Identity Formation and White Presence in Toni Morrison's

Beloved and The Bluest Eye

Lannette Day

            Toni Morrison uses the psychological ramifications of the physical, emotional, and spiritual desolation produced by slavery to mold her characters' senses of self through direct experience with slavery and white oppression.  The inability of male and female characters to form a sense of identity in her novels Beloved and The Bluest Eye  is tied to the cultural trauma they experience which makes it impossible to shape a sense of self.  The most prominent negative impact of slavery Morrison focuses on in Beloved is the way in which former slaves are haunted, even in freedom, by the dehumanization they endure.  Due to their repressed social status, Morrison's characters are only able to experience relationships if they are granted the privilege to do so by those who hold power over them.  As time progresses beyond legalized slavery, the now 'free' African-Americans have to achieve a societal standard of whiteness in order to gain acceptance.   Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, exposes the results of white presence in society on African-Americans and how this presence imposes difficulty on the individual to form an identity.  Morrison uses this reality to structure these two novels and the bonds between the characters, their society, and themselves.  Through the allowance or denial of relationships, Morrison demonstrates in Beloved and The Bluest Eye how slavery, the deliberate dehumanization of African slaves, and the presence of whiteness in society alter her characters' ability to form their own sense of self-identity.  The alienation the slaves experience echoes into future generations by disabling any hope of forming relationships after attaining freedom and creates psychological obstacles African Americans must conquer in the future.

            In the majority of her novels, Morrison highlights the importance of identity, the formation of the 'self', and the influence of the environment and society on that development.  According to Ron Eyerman in Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the formation of African American identity, 'cultural trauma refers to a dramatic loss of identity and meaning, a tear in the social fabric, affecting a group of people that has achieved some degree of cohesion' (Eyerman 2).  African slaves were unified by their environment and society's racial opression.  In the case of Morrison's characters in Beloved, 'the trauma in question is slavery, not [only] as an institution or even an experience, but as a collective memory, a form of remembrance that grounded the identity-formation of a people' (Eyerman 1). 

Morrison also discusses in her novels her characters' struggle for identity formation.  Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development 'encompasses changes in people's understanding of themselves, one another, and the world around them during the course of development' (Feldman 392).  According to Erikson, identity formation, while beginning in childhood, gains prominence during adolescence.  Faced with physical growth and sexual maturation, adolescents must accomplish the task of integrating their prior experiences and characteristics into a personal identity (Feldman 392).  The experiences slaves are able to draw upon, however, are not capable of fulfilling their need for an identity because their experiences and relationships are limited due to the social and racial groups to which they belong.  Both men and women are classified by their relation to each other; men's masculinity and women's femininity is based on who defines it and, in the case of the characters in Beloved, it is defined by the slave owners and the society in which they live.  Because they are denied mature adult relationships, their psychosocial development is delayed and their capacity to understand themselves in relation to one another and society is inhibited.  This is an extension of the cultural trauma produced by slavery because, by denying the basic human right to choose sexual partner for physical, emotional, and reproductive reasons, they are denied the ability to develop on a psychosocial level to achieve an understanding of their own identity.

