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Race and Racism Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Race and Racism Theme Icon
Love and Sexuality Theme Icon
Suffering and Community Identity Theme Icon
Women, Motherhood, and Gender Roles Theme Icon
Signs, Names, and Interpretation Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Sula, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Race and Racism Theme Icon

Like most of Toni Morrison’s novels, Sula studies the ways that black people struggle to live in America, a country with a notorious history of persecuting and oppressing black people.

Black characters in the novel face the weight of a history in which white Americans have consistently swindled blacks out of their property and their rights by manipulating laws, social norms, and even language itself. In the city of Medallion, where the novel is set, African-Americans have traditionally been confined to the Bottom—ironically the area with the highest altitude, and the least desirable neighborhood of the city. Whites promised blacks land on the “bottom”—meaning, seemingly land that was close to the Ohio River—then backed out of their promise by giving away land in the hills, supposedly the “bottom” of heaven. As the novel goes on, we see a more of this white manipulation of the African-American community, but becoming more and more sly. By the end of the book, it’s clear that whites have been systematically denying blacks in the Bottom their health care and heating, always saying that the extra resources will be used to pay for a supposed New River Road—a public works project that simply doesn’t exist. While there are almost no white characters in the book, the novel shows how the white establishment—often referred to simply as “they”—has used trickery (backed up by the cynical understanding that blacks have no legal representation, and thus can’t argue their position) to keep blacks as poor and as far from white communities as possible. “They” also try to keep blacks naïve and optimistic: always chasing for goals (such as the New River Road) that they’ll never attain.

In response to the racism they face, many of the blacks who live in the Bottom regard white culture with hatred. But because of the way white culture has shaped society, black people in the novel have no other concrete standard for beauty and sophistication other than whiteness. In this way (and despite the fact that the white establishment in Ohio clearly wants to keep them far away), many of the black characters in the Bottom are desperate to join the white community. Characters straighten their hair and painfully twist their own noses in an attempt to “look white.” Eventually, some blacks in the community gain enough money and power to move to white neighborhoods of Medallion. And yet when this does happen, these white communities move away, keeping the city of Medallion segregated. Blacks’ desire to join white communities comes to seem like another naïve, unreachable goal—just like the New River Road.

It’s crucial to understand the role of race and racism in Sula. The characters in the novel, almost all of whom are black, have been trained to think of themselves as second-class citizens, to hate their lot in life, and—in some cases—to hate each other for being black. By writing Sula, a book about the African-American experience in the 20th century, Morrison studies how a group strives for improvement in a society that’s been constructed to make this improvement impossible—a theme that’s relevant to readers of all races.

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Race and Racism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Race and Racism appears in each chapter of Sula. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Race and Racism Quotes in Sula

Below you will find the important quotes in Sula related to the theme of Race and Racism.
Prologue Quotes

Freedom was easy--the farmer had no objection to that. But he didn't want to give up any land. So he told the slave that he was very sorry that he had to give him valley land. He had hoped to give him a piece of the Bottom. The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was bottom land. The master said, "Oh, no! See those hills? That's bottom land, rich and fertile." "But it's high up in the hills," said the slave. "High up from us," said the master, "but when God looks down, it's the bottom. That's why we call it so. It's the bottom of heaven—best land there is." So the slave pressed his master to try to get him some. He preferred it to the valley. And it was done. The nigger got the hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds, and where the wind lingered all through the winter.

Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In the Prologue, Morrison describes the Bottom, a black community in which the rest of the story takes place. There is a legend about how the area got its name: years before, when the slaves were first being freed, their white owners would promise them "Bottom land," which the slaves assumed meant the good, fertile land in the valley. Later, the slave masters would give their former slaves the arid, useless land high up in the hills--land that was supposedly close to the "bottom of Heaven." In other words, white people used linguistic tricks to force uneducated black people into an inferior position.

The passage is notable because it establishes the importance of names and language for the characters. Powerful characters in the book are shown to have a strong proficiency with language--often, they demonstrate their power by naming babies, or interpreting a complicated word or sign. Controlling language becomes particularly importance, the passage shows, because of the preeminence of racism in the community. White people want to keep black people subjugated, even after the slaves are freed--and controlling words is a way for them to do so. But, as Morrison shows, words are also a way for black people to fight back and affirm their dignity and creativity.


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There in the toilet water he saw a grave black face. A black so definite, so unequivocal, it astonished him. He had been harboring a skittish apprehension that he was not real—that he didn't exist at all. But when the blackness greeted him with its indisputable presence, he wanted nothing more. In his joy he took the risk of letting one edge of the blanket drop and glanced at his hands. They were still. Courteously still. Shadrack rose and returned to the cot, where he fell into the first sleep of his new life.

Related Characters: Shadrack
Page Number: 13-14
Explanation and Analysis:

Shadrack, a black veteran of World War One, sees his own face in a toilet bowl. He's been deeply disturbed by what he witnessed in the war, probably has PTSD because of it, and wishes he could forget about it altogether. Here, we see Shadrack coping with his own trauma. By gazing at his reflection, Shadrack finds a way to stabilize his anxieties--he keeps coming back to fact that he is Shadrack, and always will be. Notably, he also finds comfort and stability in his blackness. Unlike the racist society he lives in, in this passage Shadrack sees that there is nothing inherently inferior about blackness--in fact it is a color of calm, beauty, and power.

