Meaning, Without the White Gaze

I’m writing my memoir for the late, great Toni Morrison.

Katie Martin / The Atlantic

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.

But by the time the sophomore prom rolled around, when my friend’s father forbade him to take me as his date, even though we’d been friends for five years at that point—only conceding with the caveat that if he took me, no pictures would be taken—the white gaze had fully flipped its power and prism. My beauty and exoticism were all but dead. No longer brown-skinned or raceless, but suddenly black, and undesirable to boys.

I didn’t pray for blue eyes to escape a physically hostile world, as Pecola did, or in the hopes that blue eyes would make me better, more acceptable. “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of her were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different,” Morrison wrote. I didn’t actually want blue eyes, and it was too late for praying anyway. As I got older, however, all the white girls around me—with their straight, silken hair; with their impossibly pure and preferable skin—seemed to stand in symbolic, solidified mockery at my stupid naïveté in thinking that I could ever be beautiful.

And I didn’t even read The Bluest Eye until years after that.

Morrison was not taught at my high school in all-white rural New Hampshire, and my white adoptive parents didn’t know who she was until after I did, when I was in college and had my first black literature teacher. The passages I underlined and the corollary notes I made in my original copy of The Bluest Eye are, in some ways, as haunting to me as the story itself. “Then Pecola asked a question that had never entered my mind. ‘How do you do that? I mean, how do you get somebody to love you?’” My handwritten commentary in the margin: “She doesn’t know, because she doesn’t deem herself lovable.”

The Bluest Eye is not my favorite Morrison novel, but Pecola never left me. Sula is the one that made me want to survive for her, for Pecola. Its anger and ease, specific ideology, and hip-focused friendships all felt like hard-earned heaven, with so much at stake and everything else waiting for its time. Here, Morrison marked the visual of black womanness in lush simplicity: “The birthmark over her eye was getting darker and looked more and more like a stem and a rose.” Sula, with her flaws and disloyalty, was bold, and she was kindred.

Song of Solomon was next, then Tar Baby, Jazz, Beloved, Love, Home, A Mercy. I read them all. Some twice or three times. Morrison’s novels—the rich and feverish stories she created; the near-preposterous beauty of her worlds, with their resolute reckonings and intrinsic blackness—will be remembered as among the greatest of all time. And her essays, her nonfiction, demonstrate the same indisputable command of language, a bounty of quotable sentences and paragraphs and answers to how we can live better, with intellectual rigor and self-regard.

It wasn’t until a 1998 interview Morrison gave to my then-boss, Charlie Rose, that I truly began to understand how stuck I’d been in this thing called “the white gaze.” The day she was on the show, I brought my books of hers to sign, which she did, graciously: “For Rebecca, with pleasure, Toni Morrison.” I nearly wept over her regal presence, her broad shoulders, the textured glory of her long, silver locks, and her soft, striking eyes. She was like a living, breathing effigy of our ancestors, every last one of us, all inside of her.

I watched and listened to the interview through the glass in the control room. I cringed when Rose asked if Morrison would ever write a book that was not “centered” on race. His narcissism was so foundational that he couldn’t see how his line of questioning embodied the point of her answer to this oft-revisited question of when she would write about white people: “I have had reviews in the past that have accused me of not writing about white people … as though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the white gaze.” Suddenly, I wanted more than anything else to get free. Free of the white gaze. I didn’t want to go crazy like Pecola had. I wanted my life to have meaning without the white gaze. Turns out, though, the white gaze doesn’t let go just because you want it to.

But when I think about Morrison shaping words, birthing them into existence, I feel heartened. She did language. And then she gave it to us, to me. “We die. That may be the meaning of life,” she said in her 1993 lecture for the Nobel Prize in Literature. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” What an abundant gift.

I’m sad, devastated actually, to think that Morrison will never read my memoir, but I will continue to write it for her, and for Pecola. And in so doing, I may finally break free from the white gaze that I’ve worked so hard to survive.