Pecola Breedlove has haunted me for most of my life.
I was 12 years old when I first read The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s first published novel. I had never heard of Morrison; I didn’t know I was reading a masterwork from the greatest American writer of all time. I didn’t know anything about Morrison’s racial, sexual or gender politics, or about how she centered women like her — like me — in her work. I didn’t know that I would hear Morrison’s voice in my head for years and years afterwards.
And I didn’t know that Pecola Breedlove — the young Black girl at the center of that tumultuous, painful tale — would become ingrained in my mind and in my spirit. I just knew that I’d seen a book in a library that looked interesting. So, I picked it up.
Throughout The Bluest Eye, Pecola is brutally punished for being a dark-skinned Black girl. The very minute Pecola is born, her mother decides that her dark skin makes her an ugly child, and every experience in Pecola’s life reinforces her mother’s judgement. She faces constant emotional, physical and sexual abuse from classmates, neighbors and her family. Pecola grows to believe that she had blue eyes — if she had any way to indicate that she is not the Black ugly child they’ve told her she is — she would be free of all of the torment.
I remember thinking that Pecola was cursed, but not because she was dark-skinned with brown eyes. She was cursed because her community had branded her, and that brand would never fade. Her classmates, the nasty man down the street, her mother, her father — they had all decided what she was, and she could never escape that.
Blue eyes could never save Pecola. Nothing could save Pecola. She didn’t stand a chance.
The Bluest Eye, like most of Morrison’s work, is engrossing, emotionally draining, incredibly complex and overwhelming. My 12-year-old self did not have the capacity to fully grasp what I was reading. I had an elementary-level understanding of race, anti-blackness and colorism; I understood what it was to be Black, to be hated and discriminated against for being Black, and that being dark-skinned made you a target for even more hate, this time from your own people. I knew that much, at least. But I know that I couldn’t I truly understand how much children — my age and younger — internalized these concepts. I didn’t realize how deeply it could scar us.
But my 12-year-old self knew Pecola Breedlove, because I knew what it meant to be “ugly.” To be called “ugly”, to be seen as “ugly”, to be deemed “ugly”. I knew the abuse that came with that “ugly” label, that both children and adults are often their worst selves when dealing with people they’ve deemed undesirable or unfit in some way. I had that label: it was stitched onto me by people in my life — grown folks, too — who saw the extra weight on my stomach, arms and legs, the way my nose spread and the spaces in my teeth and thought “ugly” was the only way to describe me.
As an adult, I could read The Bluest Eye and understand Morrison’s commentary on internalized anti-blackness, colorism and childhood sexual abuse. I could discuss the politics of that novel all I wanted to, but it didn’t mitigate the pain I felt on Pecola’s behalf. It didn’t stop the flashbacks to my own childhood, to the young girl who understood Pecola before she had a handle on the terminology we use to describe The Bluest Eye.
At the end of the day, Pecola Breedlove is a real little girl. She exists in our communities. We abuse her, bully her. We use her skin and her body to serve us in ways that degrade her. Then we push her to the edge of town, out of our sight and out of our minds. We treat her as if she were a specter or a figment of our imaginations, as if she were not real.
But she is. I’ve seen her; not on the edge of town, but in my home, in my school. I saw her as a child, and then as a teenager and now as an adult. I cannot look away from her face, and the big, brown eyes that she desperately wanted to be blue. I cannot ignore the trauma that mangled Pecola. And that’s what Morrison wanted to accomplish by writing The Bluest Eye. Morrison wanted us to see Pecola Breedlove. She always wanted us to see the Black girls and women that our society tries to erase.
I read more of Morrison’s work. Jazz, Beloved, God Help the Child and others, each one imprinting themselves onto my spirit in some way. There’s something truly awe-inspiring and frightening about the way Morrison’s words have shaped my life. Even as my understanding of her work deepened, I could never intellectualize the feeling it gave me. I could never shake the terror, the frustration, the trepidation, the sadness. They all follow me, stepping on the back of my heels as I walk. And The Bluest Eye — little Pecola — follows me the closest.
I think that’s why Morrison’s death has hit me so hard. Morrison saw us in all our forms, and she made sure that everyone else saw us, too. She understood us in a way no one else ever can, and she didn’t concern herself with making us any less complicated.
When I learned that Morrison died, I immediately thought of The Bluest Eye, and the lasting impact Morrison and Pecola Breedlove have had on me. I’ve barely been able to think of anything else. All of my attempts to verbalize that impact are pitiful. I could never really express what Morrison means to me. I can’t envision my life without Morrison’s work — without Pecola Breedlove and our shared pain. I am indebted to Toni Morrison. And I’m eternally grateful for her.