‘The Bluest Eye’ is the latest victim of Florida’s thought police
Toni Morrison’s book is a masterpiece. But literary merit no longer outweighs empty soundbites.
A copy of Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" inside a book box in Dunedin on Jan. 26, 2023. Pinellas County school officials have removed the book from all high schools.
A copy of Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" inside a book box in Dunedin on Jan. 26, 2023. Pinellas County school officials have removed the book from all high schools. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]
Published Jan. 27|Updated Jan. 28

The Barnes & Noble Clearwater clerk eyed the stack of paperbacks I slid toward the register. Four copies of “The Bluest Eye,” rounding out the other two I’d just purchased by Tyrone Mall.

“Enjoy your… large amount of Toni Morrison,” he said.

I told him that the Pinellas County school district had just banned the book from high schools. I’d be depositing these in Little Free Libraries around town. He cracked a smile.

“Right on,” he said, slipping the receipt between the pages.

Yes, I said banned. The school district would not prefer that word, insisting the book by the late Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner was simply “removed” from every high school in the county. But this type of semantic acrobatics is akin to calling a sofa a couch.

The next morning, I drove through Dunedin and Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs, sliding the copies into community book boxes. It was a wholesome act of rebellion, practically Pollyanna, but it felt tangible, a sliver of dissent in Florida’s sinking bog of critical thought.

“The Bluest Eye,” published in 1970, is the latest casualty in a wave of American anti-intellectualism hitting particularly hard in Florida. Supporters of such measures would call it a win against wokeness, increasingly Batman villain code for anything that attempts to recognize the experience of people who aren’t straight and white.

On Tuesday — in the middle of Florida’s Literacy Week, no less — district officials announced they were “erring on the side of caution” due to the novel’s sexual content and dark themes. This is because one parent at Palm Harbor University High complained. For the record, it’s not like any minors were Clockwork Oranged into reading it. Parents of students in that advanced literature class were informed about the content and offered an alternate book.

But this “removal” isn’t about one novel, is it? This is about sowing mistrust in educators, destabilizing the public school system and pushing parents toward privatization. In perhaps the greatest irony, it’s about erasing uncomfortable truths in favor of a sanguine and simplified view of reality.

If anyone would like to pick up “The Bluest Eye” and examine it longer than the length of a TikTok, you will come to understand this is why Morrison wrote it in the first place. She felt many works by her contemporaries did not fully capture the complexity of Blackness.

Toni Morrison appears in a scene from "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am."
Toni Morrison appears in a scene from "Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am." [ Timothy Greenfield-Sanders ]

A quick personal note, if you’ll indulge. Toni Morrison is special to my family. She was born and raised in Lorain, Ohio, where she set “The Bluest Eye.” So was my family; I was just there in December for my grandmother’s funeral. I was born in this Lake Erie town and grew up in the next city over before moving to Florida at age 11. Lorain often is called “The International City” for its rich immigrant history and multitude of nationalities.

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“I lived in a little, working-class town that had no Black neighborhoods at all,” Morrison told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2015. “We all played together. Everybody was either somebody from the South or an immigrant from East Europe or from Mexico. ... It was so light. It was so fluffy. I didn’t really have a strong awareness of segregation and the separation of races until I left Lorain.”

My mother lived next door to Morrison and her family, the Woffords. When my mom was little, Morrison headed off to college. But she knew George and Ramah Wofford well — they later came to her wedding — and often knocked for permission to cut through their yard. There’s a character in “The Bluest Eye” called Michelena. My mom’s name is Michaelene. We have no proof of inspiration, but we’ve always been curious.

Ramah Wofford, according to my mom, was one of the sweetest people in the world. George was polite but less effusive. Both estimations track with Morrison’s characterizations of her parents. As a child, her father saw two Black men lynched on his street in Cartersville, Georgia.

“He was very, very serious in his hatred of white people,” she told Gross. “What mitigated it was my mother, who is exactly the opposite, who never rejected or accepted anybody based on race or color or religion or any of that.”

To the city of Lorain — and to my family — Morrison is an icon. An elementary school there bears her name. Her birthday, Feb. 18, is Toni Morrison Day.

But around the country, though she is considered one of the greatest writers in American history, her work has been targeted time and time again.

The American Library Association lists “The Bluest Eye” as one of the 100 most banned and challenged books of the past decade, ranking just above “The Kite Runner” and “The Hunger Games.” Morrison’s “Beloved” appears on the same list.

To be sure, “The Bluest Eye” proves a difficult read. It tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, a quiet, sensitive Black girl growing up after the Great Depression. Tormented for her dark skin, she formulates a concept of beauty from Eurocentric baby dolls and Shirley Temple. She believes if she could have blue eyes, all her problems would be solved. But her life is a desperate one filled with abuse from almost everyone she knows and rape at the hands of her alcoholic father.

It’s a breathtaking, heartbreaking book, an illustration of ugliness in its many forms. And it was radical for the time, centering on a Black girl in a Dick and Jane world.

Reducing the text to its most disturbing moments presents a willfully cynical misread. The novel interrogates how children metabolize the world around them, the harm adults can inflict on the innocent, the ways racism and colorism construct a society’s rules of engagement.

Some educators who have carefully taught “The Bluest Eye” say it has helped students see other realities, read at a more literary level and even come forward about their own sexual assaults. Those testimonies are something to think about when considering how books might hurt children. How, also, could the same books help them?

But in Florida, literary value no longer outweighs prurient soundbites. The State Board of Education’s newly approved training requires schools to screen all books for topics that may be “harmful to minors.” In Manatee, Duval and Clay counties, teachers fearful of felony charges have closed libraries and taken titles out of circulation while officials review them.

That’s a quizzical quest, one rife for hyper-subjectivity and manipulation. “The Bluest Eye” at least focuses on the victim. The same certainly can’t be said for Vladimir Nabokov’s maddening masterwork “Lolita,” told through the eyes of the rapist Humbert Humbert. That book is listed in library catalogs at three Pinellas County high schools as we speak, according to the county’s search tool.

What about “The Stranger” by Albert Camus, a mainstay on high school reading lists? What to do about Meursault’s fixation on poor, unenlightened Marie’s breasts? What about everyone’s golden boy, Holden Caulfield, who calls women “whory” and spends a lot of pages trying to lose his virginity? Will Florida schools dare ban “Catcher in the Rye”?

To be clear, I don’t want these (notably white) books removed either, though maybe the grown-ups already are on it. But if school leaders are cherry-picking scenes from each piece of literature, students will be left only with “Harold and the Purple Crayon.”

It’s cliché, and so tempting, to compare this avalanche of thought policing to those well-tread dystopian novels — you know the ones. How else to make sense of leaders who reduce literature to propaganda, who force teachers to shroud the books that, for some students, are portals and lifelines? Between stories of college takeovers and canceled Black history classes, the days overflow with tropes too farcical to believe, wild as a runaway spool of yarn.

The challenge now is to avoid shutting down, numbing out and looking away. Maybe that means a visit to a bookstore, then a book box. Right on.

“The Bluest Eye” gets the last word.

“Anger is better. There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and presence. An awareness of worth. It is a lovely surging.”

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