by Toni Morrison, 1973
I have this memory of reading Sula for a grad school class. I remember exactly one scene, which is how I can be positive I read it, but everything else is a blank for me. I’ll have to chalk my lack of retention up to having to read 500-600 pages weekly, while writing papers and working full-time, because Sula is beautiful and amazing and, my own deficiencies notwithstanding, completely unforgettable.
Sula is the story of the friendship between Nel Wright and Sula Peace, two women who grow up in the Bottom in Medallion, Ohio. Nel is born to a strict woman who does her best to reduce both her daughter’s blackness and her imagination. Sula is the granddaughter of a woman who, when her husband leaves, goes off only to come back missing a leg and with enough money to provide for her family. Consequently, Sula grew up seeing her mother’s way of discarding men – having sex with them but not sleeping with them, for that would a imply a level of intimacy far too great. This is the great difference between Nel and Sula – an adherence to societal norms is paramount for one and the pursuit of pleasure is the reason of life for the other.
It’s owing to Morrison’s great skill as a writer that she demonizes neither woman. We are not made to hate Sula for what she eventually becomes and what she eventually does. Nor need we think less of Nel for succumbing to marriage and society’s expectations of women. Instead, Morrison uses this friendship to pull apart the animosities between men and women, as well as between black and white. For Sula is not condemned by her hometown for events that happen in her childhood or for her casual way with men, but for the type of men she chooses:
Every one of them imagined the scene, each according to his predilections – Sula underneath some white man – and it filled them with choking disgust. There was nothing lower she could do, nothing filthier. The fact that their own skin color was proof that it had happened in their own families was no deterrent to their bile. Nor was the willingness of black men to lie in the beds of white women a consideration that might lead them toward tolerance. They insisted that all unions between white men and black women be rape; for a black woman to be willing was literally unthinkable. In that way, they regarded integration with precisely the same venom that white people did.
For it is not how could you sleep with our men the reason for Sula’s ostracism, but how could you sleep with their men. In her choices, Sula is seen as effectively turning her back on her own people, showing clemency to an undeserving enemy. And as long as Sula is present, the people of the Bottom have someone on whom to pin their griefs, a scapegoat for all that goes wrong in their lives. Consequently, women are a bit nicer to their husbands and more caring to their children for fear that Sula will destroy what they have worked to achieve. In their coming together in hatred for this one woman, they are unable to see how their own actions are responsible for their successes and failings.
Sula is a short book, but it’s amazing how much Morrison is able to pack into every single paragraph on the page. This story is far more than the study of one friendship broken and restored – it is also about a community grappling with oppression and finding one person on whom they can pin their woes. I am as amazed with Morrison’s second book as I was with her first and I look forward to continuing my journey through her words.