The narrator begins by describing an Ohio neighborhood, which used to stand in the same place where there is currently a “Medallion City Golf Course.” The neighborhood was inhabited mostly by black people, and was called “the Bottom.” In the Bottom there used to be beautiful trees, and children playing in them. The narrator notes other places in the neighborhood as well: hair salons, grills, pool halls, etc.
In the first paragraphs of the novel, Morrison satirizes another great American writer, William Faulkner, who began his book The Sound and the Fury by bemoaning the disappearance of a golf course after the Civil War, and with it, Southern white plantation culture. Morrison turns this sentiment on its head, criticizing “white culture” for swallowing up a vibrant African-American community to build something as banal as a golf course.
In the old days of the Bottom, if an insurance man or a rent collector were to come to the area, he’d see black people playing banjos and harmonicas, perhaps laughing along with black women “in a flowered dress.” The black women would sing and dance.
Morrison portrays the Bottom from the perspective of an outsider. The Bottom seems almost utopian—men seem to be getting along with women, there’s music in the air, etc. But of course, Morrison will quickly refute this nostalgic sentiment.
In the old days, the narrator continues, the black people in the Bottom would tell jokes to cheer themselves up—and there was a lot to be “cheered up” about. At the time, there were slaves. White farmers would often offer to give slaves their freedom, along with some free “bottom land,” in return for their hard labor. When the slaves completed the hard labor, they would ask the white farmer for freedom and bottom land. The farmer would give the slave his freedom, but hedge on giving away “bottom land.” The slaves had assumed that “bottom land” meant good, fertile soil in the valley. The white farmer would chuckle and explain that “bottom land” referred to land at the top of the hills in the distance. White farmers supposedly called this land “bottom land” because it was close to the bottom of heaven. In the end, the slaves were freed and given free land, but this land—up in the hills—was dry, arid, and difficult to farm. In this way, blacks in Ohio eventually settled in the Bottom—the area high up on the hills where the farming was tough.
In this important opening section, we see how the name “Bottom” itself is proof of the consistent oppression of black people in the United States. The white farmers manipulate language itself to trick blacks into accepting lackluster land—confident, of course, that their former slaves have no real ability to stand up to their manipulations, because they have almost no legal or social rights. From the very beginning, we can see that “naming”—that is to say, writing, communication, and interpretation—has an important kind of power. As an author, words obviously hold great importance for Morrison, and this theme informs her overall project as a writer as well. She is a passionate advocate for black rights, and partly seeks to use words and names to “re-wire” systems of black oppression in America.
Despite the tough conditions in the Bottom, blacks succeeded in building a strong community for themselves. There were even some white people who genuinely believed that Bottom land really was the best land. The narrator closes by noting that “as early as 1920,” the blacks in the Bottom were preoccupied with a man named Shadrack, and with a little girl named Sula.
The African-Americans of the Bottom succeed in establishing a happy community for themselves, but they always succeed in spite of whites, not because of them. Morrison introduces two of her important characters here, even though she won’t come to Sula herself until much later.