To the Teacher
With the recent passing of revered Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, we are reminded how timeless are her works in illuminating the impacts of racism.
This lesson plan encourages high school students to explore the impact of racism as a central theme of Toni Morrison’s 1970 debut novel, The Bluest Eye. It includes suggestions for engaging students before, during, and after they read the book.
The Bluest Eye is not a comfortable read, but it is a beautiful, necessary read. And it is increasingly timely in a period when America’s unreconciled legacy of racism is haunting the nation. Toni Morrison’s novel enlightens readers about the challenges plaguing Blacks in America, what oppression looks and feels like, and what it creates, while evincing the commonalities among all people.
Before You Begin the Novel
Tell students that we’ll be reading The Bluest Eye, a novel by Toni Morrison, a revered Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning author who died on August 5, 2019.
Share with students that The Bluest Eye tackles complex and at times heavy material dealing with the impacts of racism. This circle will help prepare us to engage with the literature.
Invite students to sit in a circle, and, in a go-round, share with each other their responses to the following prompts.
- What are some recent incidents of racism in the world/media that have captured your attention? How did they make you feel?
- Share about a time when you have been impacted by racism, directly or indirectly.
- Is racism learned? If so, how?
Give students markers, preferably in dark colors. Ask them to write down on a single piece of large sticky paper (or chart paper) at the front of the room words that describe the feelings that might arise from experiencing racism – such as anger, hate, etc.
Once a good number of words have been added, look over the word chart with students, noting a few of the additions.
Ask: When people feel oppressed or discriminated against, does it influence the way they treat or engage with others? How?
Ask students if they are familiar with the terms “internalized racism” or “systemic racism.” If a good number of students seem aware of these terms, ask students to break into small groups.
Give the groups a few minutes to brainstorm definitions for internalized racism and systemic racism. Then have the groups share their definitions with the class, charting key elements on the board. Once every group’s definitions have been charted, offer the definitions below as a complement or supplement to the students’ definitions.
Post complete definitions where they can be easily referenced throughout the reading of the novel.
(Alternatively, if few or no students are aware of these terms, work with the whole group to arrive at something similar to the definitions below.)
Members of oppressed groups develop ideas, beliefs, actions, and behaviors that support those of their oppressors;
The acceptance of negative attitudes, beliefs, ideologies, and stereotypes perpetuated by the white dominant society as being true about one’s own racial group.
Systemic racism is the intersecting, overlapping, and codependent racist institutions, policies, practices, ideas, and behaviors that give an unjust amount of resources, rights, and power to white people while denying them to people of color. Systemic racism is reflected in disparities in wealth, income, criminal justice, employment, housing, healthcare, political power, and education, among other areas.
While reading the novel
After students have finished reading each chapter, invite them to share their reflections in a circle, addressing the following prompts each time:
- What incidences of racism stood out to you in this chapter?
- Speak on how a particular incident of racism in this chapter made you feel.
- What types of racism were exhibited? (i.e. systemic, internalized; black man to black woman, white man to black man, etc.)
- Which character/s committed racist offenses? Against who?
Suggestions for incidents to discuss:
- Cholly, the white men, and Darlene
- Pauline Breedlove’s love of the cinema
- Standards of beauty throughout the novel (eyes, hair, skin color, iconic images of white girls, dolls)
- Mrs. Breedlove’s treatment of Pecola vs. the white girl whose household she serves
- Maureen’s impact on her peers and the Breedlove girls
- The four boys’ chant of Black e mo
Stand Under & Discuss Themes
As students read the novel, have them keep a log of additional themes that arise.
Periodically use these themes for a “stand under and discuss” activity. Post individual themes in separate parts of the room and have students stand under the one they would like to discuss/inquire about.
After students have shared their thoughts about the theme within their group, invite them to share out main points with the rest of the class.
This can also be done as a gallery walk: Place themes around the room and have students stick post-its with their comments and questions underneath each theme; then give students a chance to discuss what was shared on each theme.
After You’ve Finished the Novel
At the end of the novel, revisit the chart that students created at the beginning with words expressing feelings that arise from experiencing racism.
Now, using brighter colored markers, have them add to the chart some ways to combat or reverse these feelings (i.e. educate, integrate, etc.).
In a circle, invite students to share their response to the following:
Racism in America is not new, and there have been many pivotal points of change, progress, movement, and disruption.
- What is going to be needed in order to bring about change this time?
- What comes first: loving yourself, or the experience of being loved?
Additional themes to explore:
- Our minds fill in the blanks for the things we don’t know. Is what we conjure up usually better or worse than the truth? Is what we conjure up more or less damaging than the truth?
- Comparison is the thief of joy / The grass is greener on the other side / Sometimes you get what you want only to find that you are still unsatisfied
- You can never know a person until you walk a mile in their shoes.
- How deep does self-loathing go? Is it generational? Ancestral?
- How do we gain visibility? Who or what makes us visible?
- Kids should be seen, not heard / How much should adults share with [their] children? How much communication is too much/not enough?
- There’s a thin line between love and hate. Can the two exist together? Provide examples.
Invite students to share one idea, new understanding, or feeling they are taking away from The Bluest Eye.