            In order to understand how slavery and the discrimination of African Americans influence their sense of identity, readers must first understand what 'identity' means.  Identity refers to 'the enduring aspects of a person's definition of her- or him' self, the conception of who one is and what one is over time and across situations' (Kelman 3).  Personal identity is 'a cumulative product built up over a person's lifetime experiences' (Kelman 3). According to Erikson, 'individuals who reached early adulthood without having established a sense of identity would be incapable of intimacy' (Bee and Boyd 372).  Based on Erikson's perception, characters in Beloved find difficulty establishing and maintaining any type of intimate relationship due to the abuse and discrimination they deal with throughout their lives.  Identity is a sense of personal continuity and uniqueness based not only on personal need, but also on membership in various groups, such as familial, ethnic and occupational (Bee and Boyd 372).  African slaves were not only discriminated for belonging to their racial group, but also for being slaves and belonging to that social group.  Since these group identities, in addition to satisfying the need for affiliation, help people define themselves, not only in their own eyes but in the eyes of others, it is clear why the characters in Morrison's novels find difficulty in forming a personal identity.  In the eyes of others they are subhuman, and this in turn affects how they see themselves because they have internalized society's racism. In Beloved, Paul D, one of the main characters, internalizes the mistreatment he experiences for years and, despite his inner strength and motivation to persevere, that dehumanization transforms him into an unemotional man with a fractured identity.  After attempting to murder one of his owners, Paul D is sent to a place Morrison describes as similar to a prison: '' the ditches; the one thousand feet of earth ' five feet deep, five feet wide, into which wooden boxes had been fitted.  A door of bars that you could lift on hinges like a cage opened into three walls and a roof of scrap lumber and red dirt' (Beloved125).  Paul D and the forty-five members forced to work on the chain gang along side of him were subjected to humiliating treatment along with physical and sexual abuse.  He locks away his memories in a tobacco tin-heart, rusted shut from years of abuse and repression.  Paul D internalizes the discrimination inflicted upon him and is emasculated to such an extent that he believes he is unworthy of human attachment. 

            As in the case of Sethe, the protagonist in Beloved, the dehumanization of female slaves deprives those characters of their femininity by denying them motherhood.  It was customary for infants born into slavery to be removed from their mothers as soon as possible to disallow any chance to form emotional attachment.  In his autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, Douglass refers to this separation:

Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it' For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child's affection toward its mother, and to blunt the natural affection of the mother for the child.  This is the inevitable result' (Douglass 17-18). 

This made it easier to debase women as human beings by denying them the natural desire to mother their children.  Not only did the physical separation of mother and child prevent females slaves from identifying themselves as mothers, but the concept of motherhood alone, 'due to the economic realities of racism, [was] usually limited to white women' (Williams 164).  Lisa Williams suggests that Sethe feels grief as a black mother due to the isolation she experiences as a slave.  Many African slaves were influenced by West African motherhood practices in which the individual mother is valued, but the act of mothering was a collective communal process.  According to Patricia Hill Collins in her article 'The Meaning of Motherhood in Black Culture and Black Mother/Daughter Relationships', a woman has no choice but to evaluate her identity based upon motherhood: 'The cult of true womanhood emphasizes motherhood as a woman's highest calling.  It stresses a motherhood that is confined to the home and children, under the protection of a husband' (Williams 164).  When viewing this theory through the lens of slavery, it is apparent that African female slaves had little to no chance to form a mother-identity: '' the idea of the cult of true womanhood has been held up to Black women for emulation, [and] racial oppression has denied black families significant resources to support private nuclear family households' (Williams 164).  In Beloved, the characters are denied not only nuclear family households, but also the base human instinct to care for their children. 

Sethe not only experiences separation from her children because she sacrifices her own well being to send them to safety, but, as a 'direct attack on her as a Black mother' (Williams 164), she is also robbed of her breast milk, the essence of her motherhood, in a very animalistic fashion.  Throughout the novel, Sethe focuses on her milk and the life-force she is naturally supplied with:

'All I knew was I had to get my milk to my baby girl.  Nobody was going to nurse her like me.  Nobody was going to get it to her fast enough, or take it away when she had enough and didn't know it.  Nobody knew that she couldn't pass her air if you held her up on your shoulder, only if she was lying on my knees.  Nobody knew that but me and nobody had her milk but me.' (Beloved 19)

While talking about her past with her daughter, Denver, Sethe describes the event: 'After I left you, those boys came in there and took my milk.  That's what they came in there for.  Held me down and took it.' (Beloved 19)  Sethe continues to focus on this memory because breast milk is the only part of her related to motherhood she thinks is safe from white people.  Her milk, the substance that would sustain her child's life, is the one thing that truly belongs to her, but when the white boys take it from her they diminished her worth as a woman, a mother, and a human being. 

