When I was nine years old, I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
It was my first “grown-up” novel. It was lying on a table in the house (perhaps my mother had just read it), so being the little bookworm that I was, I picked it up and started reading. I was a voracious reader, but up until then, it was all about Ramona the Pest, the Babysitter’s Club, Nancy Drew and the like.
Those books were fun and I enjoyed them, but I knew the little girls in The Bluest Eye. Rape, incest, internalized racism and the other heavy topics in the book were a lot for an elementary school student to digest and some things went over my head, but I knew those little girls and I was amazed, awakened and completely enamored by Toni Morrison’s pen.
If Ohio School Board president Debe Terhar has her way, no K-12 student in Ohio will have the opportunity to meet the little girls in Morrison’s debut novel.
Set in Ohio (Morrison’s home state), The Bluest Eye chronicles the tragic life of Pecola Breedlove, a little black girl who longs for blue eyes and an escape from her abusive father. There is a graphic rape scene in the novel, which some find offensive. The book is on the 11th grade suggested reading list of the Common Core standards. School districts and individual teachers decide what books make into the classrooms.
“I don’t want my grandchildren reading it, and I don’t want anyone else’s children reading it. It should not be used in any school for any Ohio K-12 child. If you want to use it in college somewhere, that’s fine,” said Terhar.
The Columbus Dispatch reports that at least one of Terhar’s fellow board members agrees with her. Mark Smith, president of Ohio Christian University said, “I see an underlying socialist-communist agenda…that is anti what this nation is about.” Smith also said the educational benefit is questionable.
What is questionable is the decade in which Smith resides. His comments sound like McCarthy era jargon. Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison is a living treasure who has made immense contributions to literature not just with her impeccable technical skills (she is a writer’s writer), but the grace with which she tells the rich and oft-overlooked stories of African-Americans.
There is nothing questionable about the upsides of being exposed to a literary genius.
Christine Link, the executive director of the ACLU of Ohio issued a statement noting the racial implications of the board members’ concerns. “Unfortunately, there is a long and troubling tradition of attacking African-American literature on the grounds that it is ‘too controversial’ for young people. These attempts to ignore or gloss over complex issues do a disservice to our students, who cannot lead our future unless they fully understand the past and present.”
Toni Morrison is literary royalty and though her work is fiction, it is rooted in real life, real struggles and real triumphs. We need the Toni Morrisons of the world to better understand ourselves and eachother. We need storytellers.
Morrison had a book signing a few years ago at a Barnes and Noble in Manhattan when her novel A Mercy was released. I stood in line with 200 other people and had about 25 seconds to tell her why The Bluest Eye was so special to me and how reading that so early on made me a more astute reader and made me aware of the power of literature/art.
I thanked her for sharing her genius. Ms. Morrison signed my book, looked me in the eye, gave a hint of a smile and said, “Thank you.” I just about melted.
She has had a tremendous impact on my life as a reader, a writer and a person. To try to deny a child in Ohio or anywhere else the opportunity to be immersed in that brilliant mind of hers is unconscionable.
What books have greatly impacted you?