Cole Morgan
Cole Morgan, assistant professor of English (Steve Zylius/UC Irvine)

Among the many reasons I love to read and to teach Sula is the subtle way in which Morrison studies the perils of collective censure by focusing an entire spectrum of social attitudes through this titular protagonist. Sula’s unabashed independence simultaneously threatens to tear her community apart and promises to bring it closer together.

It may have been with this subversive vision in mind that day, as my students rose to leave, that I asked them what they made of the fact that one of the most frequently banned books in the country was not, in fact, Sula but Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye.

“That one?” blurted S, a student who had taken a lecture with me the previous year, when I taught Morrison’s debut work.

S didn’t elaborate on their comment, but I heard incredulity in their voice at the idea that The Bluest Eye, rather than Sula, would be removed from library shelves. Indeed, reflecting on S’s remark months later, I also hear confusion that either novel would actually be banned today. My students’ alarm at the idea that book bans continue to plague authors, libraries and readers well into the 21st century rings that much louder during UC Irvine’s Year of Free Speech and Academic Freedom.

Surely The Bluest Eye, which so exquisitely expresses the power and urgency of finding one’s own voice amid the crowd, warrants a place in our public discourse. Nevertheless, per the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, Morrison’s novel about the corrosive effects of racism in several young girls’ lives is one of the most targeted titles in the U.S. The Bluest Eye, published in 1970, along with Morrison’s third and fifth novels, Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987), have remained among the country’s 100 most challenged titles since the OIF began collecting data about banned books in 1990. In 2022 alone, The Bluest Eye was challenged 73 times for its “sexually explicit” subject matter and for content related to equity, diversity and inclusion. In Texas and Florida, where more titles faced removal or restriction attempts in 2022 than anywhere else in the nation, The Bluest Eye was at the top of the list.

Like Sula, The Bluest Eye presents readers with an unapologetic study of anti-Blackness by examining the pernicious ways in which racist beliefs about beauty and identity pass from one generation to the next. The sexual violence perpetrated against the novel’s young protagonist, Pecola, who wishes that her own brown eyes would be replaced by blue ones, reverberates throughout the story and beyond the book itself. Morrison couches Pecola’s internal struggle to cultivate an affirming sense of self within the intersecting pressures that exert themselves on Black girls. Across our country, efforts to ban The Bluest Eye point to the novel’s bracing, explicit scenes of violence as evidence of the book’s unsuitability for public consumption. Not only is such material inappropriate for young readers, some protest, but books like The Bluest Eye jeopardize social order itself!

– Cole Morgan

In my classes, when I teach texts by Morrison or other writers interested in identity, justice and society, I urge students to take such accusations seriously and to seriously consider the consequences of removing literature from libraries. What would it mean to study The Bluest Eye or Sula as texts that do, in fact, work to undo a social order premised on the oppression of Black people? Could novels like The Bluest Eye, by naming and giving narrative form to the devastating effects of cultural erasure, be understood as challenges in and of themselves to the very practices of censure and repression to which they are subjected?

At UC Irvine, I’ve been heartened by how my students engage with Morrison’s work. Rather than overlooking or looking past the scenes of violence in her writing, they recognize that neither Pecola nor Sula live in a vacuum. The dynamics of power in these novels contextualize Pecola’s plight and Sula’s ostracization, helping us to see more clearly how structures of oppression overlap with and perpetuate one another. That Morrison weaves such beautiful narratives around moments of such devastating harm encourages us to connect the necessary dots between our own everyday experiences and those enduring socialisms that often seem to overwhelm our best efforts to achieve social justice.

I love seeing Morrison shake students up, reassuring them of the powerful work a turn of phrase can do. “Who does not know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical?” Morrison asked an assembly hall of fellow laureates upon accepting the 1993 Nobel Prize in literature. I point my students toward these essential, illuminating questions whenever I remind them of the perennial efforts to ban Morrison’s books. As living things, Morrison shows us time and again, literature and language are both vulnerable and vital.

Morgan is an assistant professor of English.