“We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the World.” – Toni Morrison, “The Bluest Eye”
Regular readers know how proud I am to be born and raised in Ohio, but sometimes our esteemed state leaders make me feel as if I’m living in Texas, without the great barbecue.
Just days before libraries and bookstores across the country celebrated this year’s Banned Books Week, the president of the Ohio Board of Education declared that “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison, should be banned from every school in the state.
“I don’t want my grandchildren reading it, and I don’t want anyone else’s children reading it,” board President Debe Terhar said at a board meeting Sept. 10. “It should not be used in any school for any Ohio K-12 child. If you want to use it in college somewhere, that’s fine.”
Terhar failed to quote a single passage from Morrison’s first novel to illustrate why she thinks it is “totally inappropriate.” She just said it would be wrong for the school board to “even be associated with it.”
From “The Bluest Eye”: You looked at them and wondered why they were so ugly; you looked closely and could not find the source. Then you realized that it came from conviction, their conviction. It was as though some mysterious all-knowing master had given each one a cloak of ugliness to wear, and they had each accepted it without question.
The 1970 novel tells the story of Pecola, a young black girl growing up in the 1940s in Morrison’s hometown, Lorain, Ohio. Other children mock Pecola for her dark skin, curly hair and brown eyes. Her festering self-loathing fuels a longing for the blue eyes she believes would make her lovable and save her from an unbearable life.
Steadily, Pecola’s world unravels. Her parents’ marriage is violent and in shambles. Her mother is lame and distant. Her father is a raging, abusive man who eventually rapes and impregnates her.
The novel is an uncomfortable book that challenges us to consider the brutality of racism, domestic violence and cultural definitions of beauty. “The Bluest Eye” is also a glorious introduction to the works of Morrison, who has since won the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in literature, as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Ohio has seen some horrific and highly publicized crimes against young women in recent months. In March, two high-school football players in Steubenville were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl. She was so intoxicated at the time of the attacks that she only discovered what had happened to her after cellphone photos and crude text messages began circulating.
Again, from “The Bluest Eye”: We mistook violence for passion, indolence for leisure, and thought recklessness was freedom.
Less than two months after the Steubenville trial, three young women in Cleveland escaped a boarded-up home where they had been tortured and raped by Ariel Castro for more than a decade.
One of those rapes resulted in the birth of a child.
These stories were the made-in-Ohio news blazing across my state and around the world. Kids in every high school in the country were talking about what happened to those girls in Steubenville and Cleveland, but Ohio’s school board president thinks our children can’t handle a class discussion about the make-believe world of “The Bluest Eye.”
Has Terhar never experienced the internal explosion of discovery triggered by someone else’s story?
Morrison responded to Terhar’s comments in an interview with WCMH-TV, Columbus’ NBC affiliate.
“The book was published in the early ’70s, and it’s been banned so much and so many places that I’m told I’m No. 14 on the list of 100 banned books,” she said. “I resent it. I mean, if it’s Texas or North Carolina, as it has been in all sorts of states. But to be a girl from Ohio, writing about Ohio, having been born in Lorain, Ohio, and actually relating as an Ohio person, to have the Ohio – what, Board of Education? – is ironic at the least.”
An Ohio Board of Education spokesman said the board isn’t banning any book. Terhar issued a statement supposedly intended to clarify what she meant.
“The comments I made reflected my concern about the graphic passages contained in a specific text. I do not personally believe these passages are suitable for school-age children. Nothing more and nothing less should be inferred. In particular, no disparagement was meant towards the celebrated career of Ohio author Toni Morrison.”
From “The Bluest Eye”: The change was adjustment without improvement.
• Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and an essayist for Parade magazine. She is the author of two books, including “...and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate.