A few days ago, Jenna Bush Hager revealed her December pick for her book club Read With Jenna. This month, she and her book club members will be reading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Now, this isn’t a surprising book club pick considering the huge wave of anti-racism education happening since the riots in June after the murder of George Floyd (#blackbooksmatter on Instagram was overrun with white folks showing off their new Black books, but that’s another conversation). After Jenna announced her book club pick, there was outrage.
Why are people so mad about a white woman reading a prolific book about racism and the trauma of a little Black girl? There’s nothing wrong with Jenna Bush Hager wanting to bring attention to this great work of fiction that has been banned in several schools. This is not about policing who gets to read the books by Black authors; it’s about who profits off of the “rediscovery” of Black art.
The outrage is due to Hager’s reprint with her book club sticker. Jenna Bush Hager is literally taking up space meant for Black women. Toni Morrison said herself that she writes for Black people. Black people have been singing her praises for decades. We never needed a white woman’s seal of approval.
The Bluest Eye was so important to me in my formative years in high school. I couldn’t remember why it moved me so, but reading it again as an adult, I realized I read it during a time before I really needed it. While I didn’t quite want blue eyes to be beautiful, I definitely rejected notions of what I was force-fed as “blackness”. This wasn’t just a book where I was “walking in Pecola’s footsteps.” I was Pecola (to a certain extent).
When talking about her intention for writing The Bluest Eye, Morrison states in an interview [when talking about prolific writings written by contemporary black men at the time] “No one is going to remember when [Black] wasn’t beautiful. No one is going to remember how hurtful a certain kind of internecine racism is.”
We are in a “post-racial” moment. Of course, we know racism is bad. Of course, we know Black is beautiful. But none of this means racism is dead or that all Black people know they are beautiful. Toni Morrison is speaking to hurt little Black girls in this book, who rarely have center stage. For Jenna Bush Hagar to slap her sticker on this book, is like her taking that stage away from that hurt, little black girl.
In the same interview, Toni Morrison talks about a white woman’s critique of her work. Morrison quotes the woman as saying: “she’s too good to limit her canvas to just black folks. If she really wants to be competitive, she has to move out of that area.” Morrison continues to talk about how this angered her, as if white is a broader, more universal audience worthier of her work more. As if Toni Morrison being talented transcends her Blackness. As if appealing to white audiences is the only way to be valuable. Jenna Bush Hager’s sticker is that critic revived.
No one is saying white people should not read books written for and about Black people. If fact, they should read more of them. However, reading one book does not mean you value Black people. Having a book reprinted with a sticker that serves as a self-congratulatory participation ribbon isn’t doing anything for Black lives.
Yes, I know Oprah and others place their stickers on their book club books (I know how marketing works), and yes, I know this isn’t the first Black book that has been featured in Read With Jenna. This situation is different.