survival? Claudia was raised in a house where “love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup” coated her childhood (TBE 14). Claudia has never experienced being put “outdoors” or, that we know of, watched violent fights between her mother and father.
Claudia does not live in a squalid storefront and her mother is not absent for much of the day, working as a maid. Claudia has been equipped with the shield of self-love to combat negative influences from black and white society–Pecola has not. Therefore, because she has developed in a less debilitating environment than Pecola Breedlove, an environment that encouraged Claudia to feel pride for herself, while still a young girl, Claudia has been able to move beyond Showalter’s stage one into a protest against the mores of the dominant society.
And the adult Claudia we hear throughout the novel has progressed beyond stage two to the quest for identity indicated in stage three. When Claudia destroys her white doll with its glassy blue eyes, she demonstrates pride in her identity and the ability to understand, to some degree, the repressive values pervading her black community. Samuels and Hudson-Weems are correct, however, in asserting that Pecola participates in her own destruction; Pecola is passive, folding into herself because she lacks the strength that love of oneself and one’s identity provide to “stand erect and spit the misery out on the streets” as Claudia does (61).
Yet it remains difficult to fault Pecola for a destructive lack of self-awareness and self-love. Pecola lives in a brutal world of rejection, deprived of even parental affection. When Pecola accidently topples a pan of blueberry pie she is forced to suffer as berry juice scalds her legs while her mother dispels the tears of the little white girl delicately dressed in pink and yellow: “In one gallop she was on Pecola, and with the back of her hand knocked her to the floor. Pecola slid in the pie juice, one leg folding under her” (TBE 86).
The relationship between mother and daughter is so distant that Pecola invariably thinks of her mother as “Mrs. Breedlove,” while the little white girl affectionately refers to Pauline Breedlove as “Polly. ” Pecola behaves like a victim because she has been victimized on three debilitating fronts from the moment of her birth: by the majority white society, by the black community, and later by herself. Consequently, this cringing, retreating, alienated little girl never attains knowledge of herself or comprehends the complex forces that manipulate her reverence for blond-haired blue-eyed Shirley Temple figures.
Pecola’s final step into madness described by Claudia indicates the extent of Morrison’s tragedy: “A little black girl yearns for the blue eyes of a little white girl, and the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by the evil of fulfillment” (TBE 158). In desperation, then, Pecola creates a friend out of her imagination who will love her and assure her that she has the bluest eyes in all the world, bluer than the blue sky, bluer than “Alice-and-Jerry Story-book” eyes. With the demise of Pecola Breedlove, Morrison issues a direct and clear warning of the mportance of self-love for African Americans. Many critics have noted Claudia’s reflection on the inability of some seeds to grow and bear fruit in the soft of her community: “The soft is bad for certain kinds of flowers. Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear, and when the land kills of its own volition, we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live” (TBE 160). What too many critics inevitably fail to print is Claudia’s next sentence: “We are wrong, of course, but it doesn’t matter. In her novel Morrison is claiming that the soft–or the societal environment should not fail in nurturing flowers like Pecola Breedlove. The seed of Pecola was not planted too deeply–Pecola’s soul was denied nourishment. Affection was never showered on Pecola’s forlorn, yearning soul; therefore, the fruit of self-love was never realized. Without the strength of love for one’s cultural identity, vulnerable members of minorities are in real danger of being starved by both black and white environments.
Black naturalism encompasses this demand of the societal environment to nurture rather than starve African Americans, allowing them to flower to their fullest potentials. Unfortunately, Morrison’s message is still much needed for today’s generation of African Americans. The preference among black children for white, blond, blue-eyed dolls is still all too prevalent; according to a study conducted by Hopson and Hopson of black preschoolers, 76 percent of the children selected a black doll as “bad,” and 60 to 78 percent still chose a white doll over a black one.
It seems, then, that little has changed since 1941 and Pecola’s dreadful visit to Soaphead Church for the blessing of blue eyes: many African Americans still suffer from a dangerously low sense of self-esteem originating from their internalization of the prejudices of white culture. According to a survey conducted by the Metropolitan Chicago Information Center, “African Americans are more likely than whites to hold negative opinions of their fellow blacks’ innate capabilities” (Mabry’ and Rogers 33).
