W.E. B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, Race and Interracial Sex

I recall reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for the first time in high school; in it, Morrison took on similar issues as W.E.B Du Bois did in The Quest for the Silver Fleece. Ed Blum addressed Du Bois’s character Zora, whose interest in the white Madonna’s whiteness and purity created some comparison to three of Morrison’s characters in The Bluest Eye.

Thus, while thinking more about Ed Blum’s post on Du Bois’s The Quest for the Silver Fleece, I thought about the importance of black literature and its value in the complexities of the black plight. Much of black literature addressed matters of sexuality: rape, interracial sex, incest, and adultery – – topics deemed tabooish in some circles. However, black literature also addressed matters of historical themes, too: black ghettoization and rural poverty via Jim Crow, broken English and inferior schooling, as well as cultural remoteness and isolation. This, by the way, was a large part of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.

Furthermore, I have found that Protestant Christian schools (upper schools and colleges) tend to avoid teaching black literature due to matters of sexual content; I suspect some of this has to do with how communities define purity of mind and intellect; I have always viewed this differently. Black literature draws on past conditions: slavery, Jim Crow, and the exploitation and rape of black women by slave masters.

Paradoxically, it was white teachings and preaching that launched the myth that black men prey on white women. Popular culture has used historical falsities to portray black men as sexual champions. Thus, the black man has been the secret fantasy of white women, when in reality – – it was the white male that served as the sexual predator.

Ed Blum’s post entitled “Beauty, Purity, Whiteness, and Godliness in W. E. B. Du Bois’s First Novel” stated:

Perhaps one of the most remarkable discussions in The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) occurred after Bles and Zora built a house in the swamp and Bles placed a picture of the Madonna on the wall. As Du Bois described, it was “a little picture in blue and gold of Bouguereau’s Madonna.” A French painter of the nineteenth century, Adolphe-William Bouguereau was known for his tender images of young children and women. Bouguereau painted numerous images of the Madonna, including “The Madonna of the Roses” and “Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist.” The image entranced Zora. She “was staring silently at the Madonna,” and asked of Bles, “Who’s it?” Bles responded reverently, “The mother of God.” Zora expressed confusion over the picture, especially the lily and the baby held by the Madonna. Bles explained that the lily “stands for purity-she was a good woman” and the baby “is the Christ Child-God’s baby.” Zora retorted, “God is the father of all the little babies, ain’t He, Bles?” When Bles responded, “Why, yes-yes, of course; only this little baby didn’t have any other father.” Christ’s lack of an earthly father resonated with Zora, for either she knew no human father or she had been raped by a white man and her baby had never known its father. “Yes, I know one like that,” Zora said softly, “Poor little Christ-baby” (81).

After reading Blum’s post, I could not help but see a relationship between what Du Bois’s The Quest for the Silver Fleece stated in comparison to Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Here is my comparison:

Maureen, who was loved by all because of her fair skin, green eyes, etc., was the envy of darker skinned girls – – an unfortunate reality about intra-black racism. Then there was Claudia, who hated blacks for assuming that good things revolved around whiteness. I am most reminded of Pecola, who was obsessed with Claudia’s Shirley Temple mug. Her love for Temple marks some comparison to Zora, who was obsessed with the Madonna. Furthermore, like Zora, Pecola was raped, but not by a white man. Pecola’s love for the purity and beauty of Shirley Temple’s whiteness reflects what Zora was thinking…. White purity and beauty were the established thought and norm of society.

Both Du Bois and Morrison concluded that white culture has conditioned us into accepting the supremacy of white religion, white beauty, and white constructs — which I addressed here on my black Jesus post. As mentioned in Blum’s book about Du Bois, he [Du Bois] could not understand why blacks saw Christ in the image of a white man, but could not see Christ as a black man.

White supremacy has conditioned us into accepting whiteness as pure and perfect; black men desire white women because they have been the ultimate prize…. That has been the teaching of Hollywood and Miss America. Black beauty for females depends on their features. If one were to look at the most celebrated black women over the past decades – – I am sure her physical features reflect whiteness. Of course Toni Morrison’s Pecola did not rise above the matter of whiteness like Du Bois’s Zora did.