Female slaves are not the only slaves being dehumanized.  Male slaves are denied the ability to identify themselves as masculine or, for that matter, human.  Mr. Garner, the original owner of the plantation Sweet Home where Sethe and Paul D lived, allows his male slaves to feel like men: 'The Garners, it seemed to [Sethe], ran a special kind of slavery, treating them like paid labor, listening to what they said, teaching what they wanted to know' (Beloved 165).  Even though the method by which Mr. Garner runs his plantation seems positive, he too 'dramatizes the numerous ways in which the white slavocracy exercises its power to define the experience and identity of slaves' (Peterson 63).  The slaves are allowed to feel artificially masculine because they are only granted secondary characteristics of masculinity.  Mr. Garner allows them to carry guns, learn to read, and grants them the privilege of sexual agency but allowing Sethe to choose her partner and husband, Halle.  These are all secondary characteristics of masculinity because the feeling of masculinity, and femininity as well, comes from within.  In fact, while Mr. Garner permits them to act like men through these secondary characteristics, he in effect owns their masculinity and denies their ability to internalize their identity as men: 'Even a benevolent slaveholder like Mr. Garner employs this privilege of definition: he boasts to other slaveholders that unlike them he has 'men' who work for him.  His power to name his slaves 'men', however, calls into question their very experience of manhood' (Peterson 63).  Since the male slaves on Sweet Home plantation need permission to act like men, the process of labeling themselves as such is artificial as well.

The slaves' experience with masculinity is short lived, however.  After Mrs. Garner's brother-in-law, a man the slaves refer to as 'schoolteacher', gains control of Sweet Home, the men are denied secondary masculine characteristics:

[Paul D] grew up thinking that, of all the Blacks in Kentucky, only the five of them were men.  Allowed, encouraged to correct Garner, even defy him.  To invent ways of doing things; to see what was needed and attack it without permission.  To buy a mother, choose a horse or a wife, handle guns, even learn reading if they wanted to. (Beloved 147)

Schoolteacher strips them of anything that makes them feel more powerful as men: by taking away their guns, he takes away their ability to hunt for food or protect themselves; by denying them the ability to learn to read, he guarantees their stay at Sweet Home.  With every ounce of pride schoolteacher takes away from the men of Sweet Home, his power grows exponentially while that of the slaves grows weaker.

The dehumanization of the slaves in Beloved extends beyond the denial of basic human desires, such as motherhood, or the identification of one's own femininity or masculinity, and progresses into the categorization of slaves as animals.  While Sethe is living at Sweet Home, she overhears schoolteacher during a lesson with his nephews.  As schoolteacher instructs the pupils to list the characteristics of the slaves and sort these characteristics into categories, human and animal, he is teaching the children to ignore the humanity of the slaves and to use their social and racial group against them.  'No, no. That's not the way.  I told you to put her human characteristics on the left; her animal ones on the right. And don't forget to line them up.' (Beloved 193)  Overhearing this lesson upsets Sethe to the point that she does not mention this instance to anyone until she is explaining her past actions to her daughter, Beloved.  'Sethe recognizes schoolteacher's words and 'logic' as almost a greater threat to blacks than the material conditions of slavery itself; she discerns that his instructions promote an unspeakable terror and violence' (Peterson 64).  By teaching his nephews this 'lesson', schoolteacher is ensuring the racial attitudes of the next generation.

Sexuality also plays a large role in the slave's lives.  For many years, the only female slave on the Sweet Home plantation is Baby Suggs, the mother of Halle, one of the men of Sweet Home.  Until Sethe is brought to the plantation, there is no one to fulfill one of the most basic human desires: sex.  By debasing slaves to the point that they feel they are categorized the same as animals, if not lesser, the slaves themselves believe it is acceptable to have sexual relations with animals.  The denial of any access to fulfill their basic human desires allows them to further internalize society's belief that they are subhuman.  

While in Beloved Morrison discusses the direct effect of discrimination of slaves, she reveals how the future generations of slaves are affected by the past through white presence in society in The Bluest Eye.  The title of the novel itself calls attention to the presence of whiteness and how that presence can affect not only a collective group, but also an individual.  The noun 'eye' in the title is singular, suggesting perhaps the damage inflicted upon the individual by society's white lens in relation to beauty and acceptance.  Also, by using the word 'eye' and allowing for a double meaning of 'I', Morrison might be emphasizing the importance of vision (Suranyi 11). 