At the same time, of course, Shadrack isn't really looking at himself as he really is: he's looking at himself in a toilet. Shadrack is coming to accept a lesser version of himself, a version that's been tarnished and dirtied both by the savagery of war and the cruelty of U.S. racism. In order to maintain his sanity, he accepts his new "self," but in doing so he also accepts his status as a second-class citizen and an inferior human being. Shadrack's behavior in this passage is the first of many scenes of self-acceptance, in which a character will accept an inferior position in society out of weakness, fear, or sheer exhaustion.


It was on that train, shuffling toward Cincinnati, that she resolved to be on guard—always. She wanted to make certain that no man ever looked at her that way. That no midnight eyes or marbled flesh would ever accost her and turn her into jelly.

Related Characters: Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene, Helene Sabat Wright
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Here we get our first insight into the mind of Nel Wright, the troubled daughter of Helene Wright. Nel is only a small child when Helene takes her to the American South to visit her childhood home in Louisiana. On the train, Nel watches as Helene is accosted by a white man, who bullies her. Helene tries her best to cooperate with the man, and smiles deferentially at him--but then she faces the clear contempt of the black men on the train.

Even as a young girl, Nel feels a strange mixture of pity and contempt for her mother—Nel swears to herself that she’ll never allow men to treat her that way; to make her feel submissive and helpless. The passage is also important because it establishes an antagonistic relationship between men and women, in and out of the black community. Furthermore, it suggests that coming of age—here represented by Nel’s promise to herself—consists of the moment in which one becomes conscious of sex and sexual politics.


Four white boys in their early teens, sons of some newly arrived Irish people, occasionally entertained themselves in the afternoon by harassing black schoolchildren. With shoes that pinched and woolen knickers that made red rings on their calves, they had come to this valley with their parents believing as they did that it was a promised land—green and shimmering with welcome. What they found was a strange accent, a pervasive fear of their religion and firm resistance to their attempts to find work. […] In part their place in this world was secured only when they echoed the old residents' attitude toward blacks.

Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Morrison describes the way that the Irish community in the novel bullies the black community. As we’re told, there’s a small community of Irish people who live near the Bottom. The white, native-born American community denies the Irish employment, spits on them, and generally treats them like second-class citizens—in other words, treats them almost as badly as they treat black people. And yet instead of befriending blacks, the Irish bully them just as much—in fact, more—than white Americans do.

The tragic irony of the passage is that even though the Irish have a lot more in common with black people than they do with native-born white Americans, they try to ingratiate themselves with white Americans by persecuting blacks. In a broader sense, the tragedy of the passage is that while many minorities face similar struggles, it's often human nature to turn on one other rather than unite against a common oppressor. The white Irish are considered inferior to the white Americans, but they feel that they can at least maintain a decent place in the hierarchy of society by emphasizing their superiority to black Americans.


"I built that road," he could say. How much better sundown would be than the end of a day in the restaurant, where a good day's work was marked by the number of dirty plates and the weight of the garbage bin. "I built that road." People would walk over his sweat for years. Perhaps a sledge hammer would come crashing down on his foot, and when people asked him how come he limped, he could say, "Got that building the New Road."

Related Characters: Jude Greene (speaker)
Related Symbols: The New River Road
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Jude—the new husband of Nel Wright—fantasizes about his future. Jude’s greatest aspiration is to build a road—specifically, the New River Road that is to link the Bottom to the surrounding community. For Jude, getting work building the New River Road is more than just a job—it’s a way of giving meaning and dignity to his life. Jude plans to measure every stage of his life—his youth, his middle-age, and even his painful old age, in which he can barely walk—in relationship to the road and his work.

Unbeknownst to Jude, however, the New River Road is a sham—a lie, designed by the white establishment to inspire false hope in young, ambitious black people like Jude. Jude is ambitious, but he’s too eager to define success in the terms the white community gives him. Because of such a flaw in his personality, Jude is ultimately a tragic character—a strong young man who becomes more cynical and more hopeless with each passing year.


When the word got out about Eva being put in Sunnydale, the people in the Bottom shook their heads and said Sula was a roach. Later, when they saw how she took Jude, then ditched him for others, and heard how he bought a bus ticket to Detroit (where he bought but never mailed birthday cards to his sons), they forgot all about Hannah's easy ways (or their own) and said she was a bitch. Everybody remembered the plague of robins that announced her return, and the tale about her watching Hannah burn was stirred up again…

Related Characters: Sula Peace, Eva Peace, Hannah Peace, Jude Greene
Related Symbols: The Plague of Robins
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, as in other passages of the novel, the people of the Bottom become like a single, unitary character. Over the years, Sula acquires a reputation for being a “bitch” and an untrustworthy, devious woman. She sends Eva Peace, her own grandmother, into a nursing home, despite the fact that Eva has been a caretaker to hundreds of children. The townspeople also condemn Sula for sleeping with Jude, Nel’s husband.

