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"Vacuum Where Curiosity Ought To Lodge"

I read Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye" this week. I'm embarrassed to say it's the first novel of hers I've read, but I'm on a five week crash course to read them all. This book was very revealing. As she displayed in her Nobel acceptance speech and elsewhere, Morrison has a wonderful command of the language, and has clear ideas to express through her tales. The Bluest Eye is a story of unrelenting black on black cruelty and self-loathing. Self-hatred. The central character, Pecola, considers herself ugly, and everyone else does too. In her desire to be pretty, she seeks blue eyes. Here is Morrison describing some Mary Jane candies from Pecola's vantage point:

"Each pale yellow wrapper has a picture on it. A picture of little Mary Jane, for whom the candy is named. Smiling white face. Blond hair in gentle disarray, blue eyes looking at her out of a world of clean comfort. The eyes are petulant, mischievous. To Pecola they are simply pretty. She eats the candy, and its sweetness is good. To eat the candy is somehow to eat the eyes, eat Mary Jane. Love Mary Jane. Be Mary Jane."

And while the story centers around Pecola, she is not alone in being scarred. Even her father who rapes her is a victim in this story. They are all victims even as they victimize each other. Set in 1943, written in the late 1960s, this story is even more meaningful today. While the story is about a little black girl, Pecola represents not just black girls, and black women, but black people in general. And, in many ways, the anger and self hatred portrayed in the story can be seen today throughout black America.

But that is only part of the story. There are few whites portrayed in the book, certainly none having a central or continuing role. But Morrison describes one encounter between Pecola and a shopkeeper, Mr. Yacobowski, that I found particularly devastating. Pecola goes to his shop to buy some of the aforementioned Mary Janes:

"She pulls off her shoe and takes out the three pennies. The gray head of Mr. Yacobowski looms up over the counter. He urges his eyes out of his thoughts to encounter her. Blue eyes. Blear-dropped. Slowly, like Indian summer moving imperceptibly toward fall, he looks toward her. Somewhere between retina and object, between vision and view, his eyes draw back, hesitate, and hover. At some fixed point in time and space he senses that he need not waste the effort of a glance. He does not see her, because for him there is nothing to see. How can a fifty-two-year-old white immigrant storekeeper with the taste of potatoes and beer in his mouth, his mind honed on the doe-eyed Virgin Mary, his sensibilities blunted by a permanent awareness of loss, _see_ a little black girl? Nothing in his life even suggested that the feat was possible, not to say desirable or necessary.


"She looks up at him and sees the vacuum where curiosity ought to lodge. And something more. The total absence of human recognition--the glazed separateness. Perhaps because he is grown, or a man, and she a little girl. But she has seen interest, disgust, even anger in grown male eyes. Yet this vacuum is not new to her. It has an edge; somewhere in the bottom lid is the distaste. She has seen it lurking in the eyes of all white people. So. The distaste must be for her, her blackness. All things in her are flux and anticipation. But her blackness is static and dread. And it is the blackness that accounts for, that creates, the vacuum edged with distaste in white eyes."

I read that and was stunned. I had to put the book down and just think. Surely so widespread an indictment is unfair I thought. But then I thought of arguments I've had and witnessed recently with whites, mostly conservative and almost always men. Their dismissal of the notion of racism as having any impact on the black condition. Their argument that white racism no longer exists, that black racism is now the culprit. That blacks are solely responsible for the rise in black crime, etc. That black crime (a la Willy Horton) is why whites fear blacks, don't want to see their tax dollars used for "social programs" benefiting poor blacks. Etc., etc., etc.

When I encounter such views, particularly from otherwise well-meaning people, it is apparent that they tend to see the world solely through their own eyes, certainly not through the eyes of those they dismiss or condemn so easily. Maybe that is true of all of us. We are like Mr. Yacobowski -- we don't see Pecola, we can't see Pecola. There is a vacuum where curiosity and compassion and humanity should lodge. It's not always that way. It doesn't have to be that way. But it too frequently is.

I then thought about seeing "Schindler's List". An amazingly strong film about a subject we all know about but maybe have a hard time visualizing. On the screen, in black and white, visualization led, inevitably, to tears. "How could this happen?" And "how could people deny that this happened and dismiss it?" The reason it could happen to Jews in Nazi Germany is the same reason it could happen to blacks here in America. It's that vacuum that Toni Morrison described, where the humanity of blacks, or Jews, simply cannot be comprehended. Then _anything_ is possible. The worst should be expected.

Oscar Schindler seemed to have that vacuum. He decided to become rich using Jewish "slave" labor. He consorted with the Nazis while ignoring what was happening around him. The money was good. The sex was good. So what if it came through the exploitation of others? What was _their_ alternative? Concentration camps? Death?

But somewhere on the road to his fortune, Oscar Schindler opened his eyes. He saw death in Krakow. He began to see Jews not as cheap labor, but as people who had dreams and aspirations. He saw mothers and fathers and children. He started to care. That vacuum began to be filled. He began to _see_ them. It was a lesson that Schindler learned in time to save the Jews on his list. Unfortunately, it was a lesson not learned frequently enough or soon enough to prevent the Holocaust.

There are people who still can't see Pecola. Pecola the black girl. Pecola the Jew. All of the Pecolas.

Blacks are complicitous in our own suffering. But there are those who use that fact to hide, to deny their own complicity. To deny their need to right wrongs that continue today. Even if, like Oscar Schindler, they didn't start or contribute to the problem. Oscar Schindler learned his lesson before it was too late.

How did he learn it? While Schindler's List was filmed in black-and-white, color was used very effectively on two occasions. Looking down in the distance, Schindler sees a little girl walking in the street wearing a coat that is faintly red in an otherwise black-and-white scene. It's as if he sees the street in black-and-white right along with us. Later in the film, Schindler sees the girl in the red coat one more time. This time the red coat covers her body in a cart with other dead bodies, on the way to be buried or burned. I wondered why she wore a red coat the first time. When I saw her the second time I understood why. So did Oscar Schindler. First making money using Jewish labor, the girl in the red coat helped him to finally see his workers as people no different than himself.

"They can't see me." Hopefully, someday soon, they will.

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Meanderings 1.03 -- April 3, 1994