Cultural trauma is present in The Bluest Eye as well.  The way in which trauma affects an individual is different than how it affects a culture:  'As a cultural process, trauma is mediated through various forms of representation and linked to the reformation of collective identity and the reworking of collective memory' (Eyerman 1).  Three prominent characters in Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Cholly Breedlove, Pauline Breedlove, and Pecola Breedlove, deal not only with the struggle to form personal identities, but also with the presence of whiteness in society and the pressure to meet society's white standard. 

Cholly Breedlove is one of the male characters in The Bluest Eye whose life is negatively impacted by his inability to identify with his ancestral past.  Cholly is abandoned by his father before his birth, abandoned by his mother nine days after birth, and is rescued and raised by his grandmother who does not hesitate to remind him that he owes her his life.  Part of Cholly's difficultly with the formation of his own identity stems from a lack of ancestral past and failure to progress during the early stages of Erik Erikson's psychosocial theory.  Erikson's theory of psychosocial development includes eight stages; each stage is marked by a conflict or crisis between the person and his or her environment.  During each of these conflicts, the individual is 'vulnerable and moving toward increased potential; [each conflict is] a moment to decide between progress and regression' (Vadeboncoeur).  The first of Erikson's eight stages is referred to as Trust Versus Mistrust.  This stage is characterized by 'the development (or lack of development) of a trust for others and the self, or a sense of confidence in infancy' (Vadeboncoeur).  Cholly does not experience any confidence during intimacy because he is unable to bond with his parents, and his grandmother, even though she takes it upon herself to save Cholly and raise him, remains at an emotional distance.  Not only is the failure to progress beyond the first stage of development to blame for Cholly's fractured identity, but Cholly is also disturbed by the fact that he is not his father's namesake.  When Cholly asks his grandmother why he isn't named after his own father, his grandmother replies:

'He wasn't nowhere around when you was born. Your mama didn't name you nothing. The nine days wasn't up before she throwed you on the junk heap. When I got you I named you myself on the ninth day. You named after my dead brother. Charles Breedlove. A good man. Ain't no Samson never come to no good end.' (Bluest 133)

Cholly's formation of self-identity is delayed not only by the abandonment of his birth parents but also by the origin of his name.  Cholly is upset because he is not named after his father, but instead he is the namesake of a distant relative who is deceased before Cholly is born.  The origin of one's self is important in identity formation.  Frederick Douglass, in the first chapter of his autobiography, discusses his difficulty with the fact that he is unaware of his true age: 'A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood.  The white children could tell their ages.  I could tell not why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege' (Douglass 17).  Since Cholly cannot identify with anyone he is related to, he lacks any resemblance of a sense of self and his maturation is stunted, which makes it easier for Cholly to internalize society's racism.   

            Cholly experiences dehumanization in The Bluest Eye similar Morrison's character, Sethe, in Beloved.  While Sethe is robbed of a natural life-force, Cholly's first encounter with sex, a natural human experience, is perverted by two white hunters.  During the reception after Aunt Jimmy's funeral, Cholly and Darlene run off to a field where their flirtations quickly turn into sexual relations.  While in the middle of intercourse, Cholly and his partner are interrupted by a two white hunters.  'There was no mistake about their being white; he could smell it' (Bluest 147).  As Cholly tried to stand up and dress himself, the hunters shined their flashlights on the couple and ordered Cholly to finish.  'With a violence born of total helplessness, he pulled her dress up, lowered his trousers and underwear' (Bluest 147).  The white hunters repeatedly refer to him as a 'coon' and order him to mate with Darlene like crude animals.  The ease with which hunters demand Cholly to continue intercourse with Darlene is reminiscent of the systematic mating strategies slave owners practiced with only 'breeding' in mind.  This humiliating and dehumanizing experience creates within Cholly a hatred for women which is demonstrated later in the novel by his domestic violence toward his wife and the molestation of his daughter.

