Innocence(?) in The Bluest Eye

Before I even begin, I know that I am biting off more than I can chew.

I’m in a summer sprint course about slave narratives, focusing especially on how the conventions of the slave narrative have potentially/definitely shaped African American literature even in modern times. As someone who is not a scholar of African American literature and who focuses primarily on the depiction of girlhood, finding a paper topic, especially one that I could research and write a 12-15 page paper about in less than a month was a journey of trial and error. Then someone brought up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye during a conversation about race and beauty conventions. That day I was about a quarter through re-reading Beloved, but had never read The Bluest Eye.

I am kicking myself. Just kicking myself. My only excuse is that it was published in 1970, so was about 12 years too late for my M.A. work. But that is a flimsy excuse. It is so fantastic. Gorgeously written prose with a stunning structure and I couldn’t stop reading. I have really strong memories of Shirley Temple from watching her with my bubbe when I was young, so I was really taken by the scenes about her and the white babydolls in this book, in an especially knee-jerk, visceral way, making me aware of the way whiteness dominates discourses about girlhood in mainstream American culture. I guess I know that intellectually, but reading such a heart-wrenching reaction from Claudia against something that was part of my childhood brought it to life more vividly.

What I’m particularly thinking about for my paper is the connection between race, visibility, and the cult of the child’s paradigm of  innocence. This is all very rough. The way that the girls react to/against tropes of girlhood and images of beautiful girls as well as the ways that racism and poverty limit their claims to the innocence that American culture demands of “true girlhood” reminds me of Harriet Jacob’s reaction against white “true womanhood” in Narratives in the Life of a Slave Girl. In other words, it’s no wonder to me that Claudia dismembers dolls and Pecola tries to will herself to disappear when they are so far from the center of what pop culture tells them a beautiful girl ought to be. There’s also the rape, Soaphead’s weird child molestation (Humbert Humbert?), and madness to contend with. But to me this seems like the obvious reading of the novel and I’m still trying to figure out how to enter into the conversation while engaging the course theme. I might also bring in Denver from Beloved. I’m writing the paper this week so here’s hoping I get it all sorted out sooner than later.

So here’s the problem though: I have found one–just one –book about African American girlhood: Black Girlhood Celebration: Towards a Hip-Hop Feminist Pedagogy, but it is too late chronologically to be a great fit for this book. As far as other works go, I have some great stuff about Morrison’s work and innocence and some about childhood. Anyone know of anything that might be helpful? It’s a short paper and I can certainly make-do with what I have, but it’s not my specialty and I’d hate to be missing anything important.

Also, check out these fantastic images I found (click for sources):


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