Both Toni Morrison's novel about an African American family in Ohio during the 1930s and 1940s, The Bluest Eye and Louise Erdrich;s novel about the Anishinabe tribe in the 1920s in North Dakota, Tracks are, in part, about seeing. Both novels examine the effects of a kind of seeing that is refracted through the lens of racism
by subjects of racism themselves. Erdrich's Pauline Puyat and Morrison's Pecola Breedlove
are crazy from their dealings with racism and themselves suffer from an internalized racism that is upheld and maintained by social and cultural structures within which they live. Pauline and Pecola become the embodiment of world sickness, of social pathologies as they become increasingly alienated from their bodies.
Pecola, driven to want blue eyes by her observations that is is those with blue who receive and thus "deserve" love, eventually loses her mind after she experiences repeated violence at home, at school, and on the street. These violences are all rooted in racism. Pecola begins to believe the lie of racism: that to be black is to be "ugly," undeserving, and unloved. It is Shirley Temple and the Mary Jane on the wrapper of the candy by that name who are the models of lovable girls in Pecola's world.
Pauline Puyat, a mixed blood Chippewa Indian, sees herself through the eyes of whites and thus learns to hate herself, desperately attempting to claim only her "half white." She has a vision of Jesus who "tells" her that "despite (her) deceptive features, (she) was not one speck of Indian but wholly white. He himself had dark hair although His eyes were blue as bottleglass, so I believed" (137). Alienated from her culture, she joins a convent and, in addition to working much mischief within the Anishinabe community, she adopts an acetic way of life that becomes increasingly self-mutating. Pauline believes that she is "hollow unless pain filled" her (193).
Both Pecola and Pauline experience a self-hatred that is the result of internalized racism. For Pecola, it manifests itself as the loss of her mind; for Pauline, it can be seen in her extreme self-mutilation. Through them, Morrison and Erdrich critique the insidious and ultimately annihilating aspects of the North American worship of white skin and blue eyes that, of course has its basis in racism.
These two characters are not the last word in either novel, however. Other characters in both stories represent resistance to that same internalized racism. For example, Claudia McTeer, when given white babydolls for Christmas, wants to dismember them. In wanting to dismantle them rather than herself (as Pecola wished to do), Claudia becomes a figure of resistance within this novel. Nanapush, the elder, in Tracks, resists white medicine when the doctor wants to amputate his granddaughter's badly frostbitten foot. Instead of trusting the white doctor, Nanapush decides to take Lulu's healing into his own hands (literally), warming her, rubbing salve into her foot, and telling her stories to keep her through painful healing times.
It is important that we look not only for the effects of racism, but also on the ways that those effects are resisted as well. Sometimes resistance is hard to see; other times it is obvious. What is sure is that although the effects of racism are horrible and crippling, the power of survival in oppressed communities has maintained traditions and continuity throughout a history that has been committed to their erasure.
1 Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye
. New York: Rhinehart, and Winston, 1970. Louise Erdrich.
Tracks. 1988. New York: Harper/Perennial, 1989.