Notice the sexism of the townspeople’s comments, however. They condemn Sula for “breaking up the marriage,” but seem not to dislike Jude for cheating on his wife. By the same token, the townspeople seem more interested in attacking women’s reputations than in consistency—they criticize Hannah for being "easy," then criticize Sula for watching her death. Perhaps most tellingly, the townspeople re-interpret an ambiguous sign (the "plague of robins") to rationalize their ideas about Sula. Where before the robins seemed innocent to many, they’re now retroactively made to foreshadow Sula’s wickedness. The point isn’t that Sula is a heroin and the townspeople are wicked; the point is that the townspeople, whether or not they’re right to condemn Sula, traffic in self-righteous stereotypes about women—sexism disguised as morality.


I know what every colored woman in this country is doing."
"What's that?"
"Dying. Just like me. But the difference is they dying like a stump. Me, I'm going down like one of those redwoods. I sure did live in this world."
"Really? What have you got to show for it?"
"Show? To who? Girl, I got my mind. And what goes on in it. Which is to say, I got me."
"Lonely, ain't it?"
"Yes. But my lonely is mine. Now your lonely is somebody else's. Made by somebody else and handed to you. Ain't that something? A secondhand lonely."

Related Characters: Sula Peace (speaker), Nel Wright / Nel Wright Greene (speaker)
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

Nel visits Sula, who is slowly dying of a mysterious disease, and Sula gives an interesting justification for her actions--for sleeping with Jude, traveling across the country, putting Eva in a home, etc. Sula explains that she's spent her adult life trying to fully "live in this world." In order to escape the fate of many black women (being silenced, oppressed, etc.), Sula has always aimed to be strong and independent.

Nel points out the obvious flaw in the way Sula has lived her life: it's lonely being strong and independent without anyone else. By choosing to travel the country and be free with her sexuality, Sula knows full-well that she's condemning herself to a life of loneliness (most people in her life will think of her as a "bitch"). But Sula places more value on freedom and independence than she does on community. Where Nel and Helene Wright think of community and connection as the highest good, Sula concludes that personal freedom and personal experience are the only things worth living for.


It dazzled them, at first, and they were suddenly quiet. Their hooded eyes swept over the place where their hope had lain since 1927. There was the promise: leaf-dead. The teeth unrepaired, the coal credit cut off, the chest pains unattended, the school shoes unbought, the rush-stuffed mattresses, the broken toilets, the leaning porches, the slurred remarks and the staggering childish malevolence of their employers. All there in blazing sunlit ice rapidly becoming water.

Related Symbols: The New River Road
Page Number: 161
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the people of the Bottom arrive at all that exists of the New River Road. For decades, black people in the area have thought of the New River Road with a deep optimism. The Road will connect their community to the rest of the world, and for some, like Jude, it will provide steady employment for years to come, and a sense of accomplishment at having built something lasting.

And yet all the people's optimism has been in vain. As everyone can now see, the Road was never meant to be completed--it was an elaborate scheme, designed to keep the black community poor and uneducated. Whenever the white establishment in the area chose to deny the Bottom money or resources (school funding, new roads, etc.), it could offer a simple excuse: the money is going to pay for the Road. It's clear, now, that the people with power in the area have been lying all along: the people of the Bottom have been suffering for years, for nothing.


Nobody colored lived much up in the Bottom any more. White people were building towers for television stations up there and there was a rumor about a golf course or something. Anyway, hill land was more valuable now, and those black people who had moved down right after the war and in the fifties couldn't afford to come back even if they wanted to. Except for the few blacks still huddled by the river bend, and some undemolished houses on Carpenter's Road, only rich white folks were building homes in the hills. Just like that, they had changed their minds and instead of keeping the valley floor to themselves, now they wanted a hilltop house with a river view and a ring of elms. The black people, for all their new look, seemed awfully anxious to get to the valley, or leave town, and abandon the hills to whoever was interested. It was sad, because the Bottom had been a real place.

Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapter of the novel, we return to a larger historical view of the Bottom. Ironically, the Bottom--the high, dry land where a black community suffered but also thrived--has now become extremely desirable to white people, since it offers a beautiful view of the surrounding valley. So now, black people have been "bought out" of the Bottom, and forced to live near the river (which is precisely where their ancestors wanted to live 100 years ago, but were prevented from living).

In a sense, the black community has gotten exactly what it always wanted: land near the river. But of course, the land is no longer valuable--because the white establishment says it's not valuable. The passage is a surprising reminder that the only real power is the power of naming--being able to say which parts of the town are and aren't worth living in. Morrison also uses the passage to mourn the decline of the strong, close black community in the area. Even in the 20th century, when society becomes less segregated, the black community continues to suffer and be exploited by whites, and doesn't even have a close-knit community to fall back on. (Morrison isn't trying to say that life was better when black people were forced to live in the same place; she's trying to suggest that some supposed "progress" for the black community isn't really progress at all).