Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013) both follow a black female protagonist and their experiences with discrimination in a prejudiced society. Whilst racial and gender discrimination seem to only have negative effects on an individual, it plays a crucial role in the development of one’s personal identity. The Bluest Eye is a bildungsroman text which explores a young girl’s struggle to accept herself, whereas, Americanah follows an African woman as she integrates herself into American society. Both authors utilise representation and characterisation to convey the relevance of racial inequality and gender oppression in their respective contexts and in our modern world.
The representation of both protagonists in The Bluest Eye and Americanah gives insight into the often-unvoiced perspective from the victim of racism and demonstrates one’s growth in their understanding of their identity. The Bluest Eye incorporates the perspective of Pecola to reveal the harsh impacts it has on her cultural identity and her attitude towards it. The deliberate use of the third person omniscient point of view and pathos, “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different,” emphasises Pecola’s dissatisfaction with her appearance and her desire to alter it. This discontentment is stemmed from society’s unvoiced, yet unanimous belief that only people with white skin and blue eye are beautiful. Being a vulnerable child, Pecola takes society’s negative comments personally and believes she is not beautiful because of her appearance, causing her to strengthen her understanding of her cultural identity, yet reject it. Morrison represents Pecola as the black community and her society as the white community raise readers’ awareness on the detrimental effects of racism. This is vital as the suicide rate of African-Americans in the 1970s was significantly higher than previous years and discontentment with cultural identity is still relevant and frequent in modern society, though not as extreme. Therefore, by exposing Pecola’s racial insecurities, Morrison effectively proves that discrimination strengthens one’s identity, despite their dissatisfaction towards it.
However, in Americanah, Ifemelu develops pride in her cultural identity after facing racial discrimination, exhibited through her personal thoughts and interactions with other characters. Ifemelu reveals, “I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America,” highlighting her raised awareness towards her race and cultural identity after migrating to America because of discrimination. This exposes society’s intolerance towards people of different racial heritage. Similar to The Bluest Eye, in Americanah, society does not verbalise their prejudice yet it is made clear through their interactions with others. Ifemelu’s self-reflection after going to the salon, “the hairdresser had flat-ironed the ends, the smell of burning had made her feel a sense of loss,” illustrates that the loss of her natural hair feels like the loss of a factor of her identity. The hairdresser gives Ifemelu a popular hairstyle amongst white Americans in order to make her become beautiful in the eyes of society, accentuating the prevalence of racial inequality within the country. Ifemelu represents the black community and informs readers of the resilience gained from experiences with racism. Since Americanah is written following the successful election of the first African-American president, Barack Obama, Adichie’s audience are highly aware of the issue of racial injustice in their world. Thus, Adichie strategically uses her audience’s knowledge along with the representation of Ifemelu to demonstrate that adversities such as racism are necessary to develop one’s understanding of their identity. Hence, through representation, Morrison and Adichie showcase the impact of racism on the strengthening of their protagonist’s identity whilst critiquing society’s racial intolerance.
Pecola and Ifemelu’s interactions with their society along with their characterisation throughout the novels enlightens readers on the development of their identity after experiencing gender oppression and discrimination. In The Bluest Eye, Pecola’s experiences with oppression due to her gender demonstrates the change in one’s attitude towards their identity as it develops. Pecola’s father exploits and oppresses Pecola through rape, due to his patriarchal views. The light-hearted tone in the metaphor, “we had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt,” reveals that gender inequality and oppression was not a serious concern and was frequently seen in society. While Morrison wrote this novel, the Civil Rights Act which prohibits gender discrimination in the workplace had just been passed in an attempt to promote gender equality in America. Explicitly seen through Pecola’s circumstance, gender inequality results in young girls disliking their gender as they are viewed as inferior. The rape opens Pecola’s eyes to her gender identity and causes her to “step over into madness,” emphasising the extremity of her dissatisfaction with her identity and the drastic effects it has on one’s mental wellbeing. The characterisation of Pecola, from an innocent child to a mentally unwell female due to society’s gender discrimination, demonstrates her change in perspective towards her femininity and her strengthened understanding of her identity.
Similarly, Ifemelu also faces gender oppression and inequality but she learns to use her gender to her benefit, hence developing her sense of self. Due to society’s perspective that females are not suitable for traditionally male jobs, Ifemelu is desperate and sleeps with a man in return for money. Even though she knows this is morally incorrect, “in his expression and tone, a complete assuredness; she felt defeated.” Since Ifemelu’s character represents women around the world, she is revealing the mentality of all who are oppressed by the patriarchal society. After this encounter, Ifemelu discovers that she can manipulate others using her gender instead of being exploited by them, and begins to embrace her gender identity. She begins a blog, ‘Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black,’ where she writes about experiences of being a black woman in America and criticises society’s traditional views. As women are overlooked by society, Ifemelu faces little backlash against her blog, however, if a man wrote the blog, he would face a lot of negative comments. Ifemelu’s growth in character as she learns from experiences with discrimination to use her gender to her benefit showcase the strengthening of her identity. Therefore, the two authors use interactions between the protagonist and society to highlight the development of identity and emphasises the prevalence of gender discrimination in their respective contexts and in our modern world.
Hence, both Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Adichie’s Americanah showcase how experiences with racial and gender discrimination develops their respective protagonist’s identity and their attitude towards it. The growth of one’s personal identity is vital as one develops a better understanding of themselves and thus, as emphasised in the two texts, discrimination is crucial to the strengthening of identity.