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.
Race and Racism ThemeTracker
Race and Racism Quotes in Sula
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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…
I know what every colored woman in this country is doing."
"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."
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.
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.