Interview of Dr. Deborah James, Professor with the Literature Department at UNC-Asheville and Toni Morrison Scholar, March 7, 2018. Interviewed by Cara Forbes.
CF: I am with Dr. Deborah James, a professor in the Literature department at UNC Asheville. How are you doing today, Dr. James?
DJ: I’m fine, thank you.
CF: Excellent. The first question that I wanted to ask you was, when did you start becoming interested in Toni Morrison’s work? What is it about her literature that kept your interest?
DJ: Well actually, when Toni Morrison published The Bluest Eye, her first novel, someone gave it to me because they got a publisher’s copy (a professor here), I was an undergraduate. I didn’t get to read it immediately, but it was the following year. I had it with my stash of books and then I read it. As soon as I read it, I fell in love with it. Since that time, I have read everything that she has written. And when I have had opportunities – and I started having them pretty early on – to do workshops or talks and organize classes around her work, then that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s been . . . so The Bluest Eye was published in 1970, I think, and so since then.
CF: Awesome. What value do you think there is in studying Toni Morrison’s writing in general?
DJ: I think there are a number of reasons. It’s also connected to the same reason that we study literature. I think it gives birth – it grounds us in being able to experience life from various other perspectives – parts of life that we would have no other way of knowing. And I say we, I am African American. But here are things that Toni Morrison’s characters experience that are not part of my experience – would not have been part of my experience. Also, because Toni Morrison is an amazing artist and her artistry includes this project of recovering history, there’s this thing she talks about: “re-remembering” – introduces people to collective consciousness, as human beings, what there about our human experience that we all need to know and understand reactions that people have, I’m thinking about, in the many scenes, there’s always a scene, it seems it me, or there are many times there is a scene in her books where there’s a group of women who are sharing an experience – that a women later on in the novel is remembering – and that is a conduit, an opening to women’s experience. For example, I think about A Mercy in the scene where Rebecca is remembering being in the ship when they are coming across the sea and remembering all these different women who are peripheral and sort of throw-away women. And I think about the memory of the women in Paradise, and the three whores in The Bluest Eye, China and Marie and Poland, who, thinking about their experience as human beings, because often what she is able to do is to take you to a character who you could write the descriptors of that character. “This woman is a woman of whatever age and whatever ethnicity and she is a hooker, she is a prostitute, she is a single mother she is an unwed somebody or somebody”. So she takes all those labels and she makes you see the human being that occupies that space. And the human beings are often very different – even if they have a lot of similarities in what the labels say. But they, as human beings, have particular unique experiences and different personalities and different ways of interacting with the world. I think she reminds us that there are no throwaway people. I think that’s really important. And she helps us embrace difficult knowledge. She helps us embrace things that are ugly parts of being human and that are amazing, good, and transformative. And she shows us hope in very difficult circumstances. That there remains some element of hope. Again, I’m thinking about A Mercy because I’ve taught that most recently. So even at the end when the family – the makeshift family – is all falling apart, there is the person that had no name, and she renames herself because she has a baby. And there is this hope that, for this pair, there’s going to be something different than there was for that young woman when she was a child and was abandoned.
CF: Interesting, I appreciate your perspective on that. So, I know that you have read The Bluest Eye, so can you tell me what you think about the book being taught in a high school curriculum?
DJ: I actually think that The Bluest Eye is more appropriate than Beloved, which is the one that’s taught most often, to seniors. And when I first heard that they were teaching Beloved in high school, I had qualms about it because there’s a lot of stuff in Beloved that is both violent and difficult. And I don’t believe that the book should be censored, but I do believe that if folks are not well prepared . . . if it’s just a book that they give the kids, then we do a fact quiz about it, I don’t think that’s a good way to handle it. The issue I think we’re facing, that universities are facing now about trigger warnings is that so many kids have been traumatized in so many ways, and to re experience that trauma . . to re-experience that in a book that was assigned to you in class . . . so you didn’t really have a choice about reading it . . . your grade depends on it . . . I think that that can be problematic. However, I think that there are so many redeeming features about, especially The Bluest Eye, there’s humor in it – the two little girls that tell the story about Pecola. Their interactions as siblings is funny and sweet and compassionate. And I think that literature, great art, often has us confront difficult stuff. And I think how it’s handled is important. In The Bluest Eye there is definitely a rape scene, and it’s a difficult scene to read, but it is not pornographic. It does not indulge us in all the gorey, gorey details. Its focus is always on the psychological state of both the rapist, in this terms the father, who is clearly not in his, if there is a right mind, for Cholly, he’s not in it. And Pecola and the aftermath – what does that do to the child? Because the book is a study of how an individual personality is taken apart . . . how it’s deconstructed. So, there is Pecola who is this vulnerable little kid and her friends realize, without being able to articulate it at that moment, that they have a support system . . . they have each other . . . they have parents who look after them, who they can depend on, and who are fighting, fighting, fighting for the survival of their children. Whereas Pecola is in a family where even the individuals in the family can’t fight for their independent survival – much less the survival of the group as a whole.
CF: What age do you think it is appropriate for a student to start studying Toni Morrison’s work? Where do you think maturity level or other factors come into play as far as the book being age appropriate?