Morrison’s novel reflects this dangerous internalization of racist values and the cycle of self-hatred passed on from parents to children it produces. By calling our attention to this self-perpetuating cycle in her first novel, Morrison is trying to eliminate the devastation of dandelions like Pecola Breedlove. Consequently, one significant tenet of black naturalism that does not exist in traditional naturalism includes this prevalent ringing call of warning concerning the dangers of internalization and the need for balance between self and society.
Not only does this tenet function as a diagnosis of society’s problems, it also serves as both a challenge and a stimulus for psychological and political change. Having explored both the direct and indirect societal forces that serve to thwart characters like Pecola Breedlove, we are left with a few questions: what exactly is black naturalism, how is it significantly different from the existing theory, and how do earlier black naturalistic novels such as The Street and Native Son differ from the black naturalism we see in Morrison’s novels?
First, I think it is worth noting that writers of black naturalistic fiction were not responding to the same “root causes” Civello describes in his dissertation. Early African American naturalistic writers such as DuBois were more than likely not reacting to the rise of Darwinism in the nineteenth century that so rocked the white American man’s idea of an ordered universe. Although the Christian religion was highly important in many black households in the late nineteenth century, the crisis that influenced black novelists of this period was the idea of slavery and the continued oppression of the black race during Reconstruction.
I think the injustices of white supremacy and racism served to alienate African Americans from their conceptual ideas of an ordered material world far more drastically than the theory of evolution and its affect on the Christian doctrine of creation. Moreover, while both African American and white characters may suffer psychologically in naturalistic fiction, the causes of their conditions are very different.
As Civello notes, in Frank Norris’s Vandover and the Brute, having learned of his biological affinity with the animal kingdom and being unable to rely on the Bible for guidance, Vandover cannot reconcile his spiritual and moral ideals with his physical instinct, thus creating a psychological split between his physical and rational self that results in madness. However, as I have illustrated previously, in black naturalistic fiction, the source of psychological conflict for African Americans is interracism and intraracism. Therefore, although characters like Vandover and Pecola Breedlove both become insane, the foundations that otivate their falls are unrelated. Furthermore, black novelists from the Harlem Renaissance were not responding to the devastating effects of World War I in the same ways as their white contemporaries. When blacks joined the fight to save democracy, many hoped that the freedom they were fighting for in Europe would become realized in the United States. Instead, in the 1920s there was a resurgence of Klan activity, lynching, and according to annual reports from the attorney general, peonage still existed “to a shocking extent” (Aptheker 193).
Black soldiers returned to a country that sought to de-emphasize the heroic roles African Americans played in Europe and “deprive them of gains in jobs and housing made during the war” (Bell 93). Therefore, because black naturalistic writers were responding to a very different “wasteland” devoid of racial justice, they created a significantly different literary form. It is also worth noting that in African American fiction many black characters display a significantly different perception of nature than is exhibited in the traditional theory of naturalism.
As Morrison indicates in her novels, nature is not merely an oppressive, indifferent force that seeks “to undermine [one’s] dignity and against which [one] therefore had to struggle” (Civello 13). In Morrison’s novels nature serves as both a reflector of humanity and as an indicator of future happiness and despair. Dead birds falling from the sky in Sula not only announce Sula’s arrival but seem to indicate the approaching of hard times and the existence of disorder in “The Bottom. , In addition, the intolerance of Pecola’s community is reflected in the intolerance of the soil for growing marigolds that year.
Black novelists perceive nature as neither benevolent and ordered, as viewed by the Romantics, nor as callous or objective as perceived by white naturalistic novelists like Jack London, because their perceptions arise from a different cultural background containing African myths, legends, spirituals, blues and tales. A second important difference between black naturalism and the traditional theory concerns the issue of knowledge of the self and the nature of reality. In naturalistic fiction, the idea of knowledge was at first perceived as impossible and later perceived as possible but difficult to achieve.
In black naturalism, however, knowledge is not only possible, it is essential for the physical and cultural survival of the race. For African Americans, self-knowledge and a strong sense of self-identity is the only protection against the various forms of both intraracism and interracism that still pervade our society. Unlike characters in traditional naturalism, in black naturalistic fiction this important sense of identity can only be achieved by embracing the past, as demonstrated by characters like Tar Baby’s Jadine Childs and Song of Solomon’s Milkman Dead.
