“Say what, now?” has been the typical (if not most explicit) response to an announcement made this week that Jenna Bush Hager, former first daughter-turned-Today with Hoda and Jenna co-host, would be hosting “A Celebration of Toni Morrison” on the morning show December 21, 2020.
Yes, you heard that right: Jenna “My Dad Is George W. Bush” Hager is hosting a celebration of Toni Morrison, coincidentally (or not) airing on what The Root’s Freelance Entertainment Writer Shanelle Genai fondly refers to as “the Negro Solstice”...and we have both questions and serious concerns.
Where do we begin, exactly? Well, first of all, there are a lot of things that confuse us that we’ve long since given up figuring out—like why Jenna Bush Hager is a host on Today. (As first daughters go, it still makes a helluva lot more sense than Ivanka being a White House senior adviser, so we’ll pick our battles.) While this writer doesn’t regularly tune into Today, apparently there was some foreshadowing (to use a literary term), since Hager initially announced that The Bluest Eye, which this year celebrates 50 years since its publication, would be her December book club pick on Nov. 30. Making the subsequent announcement that she’d be hosting this upcoming salute to the author, Hager explained that her affinity for Morrison’s first novel, a book formerly banned in many parts of her native Texas, began in high school, writing on Today’s site:
I remember where I was sitting when it was assigned to my sophomore English class at Austin High School. While it started as another homework project, it quickly turned into reading a book I felt I had chosen for myself. I remember marking it up like I had never marked up any books before.
I was totally in awe of Toni Morrison’s ability to make us feel like we were walking in Pecola’s footsteps. Even if you didn’t necessarily relate, there was no way you didn’t empathize with Pecola. Thematically, I had never read anything quite like this. It was a book that talked about adult subjects but the underlying themes of racism, otherness and feeling not good enough were things that my classmates were dealing with, particularly my classmates of color. It was the first book that really opened my eyes to how literature can create understanding and take you into worlds you don’t know.
OK, we can respect the chord of empathy and openness Hager’s trying to strike here, especially when it is in such short supply these days. And we certainly agree that even in the shittiest year of our lifetimes to date, the half-century milestone of this still groundbreaking novel—as well as the legacy of Morrison, who died in August 2019, is worthy of celebration.
Honestly, we’re here for celebrating Morrison any and every day of the week, month or year—but what we’re not going to do is ignore the Black girl in the room. In the 50 years since The Bluest Eye was published, its painful and poignant story of 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove and the other members of her too-small universe in Morrison’s native Lorain, Ohio, has been a source of empathy and affirmation for Black girls, many of whom felt seen for the first time in Morrison’s prose and characters.
Perhaps Morrison’s most famous quote is “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it” (h/t Goodreads). While Hager may have felt The Bluest Eye a book she might’ve chosen for herself, it was not, in fact, written for her. As Morrison herself once explained in an interview, she was compelled to write her debut novel (and arguably, many of those that followed) for “the most vulnerable...female Black children who have never held center stage in anything.” She further noted her reasons for centering “a little hurt Black girl” in her narrative arose from being “deeply concerned about the feelings of being ugly.”
“I wanted to speak for those of us who didn’t catch that [we were beautiful] right away,” she added.
Does that mean The Bluest Eye is the exclusive bastion of Black girls? Of course not, since, as Hager, who calls Morrison her “favorite author of all time” acknowledged, “it still holds incredible power to spark current conversations... While this fact is heartbreaking, it also shows how complicated and complex some of these themes are.”
But in our humble opinion (one clearly shared many others), those conversations should both be led by and equally center the same girls and women Morrison wrote her novel for—a novel which ironically wasn’t initially well-received when it debuted in 1970. With so many of our current conversations encouraging the sharing of the mic and relinquishing of platforms to the more marginalized, it’s fair to cringe at the thought of Hager or any other white woman leading (on a mainstream national broadcast, no less), what is by necessity a deeply nuanced and still relevant dialogue on colorism, class and abuse rooted in a poor, Black, dark-skinned girlhood experience.
To be fair, while Hager is billed as the host of the hourlong special (not exactly a draw, to our thinking—seriously, no producer or co-host questioned this idea?) the rest of her guests will be Black women, including “queen of all media” (and friend of Morrison) Oprah Winfrey, founder of Well-Read Black Girl (and 2019 The Root 100 honoree) Glory Edim, Patsy novelist Nicole Dennis-Benn, and high school teacher Kessina Cheriza, who includes The Bluest Eye on her annual mandatory reading lists.
With that added detail in mind, what is our complaint, exactly? (We know—we Blacks always have something to complain about.) Simply that it might be nice if, instead of us all
marveling cocking our heads at Hager’s good taste in books and willingness to bring this oft-banned, unequivocally Black novel to her largely white fanbase—let alone giving her impressions of this seminal work, which no one asked for—she’d at least opt to relinquish her hosting spot to someone like Edim, or even Cheriza. And maybe she will, in a refreshing bait-and-switch, though we can’t guarantee we’ll be tuning in at 11 am Monday morning to find out.
Do we think more non-Black and female people need to read The Bluest Eye? Without question—but after they do, they need to sit back and do what we’ve been advising our politicians and pretty much everyone else to do since time immemorial: Listen to Black women.