DJ: So, age appropriateness, as you said, involves a lot of stuff. So I know people who are so proud of the fact that their children were reading all the Harry Potter books at the age of six. I, frankly, don’t think that’s totally appropriate. The Harry Potter books, as they go, get more and more . . . darker and darker . . . get scarier and scarier . . . because Harry is growing older. And the books came out every two years, so the opening book, for a precocious six or seven-year-old who was an avid reader – that’s fine. Because it’s magic. And the emphasis is on the magic and Harry finding a new life because he’s had this life that was not very good. By the time you get to the seventh book . . . and it is a serious discussion and a serious battle between good and evil . . . and really, really evil. Not like not for pretend. So I think I’m of two minds. One is I read books that were way above my age level – and things that were not appropriate for me, I did not get. I got the story. I got the excitement. I got the characters. And then if I had a chance to go back and read it several years later I thought, “This was in the book? I had no idea!” So nobody talked to me about that. So I think, on one hand, there is this sort of self protection. The mind protects you from some things. I am concerned about how books are introduced and when they are required. Because it’s one thing – books that you find on your own on the shelf – and you read them. Because if they’re pretty interesting, you keep reading them. And if they’re not pretty interesting (because at ten, you’re not very interested in whether or not there is a love affair, or whatever) you’ll put it down. So, appropriateness will take care of itself. On the other hand, for books that you mandate for people to read and their grades depend on it, I think what concerns me more about teaching Toni Morrison and the age level at which it is introduced, is the preparation of the teachers that introduce the books. So what the teacher knows and understands about what they’re reading about Toni Morrison, what are they able to teach to help students see, what are they directing their gaze to, even in my college classes, there were a lot of things that we didn’t focus on. We didn’t focus on the homosexual rape that happens in Beloved. We didn’t focus on some of the details because there’s a lot of stuff in there and we just didn’t get to it. But some of the stuff we didn’t focus on, I waited to see if they came up in discussion. So I think it’s certainly appropriate, on one hand, for those books to be out there, and for readers of whatever age to get to them. I think they should be available. When you begin to assign books, I think you have to think about what you know of what your classes are like, and what you know of what your own ability to guide discussions of difficult stuff might be. I don’t think you should be afraid of it, but I think you should prepare yourself.
CF: There is a parent in Buncombe County who recently challenged The Bluest Eye in fall 2017 and its use in the North Buncombe High School curriculum. He is quoted saying, “As a Christian single dad, that’s not the values I teach my kids, and it’s certainly not okay for them to have to read a book like that”. Can you share your thoughts with me about his sentiments?
DJ: I certainly do understand that as a single parent. And as a parent, we’re always concerned about protecting our children’s innocence. But I also know that that’s why we send them to school. I think we send them to school so that they will have the opportunity to experience things that we may not be equipped to teach them. But, I also think, as an engaged parent, it provides you with an opportunity to talk with your kids about some things that they get introduced to out in the world, and which they are going to meet out in the world, and to share your values. So, this might be an opportunity to say, “ Okay. This is a difficult topic: rape and that a father would do this to a child. That’s a horrible thing, and we know that”. And I don’t think that it’s presented in the text as a good thing. I think that Toni Morrison makes it really clear – that from the communities response, from our narrator’s response, what a horrific thing this is and how it should never have happened. I think that’s the point of The Bluest Eye. [It’s] that there are these two families that mirror each other. They’re both at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap in the United States at that time. So, in some ways, they come from the same community, they experience many of the same kinds of trauma. Claudia and Frieda’s parents had no more money than Cholly and Pauline. But they respond very, very differently to their circumstances. And they represent the community response, and, therefore, highlight how Cholly and Pauline are outside the community and are not functional. That’s one of the points to say: what are the community values . . . what are individual values. So, I think it is less to do with being a Christian. I am also a Christian – a professing Christian. It has less to do with being a Christian than with understanding the text. I also am an educator, so I also believe that we look at every opportunity to educate folks and I certainly think that a junior in high school is an appropriate age to confront difficult topics. I think good high school teachers help student confront those difficult topics and understand what is the point of art – serious art.
CF: My last question that I had was, do you think that there is a book that could replace The Bluest Eye in a high school curriculum that would still hold similar values and lessons?
DJ: I’m a Toni Morrison nut, but I’m also a deep believer in that there are many, many, many, many fine works of literature. What I would ask instead would be, what was that teacher aiming for, what the plan, what was the year long plan, what other books are being read, and why were those texts chosen in the first place. But, I would not think of it as a replacement. I think that it occupies and does do lots of important work. I know that there are lots of other texts that could do wonderful work. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is also a popular text. Maya Angelou herself (this is autobiographical) is molested by a friend of the family, and, in fact, it leads to that guy getting killed and her experiencing a year of complete silence, which she talks about. So you reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – it’s a beautiful book and people love it. There are many beautiful things that get brought up, but that’s a difficult thing and a real thing that happened in her life. I don’t think that you make the choice about the art that you use based on any on particular incident – that you pay attention to context, and you think about, “Why am I teaching this book in the first place to these people, what is the outcome that we want, what do we want them to learn?” And I don’t agree with just exposing people to complex and difficult stuff just for the sake of it being complex and difficult. And I, of course, think Toni Morrison is a consonant artist, so I think that being exposed to great art is always a good thing.
CF: Do you have any final words or thoughts that you’d like to share before this interview ends?
DJ: I always think that, I’m certainly biased entirely in favor of books and not banning them. That said, I’m sure that you could bring up some book that I would not want to read or want my children to read. But I don’t think that my response to that would be that the book should be banned and that children shouldn’t get to read them, but that I should and the teacher and the classroom and the community should help them understand that book in light of whatever are the important contexts.
CF: Well, thank you so much Dr. James, I really appreciate your time.
DJ: You’re welcome.