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Rewriting “Beauty” and “Ugliness”

November 1, 2015

To continue our discussion of The Bluest Eye this week, I’d like us to consider two of the terms at the heart of the novel: Beauty and Ugliness. The children in the MacTeer and Breedlove families, in particular, seem baffled by the way that grownups use these words, and their confusion leads them into distinctly different kinds of behavior. We’ll spend some time figuring out what’s happening for these characters, but I’d also like us to consider what Morrison herself might be up to in crafting this narrative.

To guide our discussion, we’ll use Morrison’s Foreword to the The Bluest Eye (this should be at the front of your edition, pages ix-xiii). There, she describes some of her motivations in writing the novel, and she also explains how she feels she fell blackisbeautifulshort of meeting her ultimate goal. You might notice, especially, that Morrison’s language in the Foreword at times resembles the language that Joseph Harris uses in Rewriting. She attempts to define her project as a writer and identifies some of the motivating problems she was trying to address.

In her Foreword, Morrison also makes a subtle reference to a cultural movement that had gained popularity in the years leading up to the novel’s publication. The phrase “Black is Beautiful” became a slogan or unifying declaration for many in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s, and in some ways, we might see Morrison’s novel as a response to that phrase. We’ll talk about the implications of this in class, but for now, you might do a bit of internet research about the historical context that Morrison was working in (for instance, here’s a brief Wikipedia entry on the phrase, and an overview of the Black Power movement, with a reference to “Black is Beautiful” toward the bottom).

With this bit of historical perspective, I’d like us to consider what questions or problems Morrison is wrestling with in The Bluest Eye. If “Black is Beautiful,” for instance, then why did Morrison choose to write a novel about ugliness? What are the sources and effects of “beauty” and “ugliness” for these characters?

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