On the state Senate floor in the waning hours of the final day of the 2014 legislative session, Sen. Josh Brecheen (R-Coalgate) read a passage from Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye as part of his effort to derail Common Core in Oklahoma. Ignoring that Common Core doesn’t require any schools to read The Bluest Eye (the books listed are suggestions), Sen. Brecheen’s use of The Bluest Eye indicates not only fundamental misunderstanding of the work but also precisely why Oklahomans ought to read it. Its frank portrayal of poverty, misogyny, and racism, still all too common in Oklahoma, helps readers to empathize with those affected by oppression. By giving them the tools to understand the world around them, The Bluest Eye equips readers to change that world.
The Bluest Eye is by no means an easy read. The novel’s protagonist is a poor, eleven year-old Black girl named Pecola Breedlove, who dearly wishes she had blue eyes – an unattainable standard of white beauty. In the course of the novel, Pecola is raped by her father and subsequently becomes pregnant. She eventually miscarries and appears to be insane by the end of the novel.
In his attempt to prove why The Bluest Eye is inappropriate, Sen. Brecheen read aloud a paragraph taken grossly out of context, choosing to spell out some of the words rather than read them in full. He later described the scene as “miserably graphic,” apparently due to its sexual content.
However, the scene Sen. Brecheen chose to read describes the incestuous rape of Pecola. At no point in his description of the book did Sen. Brecheen indicate that the sexual scene he was reading aloud was not consensual, nor that the subsequent blame and ostracization Pecola encounters from her community in the aftermath drive much of the book’s conflict. Within the novel, as Pecola’s pregnancy becomes more visible, Pecola’s school attempts to ban her from the classroom, and her community shuns her. Sen. Brecheen treats this scene as a tawdry form of pornography, instead of a pivotal moment in a heart-wrenching narrative about a girl whose community cares more about hiding the evidence of a crime than her well-being.
Books give students the context and skills to critique their own lives and communities. The Bluest Eye is a compassionate, unflinching look at poverty, racial inequity, and violence against women. These issues are still rampant in Oklahoma and our students need the skills to understand and confront them. About one-quarter of children statewide live in poverty – but that rate nearly doubles for Black children, one in two of whom lives in poverty. Similarly, an inherited system of discrimination impedes economic stability for families of color, essentially stacking the deck against them. Rates of dating violence among ninth-graders in Oklahoma is more than three times the national average, and Oklahoma ranks sixth nationwide for (reported) rapes.
Being able to describe one’s world is the first step to changing it. Oklahoma students are not required to read it – but we’re pretty sure most Oklahomans should.