Pauline Breedlove is one of the female characters in The Bluest Eye affected by the white standard society has placed upon her.  Pauline has a deformity on her foot that prevents her from having a nickname among her peers when she is younger.  Because of this lack of a nickname, Pauline is unable to relate herself to her peers and her ability for form an identity at a young age is thwarted.  Also as a result of her deformity is her extreme concern about her physical appearance: 'Her general feeling of separateness and unworthiness she blamed on her foot' (Bluest 111).

Pauline internalizes society's love of white-beauty to such a degree that she views herself as worthless unless she can attain that standard.  Because she is unable to relate to any of the women in the North, Pauline frequents the movie theater where, 'along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another ' physical beauty.  Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought.  Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion' (Bluest 122).  These are the days in Pauline's life when she learns that beauty equals virtue.  'This cult of white womanhood permeating the nineteenth century further devalued black women since the social and economic reality of slavery made it almost impossible to live up to these so-called feminine virtues' (Williams 57).  'She was never able, after her education in the movies, to look at a face and not assign it some category in the scale of absolute beauty, and the scale was one she absorbed in full from the silver screen' (Bluest 122).

Pecola Breedlove, the protagonist in The Bluest Eye, is either seen as worthless by everyone around her (save for the MacTeers), or is not seen at all.  Pecola has internalized society's racism the most out of all the characters in the novel.  As a result of all the abuse she suffers from her father, mother, strangers and other children, she believes that everything would change for the better if she acquired blue eyes.  '[I]t is the construction of white womanhood that Pecola's desire to have blue eyes is born, since both she and her mother long for a white middle-class conception of beauty and grace that has been communicated to them thorough the portrayal of white women in the movies' (Williams 57).  In the eleven years of her life, Pecola is raped and impregnated by her father, loses the baby she is carrying, and is driven into madness from the persistent abuse, but continues to search for blue eyes to cure her alleged ugliness and societal rejection.  At the end of the novel Pecola begins to converse with her imaginary friend - her double.  'Ironically, having been denied a sense of self and a voice to articulate her pain, in the end an insane Pecola has found not one, but two voices' (Suranyi 15).  She internalizes society's racism and allows this to reaffirm an already weakened perception of herself, and her low self-esteem disables any ability for Pecola to form a sense of self.  She is unable to experience relationships and relate to others, which is a key element in forming an identity, according to Erikson.  Since she is unable to form mature relationships and have positive experiences to integrate and accumulate over her short lifetime, she is forced to create a second 'identity' in order to satisfy her need for human interaction and acceptance.

            Toni Morrison focuses on the dehumanization of African American slaves in her novel Beloved.  The views of society at that time of slaves as a subhuman group denies them basic human desires and makes it impossible for them to create a stable sense of personal identity.  They are forced to identify with their social and ethnic group, but by doing so their sense of self is lost.  In The Bluest Eye Morrison shows how the cultural trauma of a cohesive group can lead to the inability for individuals in the group for form identities.  The presence of whiteness in society at that time creates an unattainable white standard that African Americans needed to attain in order to gain acceptance.  The result of the attempt and failure in relation to this standard disabled any chance African Americans have to find themselves.  The inability to form intimate relationships makes it impossible to form a sense of self, which only worsened their lack of identity.

Works Cited

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Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Ed. Robert G. O'Meally. New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 1845, 2003.

Eyerman, Ron. Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the formation of African American identity. Ed. Jeffrey C. Alexander and Steven Seidman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Feldman, Robert S. Understanding Psychology. Sixth. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Kelman, Herbert C. "The Place of Ethnic Identity in the Development of Personal Identity." (n.d.).

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. New York, New York: Vintage Books, 1970.

Peterson, Nancy J. Against Amnesia:Contemporary Women Writers and the Crises of Historical Memory. Ed. Emory Elliot. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Suranyi, Agnes. "The Bluest Eye and Sula: black female experience from childhood to womanhood." The Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison. Ed. Justine Tally. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Vadeboncoeur, Jennifer. "Clinical Psychology, Psychoanalysis, and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis." Readers Guide to the Social Sciences (2001).

Williams, Lisa. The Artist as Outsider in the Novels of Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000.