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21 thoughts on “W.E. B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, Race and Interracial Sex

  1. Carson, very interesting post. I like what Blum had to say as well. Bouth of your thoughts bring me back to the debate over Jefferson. I find it interesting that many cannot believe he had kids with a black slave woman. I thought that was the norm. Because of his hero status, I guess people cannot place him in the obvious category: Most slave owners engaged in this behavior.

  2. Jaylon has an excellent point about Jefferson. I will add that much of your argument, though true to some extent, has changed over recent years.

  3. I have a confession to make: when you assigned this book in high school, I fought hard to not allow my copy of the book to be censored. And then I failed to adequately read the work. Instead I skimmed it and used Cliff Notes. I’m sorry. I’m rereading it again as an adult.

  4. wildscienceboy – – I am not saying that at all; she has done well because of her ability to communicate and reach a large and diverse audience. Plus, last time I checked, not too many young girls were looking to “look” like Oprah — though I think she is very attractive. Young black girls and white girls desire to look like a starving actress. My point was that if you watch tv shows (CW does ot count), the black females most likely have white physical features. Young black females have been conditioned since they were girls to accept “whiteness” as beauty and perfection.

    Kristi — and think, you might have added some good insight at the time to move the discussion to the point of this blog piece. I give you credit for admitting that you used only Cliffs without actually doing the reading. Once you have really read it, I would love to get your thoughts. Still, you do not have to read it in order to see the racial/social relationship between Du Bois and Morrison.

  5. Tell you what. I’ll start it tomorrow at work. It’s not a very long book, so I should be able to finish it fairly quickly, and I’ll even write about it. Maybe.

  6. Ed,

    Great piece! I don’t know if it was Ed Blum or Phil that pointed me out to you, but I am a die hard Morrison fan. We have a library that includes most of her interviews, as well as the academic work that she has stimulated.

    What interesting me about the topic is that Morrison exposes how destructive the inability to reconcile America’s version of white supremacy is for Pecola’s own little black self. There is no way a black child can stand against the power of whiteness. Of course, Morrison is dealing with the elevation of white women and white girls as the standard of beauty in the United States. But black men must face the requirement that we must either embrace an “authentic black masculinity” or a corporate/professional whiteness.

    Often, we are asked to reconcile the two. For example, Obama’s playing basketball in those goofy long black pants or the fist bump that made headlines this week. We are constantly aware of at least two audiences. Although black men and women have learned to code switch. Authentic blackness defiantly stands in rebellion against the domination of the implied white supremacists ideal. In many cases, to the economic and social detriment of the individual who seeks authenticity or liberation. It’s been interesting to see Obama try to reconcile what Du Bois refers to as double-mindedness, because it’s both cultural and genetic for him.

  7. Thanks Jon! I cannot believe some of the works listed — though not shocked by some. On Liberty by Mill is on this list. Sad. I am surprised there is little to no black literture on this list

  8. I just finished The Bluest Eye last night; now, I wish to re-read it before I really form opinions. What I can say that really stood out for me was how broken Pecola was. From the moment she was born, she was treated as ugly, held responsible for her own rape. Every female character in the novel reinforced that to her. The only one who saw hope for Pecola was the preacher/seer she went to for her blue eyes. He saw that if she could believe in something, anything about herself, even if it were imaginary, there might be hope for her.

    I think today, our culture both black and white is doing a much better job at lifting girls above a single stereotypical model of ethnic beauty. Is the white “idea’ still pervasive? Yes, but not as thoroughly as it once was.

    Frankly, the more rights we earn, whether black, hispanic, or female, the harder we come down on ourselves. My daughter has blonde hair and blue eyes (about as different from me as you can get!), yet is noticing how the super “thin” people are the ones who garner all the attention. I fear for our little girls who cannot ever live up to the NEXT media ideal of beauty.

    Thank you for pointing me to this book. Like I said, I had somehow missed it in years past even though I’ve had it on my reading wish list for quite a long while.

  9. Great comment; you pointed to something I failed to note about Pecola: Thinking that things were her fault.Your comment also points to how much pressure we place on a defined concept of “what is beautiful?” I agree that culture no longer measures beauty according to a single standard, but the reality of what we see most in the most positive venue creates constructs that are hard to break.

    It sounds like your daughter is a heartbreaker. This work is a favorite; it was required reading years ago. I think about it from time to time when I notice a particular matter dealing with race and beauty.

  10. Pingback: Black literture | TurkonKoloji

  11. Pingback: Race and Scandal | The Professor

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