The photo captures our attention because the African boy’s eyes are blue. Theuns, the four-year-old boy, is dark skinned with huge, startlingly light blue eyes. His unusual eyes command ours. His gaze is innocent, slightly frightened, as he looks up at the camera. Ours is demanding–we must know how he got those pale blue eyes. The Boy with the Sapphire Eyes was published in Africa Geographic in 2012. Vanessa Bristow, a photographer living near a remote area of communal lands in an unnamed African country, writes that she encountered Theuns while looking for her dog. She asked his mother for permission to take his picture. It sparked international attention and, along with it, reader questions about whether the picture had been photo-shopped (it had not, according to Bristow).
It is unlikely that the photo would have been published on Africa Geographic if Theuns’ eyes were brown. The uniqueness of his eyes makes the photo newsworthy—a study in contrasts. Arguments broke out in the comment section, more than 150 comments–disputes about genetics and race. Accusations of “blatant photo shopping” and a “doctored” photograph were hurled at the photographer. Surely, readers implied, those eyes can’t possibly belong to Theuns, despite the fact that they are part of his face and his most dominant feature. They struggled to make sense of his eyes, which don’t seem to match his blackness. Tethered to the notion that blue eyes are at home only on a white face, in their minds he must have stolen those eyes from their rightful owner. Bristow went back to take another picture of the boy a week later, and again his eyes were the same color as in the first photo. This time, a shy smile covered Theuns’ face. The eyes were still distinctly his own.
I was about 14 when I became aware of America’s fixation with blue eyes as a symbol of beauty. American fashion magazines, with which I was obsessed, seemed to feature a disproportionate number of cover girls with blue eyes. In the 1980s, covers were shot close up, with only the model’s face showing, unlike today when models are posed full-body, often with a group four or five models on a single cover. In those days, the eyes were a central focus of the heavily airbrushed covers staring back at me from magazine stands. More than any other, it was Brooke Shields, star of The Blue Lagoon, whose face graced thousands of international magazine covers, that I thought was the most beautiful girl in the world. The contrast of her long brown hair, slightly upturned nose and wide-set blue eyes captivated the press. And me. Would Brooke Shields have rocketed to fame if she’d had brown eyes? We’ll never know, but her unassailable good looks sold magazines. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we have been conditioned to accept a rigid standard of attractiveness. We the beholders, no matter our color, internalize these rigid standards so intensely we bleach our skin, wear colored contacts and attach hair cut from other women to our heads.
My African American mom used to tell my sister and me, “I’m glad you girls have dark brown eyes like mine. It makes you look more like me.” My dad, with his green eyes and white skin, didn’t seem bothered by her blunt remark. It was the late 1960s and my mom participated in the Civil Rights Movement mostly by organizing protests against police brutality. She stopped straightening her hair with lye and wore a medium-sized afro. “Black is Beautiful,” she’d remind us, repeating one of the most compelling slogans of the movement. We played with black dolls when she could find them. Our hair was thick and curly, never relaxed, even as we became teenagers. Maybe because of my mom’s efforts, I don’t remember wanting blue eyes as much as admiring them, trying to figure out why they were a feature of privilege. I’d spend hours poring over every detail about Brooke Shields: what she ate for lunch, her lip gloss color, her Calvin Klein jeans. Shield’s prominent, perfectly symmetrical eyes seemed to be her only feature, despite the voluminous number of facts about her life I memorized.
In 1984, actress Vanessa Williams became the first African American to win the title of Miss America. Until 1970, Miss America stipulated contestants had to be “of the white race.” It was Williams’ blue eyes that stood out. They signaled that she was worthy of the crown. For a black woman to win, she needed those eyes, no matter how beautiful her face or how worthy her talent. Vanessa Williams’ blue eyes are no different than those of a white person. Blue eyes are a recessive trait. To have blue eyes means either both parents have blue eyes or one parent carries a recessive gene for blue eyes. For too long in our country, when an African American woman gave birth to a child with blue eyes, it meant that she’d been a slave who had been raped by her owner.
After slavery was abolished, interracial relationships remained taboo. Black men were lynched for merely looking at a white woman. With such a violent, segregationist history, it’s not surprising that black or mixed people with blue eyes are uncommon. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court ruled in Loving vs. Virginia that marriage between blacks and whites was legal in the U.S. My parents married in 1963, and were allowed to do so only because they lived in California, one of a handful of states that allowed interracial marriage.
In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s masterful work of fiction, Pecola, an eleven-year-old black girl, longs for blue eyes and idolizes Shirley Temple, whose whiteness she equates with beauty. Pecola believes her self-perceived ugliness is the result of her dark skin. Through a magical intervention, she is gifted blue eyes, a blessing in the mind of her benefactor: “Dear God… I, I have caused a miracle. I gave her the eyes. I gave her the blue, blue, two blue eyes. Cobalt blue. A streak of it right out of your own blue heaven. No one else will see her blue eyes. But she will. And she will live happily ever after,” says the omniscient third-person narrator.
I was a college junior when I read The Bluest Eye. I remember our adjunct professor, a black woman, telling the small class of 15 black students, that it was Morrison’s finest work. She helped us understand how skillfully Morrison interrogates America’s obsession with blue eyes—and our country’s racism. It was, I thought, the best book I had ever read. It still is.
Pecola’s blue eyes come with a price: her sanity. In the end, her metaphorical blue eyes don’t make Pecola beautiful as she’d hoped. Instead, she descends into mental illness, unable to understand that having imaginary blue eyes doesn’t protect her from racism. She has lost her grip on reality, unable to withstand her own shame and self-hatred in the face of American racism in the 1940s. Like Pecola, Theuns, the African boy, possesses the primary feature of Western good looks. I wonder what his life is like. Do Africans fixate on his eyes? Or will that be left to the readers of Africa Geographic?
Through the fluke of genetics, my white, blue-eyed husband and I gave our son blue eyes. Carson, now 16, is brown-skinned with eyes the color of sparkling Caribbean waters. When he was younger, strangers would sometimes ask me if he was mine. The supermarket cashier and the dad in line at bakery wanted answers. The couple walking past our table at a café who impulsively stopped, stared and began to ask the inevitable question about whose kid he was. Is he yours? Stunned whenever this happened, I wondered if people realized how insensitive it is to ask a mother that question in front of her child. Other times, they tried to be more diplomatic by asking me where Carson got his blue eyes. Where did he get those gorgeous blue eyes? The rudest strangers asked Carson the question directly. Honey, where did you get those blue eyes? Carson would refuse to respond, averting his eyes or staring up at them, unblinking. Politely, I explained more times than I should have that my husband has blue eyes.
After years of these encounters, I know their real questions are about miscegenation —the mixing of races. They want to know the identity of the white person who gave Carson his eyes. These strangers weren’t asking to start a friendly conversation with a mom and her young son. They put their curiosity about a mixed-race child above our right to privacy, our right to shop unbothered or eat uninterrupted at a restaurant.
These questions are only asked by white people. They find Carson’s eyes unsettling. Beautiful, sure. But, unsettling. Black people can instantly tell my son is mixed-race. White people are often uncertain. Blue eyes on a black boy, whether it is Theuns or Carson, make them uneasy. Now that Carson is 16, he’s too big to be accosted by random white people in public and quizzed about his eye color. He’s well on his way to becoming a black man, who must be careful shopping, walking, driving, existing. The beauty of Carson’s eyes, far beyond their color, is that he has the exact same blue eyes as my husband. They are their eyes–the feature that undeniably bonds them as father and son.