115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Morrison and the Politics of Education: The Sowings in and through The Bluest Eye

Mayuki Nagao, Osaka University (Japan)

This paper will discuss the politics of “education” in light of printed texts and a motif of seeds in Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye. It also examines the utility of this novel as educational material in English classes, considering what has been explored through the analysis of the text.

Proposal: 

     “It is a question of education, because racism is a scholarly pursuit.” Thus commented once African American female writer Toni Morrison in an interview, when asked for her opinion on how to improve the racial climate in the United States. According to her, the emergence of racism is closely related to education: people are not born inherently with the idea, but instead racism is “taught” and people learn to recognize certain members of the human race as Other at some point in life. Through this statement, she cast a critical eye on the cultural problematics of education. That is, education could be a primary factor in fostering racist attitudes.     Although the interview took place in 1989, her 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye, already raises awareness concerning this issue. As a preface to the novel, Morrison extracts a work of traditional educational material, a Dick and Jane primer, to foreground how people are exposed to monolithic cultural values or stereotypes by reading such educational texts. She challenges the dominant values by writing this novel and reconstructs a new version of the primer, which is a narrative of an invisible, victimized girl in a black community. Claudia the narrator also challenges the dominant ideas, for example, by dismembering her white baby doll. Studying the content of the narrative, it is obvious how dominant values are “taught” as social norms not only through picture books but also movies and adult discourses. Indeed, Morrison reminds us that education is not limited to school education alone; people learn values or ideas outside the classroom as well.     Additionally, one should also note that there is another preface in this novel: Claudia’s confession regarding marigold seeds which are planted but never germinate. Her narration recounts an episode about shriveled seeds at the beginning and the end of the novel, which draws attention to the motif of seeds in this narrative. As Gurleen Grewal points out, “[b]oth [the cultural images of the Dick and Jane text and the natural images of seed, flower, and earth] are ‘nursery’ metaphors involving inculcation and cultivation,” and the two prefaces are both connected to the theme of education.     From the perspective mentioned above, this paper will discuss how dominant culture is insidiously inculcated and disseminated through “education” and how the politics of education are related to the depiction of seeds in the novel. The dominant values which The Bluest Eye represents are closely related to visuality and visibility, such as in the blind worship of physical beauty and society’s gaze at objectified selves. Therefore, this study of the novel also corresponds with certain aspects of the conference theme, “The Sense of Sight: Visuality, Visibility, and Ways of Seeing.” Furthermore, since this literary work is widely used as a text for English courses in tertiary education, this paper will also examine the utility of this novel as educational material, considering what has been explored through the analysis of the text.