Black History Month: Toni Morrison’s “Sula”

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Toni Morrison’s “Sula,” first published in 1973, was chosen as an Oprah book club pick in 2002. This is how the TV show’s Web site describes the book:

Nominated for the National Book Award, this rich and moving novel traces the lives of two black heroines—from their growing up together in a small Ohio town, through their sharply divergent paths of womanhood, to their ultimate confrontation and reconciliation.

Nel Wright chooses to remain in the place of her birth, to marry, to raise a family, and to become a pillar of the tightly-knit black community. Sula Peace rejects all that Nel has accepted. She escapes to college and submerges herself in city life. When she returns to her roots, it is as a rebel, a mocker and a wanton sexual seductress. Both women must suffer the consequences of their choices; both must decide if they can afford to harbor the love they have for each other; and both combine to create an unforgettable rendering of what it means and costs to exist and survive as a black woman in America.

What that fails to mention is found in a 1996 essay by Rita A. Bergenholtz from the African American Review “Toni Morrison’s Sula: A Satire on Binary Thinking”:

Toni Morrison’s ‘Sula’ succeeds as a satire for its entertainment and thought-provoking values. Binary thinking is likewise promoted and constitutes the novel’s essence. Through ‘Sula’, Morrison examines the apparent contradictions that are inherent in the perceptions and lifestyles of blacks toward whites and vice-versa. The characters in the novel exemplify the need for the binary perspectives of both races prior to some sort of mutual understanding.

From a Salon.com interview in 1998:

Did you have any relationship to the word “feminism” when you were growing up, or did you have a sense of yourself first as black and then as female?

I think I merged those two words, black and feminist, growing up, because I was surrounded by black women who were very tough and very aggressive and who always assumed they had to work and rear children and manage homes. They had enormously high expectations of their daughters, and cut no quarter with us; it never occurred to me that that was feminist activity. You know, my mother would walk down to a theater in that little town that had just opened, to make sure that they were not segregating the population — black on this side, white on that. And as soon as it opened up, she would go in there first, and see where the usher put her, and look around and complain to someone. That was just daily activity for her, and the men as well. So it never occurred to me that she should withdraw from that kind of confrontation with the world at large. And the fact that she was a woman wouldn’t deter her. She was interested in what was going to happen to the children who went to the movies — the black children — and her daughters, as well as her sons. So I was surrounded by people who took both of those roles seriously. Later, it was called “feminist” behavior. I had a lot of trouble with those definitions, early on. And I wrote some articles about that, and I wrote “Sula,” really, based on this theoretically brand new idea, which was: Women should be friends with one another. And in the community in which I grew up, there were women who would choose the company of a female friend over a man, anytime. They were really “sisters,” in that sense.

The previous authors and writings featured on this blog:
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”
Gwendolyn Brooks
August Wilson
“Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson
“Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Langston Hughes
“Cane” by Jean Toomer
“The Great Negro Plot” by Mat Johnson
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
“I Have a Dream” speech”

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