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Bourke’s Banned Bookshelf: ‘Asking for beauty’

This week's featured banned book is Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye," No. 8 on the American Library Association's list of Top 10 most banned and challenged books in 2021.

Book cover of "The Bluest Eye"
"The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison.
Tim Speier / Brainerd Dispatch
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Theresa Bourke headshot

Toni Morrison’s writing always mesmerizes me. I read her work for the first time in high school, when my best friend and I created our own independent study with our favorite English teacher, focusing on African American literature. One of our teacher’s picks was Morrison’s “Beloved,” and I loved it.

While “Beloved” might be her most famous work, “The Bluest Eye” is her first novel, published in 1970 and still widely read, as it shows up at No. 8 on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned and challenged books in 2021.

‘The Bluest Eye’ by Toni Morrison

Nine-year-old Claudia MacTeer narrates a portion of the story, telling of her older sister Freida and their friend, 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove, a young Black girl who wants only one thing in life —- blue eyes so that she can be pretty like the little white girls in town.

Life in Lorain, Ohio in 1941 is challenging to say the least for Pecola, with an abusive alcoholic father who takes his antics much too far, marking his daughter as more an outcast than she already is.

An interesting aspect of this novel is the amount of backstory. Along with the present-day narration, characters like Pecola’s parents are brought to life on another level as Morrison details their upbringings and the environments that shaped them into who they are.

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The best word I have to describe “The Bluest Eye” is heartbreaking, and I think most of the emotion comes from seeing the issues from the eyes of a child. An innocent child who has done nothing to deserve hate and alienation, aside from being born into a poor family with a dark complexion and “ugly” features.

There is no conventional happy ending in this book, but there is a powerful story that provides a harrowing perspective on life.

The critical eye

Child sexual abuse and sexually explicit content are the top reasons for challenges and bans to “The Bluest Eye.”

In January 2022, the Wentzville School Board in Missouri voted 4-3 to ban the book from its school library. One board member was quoted as telling parents they could buy the book for their children if they want to, but she wouldn’t want it in the school for anyone else to read.

The problem with that line of thinking is one I touched on in a previous column . Banning a book from one school library might not seem like a major move to some, as it will remain available in bookstores or from other libraries. But for some kids, the school library is the only one they can access. Their family might have money to purchase a book or transportation to find it at another library. For those children, the school library is their one and only resource for books.

And for one of those children, that book might be important.

Tressie McMillan Cottom, a professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and columnist for the New York Times, tweeted about the book in 2019, saying it was foundational for her because of the age she was when she discovered it. Another twitter user responded to her Cottom’s tweet, saying they finally felt seen as a 10-year-old after reading the book.

Representation is important. Yes, the book is sexually explicit. Yes, it’s hard to read. And yes, it’s not necessarily something parents want their children reading about.

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But it’s also a story of a little girl who hated herself so much because of her appearance that she did everything she could just to change the color of her eyes. A little girl who went through so much trauma that she felt was all her fault because of the way she looked. Time and time again, there are stories of kids — children who have their entire futures ahead of them — who took their own lives after being bullied for how they looked or where they came from. But if something as simple as a book can show a child that she isn’t alone, that there are others like her in that world, and that her struggles are real, isn’t that something that child should be able to experience? As a blue-eyed white kid who grew up in an upper-middle class family in the rural Midwest where most other kids looked like me, I don’t know what that’s like, but unfortunately it’s the reality for so many other kids.

Luckily, the Wentzville School Board rescinded the ban a month later, on a vote of 5-2.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa .

Related Topics: BOOKS
Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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