I had been writing it for her. For her, and for Pecola Breedlove. Perhaps too ambitious or presumptuous or high-minded, I had, until the announcement of her death this week, been writing my memoir, Surviving the White Gaze, for Toni Morrison and Pecola Breedlove. Because I survived the white gaze for Pecola, and Morrison taught me how.
I knew Pecola first. I lived inside her skin, her ache; felt sickened, ashamed, and unseen by that baby doll’s dead blue eyes on one of the book’s early covers. Page after page of The Bluest Eye, I felt Pecola’s mind curl into anguish and succumb to a delusion better than reality. Pecola lost her mind because she wanted the blue eyes set inside the ceaseless standard of white beauty—a gaze so narcotic that it ravaged her body from flesh to bone—and I almost did, too.
I say that I knew Pecola first because Morrison’s writing of her was so thorough and fully realized that in my initial reading of The Bluest Eye, the character loomed larger than the author. This is what will happen to me, I remember thinking. If I keep internalizing the white gaze and contorting my own reflection in response to it, I will spiral into madness and still be seen as ugly.
Unlike Pecola, I didn’t start out thinking I was ugly. My white adoptive parents, my white adoptive siblings (our parents’ biological children), their white friends and peers all viewed me as beautiful, dazzling. They also viewed me as somehow not black, the lone exotic urchin of a lost, mythical sea tribe. I thrived on the attention, and built my self-esteem on an image invented by white discomfort and default. I was a year shy of Pecola in age when my white fifth-grade teacher told me that I was “very pretty for a black girl,” which wasn’t the worst of it. “Most black girls are very ugly,” she said, scrunching up her face like she smelled something foul.