Beauty is Truth: The Case Against Banning The Bluest Eye

September 24, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 8 3 min read

coverSome books are meant to bring chills of discomfort, tears built of disappointment, and tension created by problems that will never be solved. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye isn’t a happy book, and that is what makes it honest.

The story focuses on 9-year-old Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl in Lorain, Ohio who dreams of having blue eyes. While drunk, Pecola’s father rapes her in “a hatred mixed with tenderness.” He flees after leaving her pregnant, and the community of Lorain to pass judgment on her.

This week is “Banned Books Week,” the annual campaign that focuses attention on and celebrates books that have been banned and challenged. A challenge is defined by the American Library Association as a formal, written request for a book to be removed or restricted from school libraries.

There is nothing about The Bluest Eye that is easy, and because of that it is one of the most challenged books in America. It is number 15 on the list of 100 most challenged books released by the ALA.

Parents, teachers, and school administrators have protested The Bluest Eye since its release in 1970. But unlike many controversial books from the 1970s, people continue to try to ban The Bluest Eye. In the past two months alone, the book has been challenged for its status on the 11th grade reading list for the Common Core, a set of national standards that has been adopted by more than 40 states.

The first strike came from Alabama State Senator Bill Holtzclaw who, in late August, bowed to Tea Party pressure and said that he thinks the book should be banned in schools. After being criticized by Republican Party members for opposing the repeal of the federal Common Core standards, Holtzclaw went on to tell the Alabama Media Group that The Bluest Eye “is just completely objectionable, from language to the content.”

The second strike came after the conservative blog Politichicks published a post titled “(WARNING: Graphic) Common Core Approved Child Pornography.” Debe Tehar, the president of the board of education in Morrison’s home state of Ohio, began criticizing the inclusion of the book on the Common Core recommended list. She cited the controversial work as “pornographic.”

To call The Bluest Eye pornographic is simply wrong. Accusing Morrison’s work of containing child pornography both ignores the very important distinction between pornography and rape and displays the weakness of the arguments against the book.

“I don’t want my grandchildren reading it and I don’t want anybody else’s grandchildren reading it,” Tehar said.

Some readers want novelists to fix the lives of their characters. They want simple, clean stories that resolve themselves easily, but that is not what great literature is supposed to do.

Sure, high school dances and finding an identity can make entertaining stories. They can engage young readers and teach them literary techniques and plot development. But that is not the point of literature.

Literature should, on some level, be entertaining, but that cannot be its only intention. Art, be it painted, or written, or shown on the silver screen, is supposed to show us something about the world or about ourselves. Through the stories of those who are similar, we find our own flaws. Through the stories of others, we learn to empathize.

The Bluest Eye is a book made for empathy and sympathy. The characters deal with issues most readers will never face, and some that every reader will face every day. Few will understand personally incest and rape, but racism and a cultural standard of beauty is a human concern. The Bluest Eye hurts to read because it hurts to feel things as deeply as Morrison does.

To be clear, not every book is for every person. Some people will not like The Bluest Eye because of their own personal preferences. Banned Books week is not about reading every book just because it was challenged. Banned Books week is about celebrating books like The Bluest Eye for the beauty that lies between its narrow covers even though that beauty is made of heartbreak and mistreatment.

There is no neat bow for Morrison to tie everything up in at the conclusion of the novel, because most of the time there is no neat bow for life. The people of Lorain, Ohio make mistakes in The Bluest Eye. They are cruel, and selfish, and horrible to Pecola, and that has consequences.

The consequence of The Bluest Eye is the demise of Pecola. Her baby comes too soon and dies. She, as a result, loses her mind and spends her days “jerking her head to the beat of a drummer so distant only she could hear.”

But what keeps the girls Pecola’s age away from her throughout her insanity is not her absurdity or their own disgust, but a feeling that they had failed her.

Maybe that, ultimately, is what keeps readers away from The Bluest Eye. It is hard to read a story about a girl who feels the pressure of race so strongly that she dreams of blue eyes. It is hard to read a scene where a father rapes his young daughter. And it is hard to read about a society that condemns a girl for those things.

But all of those things are hard because they are true, and truth isn’t supposed to be easy.

is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. She likes big sandwiches and slim novels full of heartbreak. Kelsey has written for The Atlantic, Slate, TimeOut NY, and The Daily Beast.


  1. Plenty of disgusting stuff in the Bible. Incest, rape, genocide. I don’t want my children or grandchildren reading THAT. Let’s ban it. Oh wait, it was written by God, so it’s OK!

    Bottom line is, Literature exists to console us but also to make us uncomfortable. Anybody arguing for anything to be banned loses my respect on the spot.

  2. The issue with this book is not the devastation that Pecola faces, nor the horrible way that society has failed her. The issue with this book is the flagrant, unabashed point of view of the rapist -basically a “how to” on the rape of a child.

  3. WOW! The Bible? Really? Very ignorant! The bible is not allowed in school now is it? The problem with this book is the fact that it should not be considered acceptable reading in a school setting for predominately minors. I would never tolerate the banning of any book on the whole. I myself am a writer and I believe you should be able to write with freedom, publish with freedom, and distribute with freedom. However the distribution process although being free, should not include schools. This book is extremely inappropriate for minors and should not be considered exemplary reading for a 17 year old. Not when it consists of graphic pornography, graphic rape, and graphic pedophilia. I don’t have a problem with the books content as literature. I have a problem with the books graphic nature of said content being considered suitable for minor students.

  4. This article has lofty assumptions that the children reading this book are able to put the questioned actions in proper context. These things are psychologically damaging. You can never unlearn them. Children who have been through them, for indtsnce, would at the very least be further damaged by the authors stated intention to make the reader cohorts with the rapist.

    Where an adult or college student might be better prepared to grasp the book as a whole, a room full of hormonal teenagers might not. Scientifically speaking, their prefrontal cortex is still under developed, rendering them more than capable of poor decision making. They exhibit this on a regular basis. The material in this book is hard to stomach at any age, but it is not up to school or society to decide when a child is ready for it. The graphic descriptions of what is happening, written in a way to garner sympathy for the perpetrator as well as victim is simply not appropriate for minors.

    Have all of the lofty ideals you want to, you cannot guarantee 100% that children will be able to handle this in the mature fashion that is apparently expected.

  5. This is not appropriate reading material for anything short of a college course. Graphic sex acts-especially those that involve a minor- are not appropriate for school. If this was made into a movie with a similar level of graphicness it would certainly not be allowed in the school and kids under 18 wouldn’t be able to see it in the movies either.

    Explicit descriptions of rape can still be pornography.

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