“Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.” – Toni Morrison
Book banning, the flash button issue in headline news across the United States currently, is also the raging topic in my local school district this month. There is shock and disbelief in my suburban New York community that we are the location for a book ban conversation, and that there are parents among us petitioning the school library to reconsider stocking some books. Please note that the debate is not about whether these books should be taught, its about whether these books should be available in a public-school library. While I oppose book banning on principle, the book on the list that prompted me to speak up immediately, is Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye,’ because it holds a special place in my journey to allyship. Morrison was the subject of my academic work, with a specific focus on her representation of African American women in ‘Sula’ and ‘Beloved’, and my long-lasting engagement with African American literature and a nascent understanding of intersectional feminism started with ‘The Bluest Eye.’
Deceptively small, rather than voluminous, ‘The Bluest Eye’ was a life-changing experience. There is much that can be said, and has been said, about the multi-layered powerful punch of this book. What feels significant to share is that this book, about the story of a young Black girl thinking that blue eyes can lead her to a different, better, life, woke me to the reality of social biases that convince swathes of humanity to believe that beauty and goodness is the prerogative of the Other. Morrison’s book was revelatory in capturing the internal life of a poor Black girl of the 1940s, and the character’s bafflement at social constructs that adults accept as a given. The themes of lighter skin and blond hair equating to worthiness and rightness, and the implications of children growing into adulthood with self-hatred, were disturbing in capturing the long-term psychological trauma of internalized racial prejudices.
While slavery and the horrors of slave trade had been part of history lessons, it was in Morrison’s rendering of Pecola, Claudia, and Freida that I began to see the impact of social injustices on individual lives. The translation of troubling facts to disheartened communities and traumatized generations was the first step in my awakening that history does not stay bundled in the past. It is a complicated personal journey that led from this spark of awareness to an evolving understanding of deep-rooted prejudice and systemic issues such as the economics of racism including impact on housing and voter rights. Recent public conversations around this topic have underlined the importance of a consistent commitment to anti-racism, including the willingness to confront one’s own biases. I understand that being anti-racist is always going to be a work-in-progress requiring constant willingness to learn, and hope to have the honesty to be a true ally.
This sensitization to the way history distills into the lives of each of us has also been the foundation for my acknowledgement of systemic inequities across cultures and continents, and I am so very aware today of the powerful influence of a book in helping me get here. Books that make us uncomfortable cannot be shoved out of sight, but should be celebrated as tools for individual and collective growth and understanding. While the depiction of child molestation and Pecola’s pregnancy, the focus of those seeking the ban, are difficult to read, requesting a book ban is ultimately an attempt to erase a reality because it is unpalatable for some to acknowledge the pain. As we celebrate Black History Month, it feels timely to stand up for ‘The Bluest Eye,’ and similar banned books, that compel us to confront and recognize varied lived-experiences, to reflect, and to commit to solidarity in thought and action.
Shoba Viswanathan is Senior Manager – Development and Civic Engagement at Indiaspora. She comes to the role with experience in communications, community engagement, volunteer mobilization for social justice causes, and non-profit management. Shoba is a co-founder of the Chitthi Brigade, an organization focused on strengthening the political participation of Indian-American women. Her academic background is in intersectional feminist research and she has a long engagement with the publishing industry. Born in New Delhi and brought up in Chennai, she is a first generation Indian-American who currently lives in New York after having spent time in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the Midwest. She enjoys hiking the Hudson Valley in her free time.