Until characters can travel beyond the first two stages of Showalter’s study of subcultures-imitation and protest of the dominant society’s mores–to a quest for identity, like Pecola Breedlove, they remain psychologically trapped and whipped by their societal environment. We have, therefore, a consistent pattern of the importance of the past for understanding the present and redefining the future not only in Morrison’s novels, but in modern black fiction and poetry in general.
The importance of embracing one’s cultural heritage does not appear in traditional naturalism mainly because it is not essential for members of a dominant society to make an effort to embrace an identity or a past: first, because quite often their collective past is not filled with a sanctioned, long-term pattern of persecution; and second, because society has not made a concerted effort to appropriate or annihilate their cultures and collective histories.
This necessary embracing of the past in black naturalism presents an interesting question: Can black novels that fail to offer this solution be considered as members of the black naturalism genre? When analyzing Native Son Bell states that although Wright provided a great service in bringing the harsh light of naturalism to the problems facing blacks in the 1930s, he fails to indicate the importance of “black folk culture as a way of maintaining or changing arrangements of status, power, and identity in a hostile environment” (165).
According to Bell, many black readers including James Baldwin “apparently knew that white oppression, even during slavery, was never absolute in its control over the intragroup lives of black Americans, who, from the slave quarters to the urban ghettos, have carried with them a system of values and rituals that has enabled them to sustain their humanity” (165).
Therefore, do earlier naturalistic novels like Native Son and The Street fit into this new genre I have outlined? I think we can say that these novels do qualify as part of black naturalism but with the stipulation that they exhibit characters (and perhaps authors) who are trapped in Showalter’s second stage of protest against the dominant society. One can also ask the same question about novels from authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen.
Although Bell does not label these novels as naturalistic, he uses the rhetoric of naturalism to describe a common quest shared by novels of the New Negro: “[the quest] was for the resolution of the psychological and social dilemma of the modern black American, for an affirmation of the human spirit over the forces that threatened its integrity and development” (115,emphasis added). Furthermore, when discussing the idea of ancestralism in romantic fiction, Bell also uses the language of naturalism- writers look to the past when their souls are “under siege by destructive forces” (114).
I would argue that due to the extensive influence of societal environments on African Americans due largely to racism, although many black novels may be categorized as romantic, folkloric, or pastoral, they can also be categorized as examples of black naturalism as long as characters are striving against conditions that threaten their “integrity” while seeking to gain self-awareness as a “modern black American. “
In black naturalism we are also confronted with the problem of assimilation with characters like Helen Wright, Geraldine, and Jadine Childs, who, by denying their black ancestral culture, have risen both socially and economically in mainstream society. In introducing members of the black bourgeoisie, Morrison explores two challenges African Americans face: first, the inherent difficulty all minorities have in assimilating into a dominant society without betraying one’s race; and second, the danger of alienation from oneself and one’s past due to this betrayal.
For all minorities, a certain amount of assimilation is important: one must learn the language and the customs of an adopted society in order to function successfully within it. The difficulty occurs when individuals over-assimilate to ride the road to material success, power or societal acceptance. This is distinctly a minority issue and cannot be found in traditional naturalism. And unlike other minorities, blacks often experience a greater desire to assimilate because of a stronger sense of alienation instilled in them by white society due to the color line.
In an interview with Judith Paterson, Maya Angelou sounds remarkably like the fictional, young, courageous Sylvia from “The Lesson” when she states, “I will not allow anybody to minimize my life, not anybody, not a living soul–nobody, no lover, no mother, no son, no boss, no President, nobody” (119). Judging from her many accomplishments indicated in her autobiographical novels, Angelou seems to have provided ample proof to support her statement. Yet, as she affirms in an interview with Bill Moyers, struggling for one’s freedom is a “difficult” and “perpetual” effort (19).
One cannot rise above the forces that seek to “minimize” our lives–whether it be our lover or our President–unless one makes a conscious effort to understand and acknowledge them. For all races and for all individuals, it is critical to fully comprehend how society influences our values and beliefs–only after fully understanding the influences (both positive and negative) that touch and shape our lives can we strive to combat them and grow to our fullest potential. Works Cited Aptheker, Herbert. Afro-American History: The Modern Era. Secaucus: Citadel, 1971. Bambara, Toni Cade.
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