There isn’t a book that Toni Morrison has written that has not caused me to sit and reflect on the diversity of Black women’s experience. I recommend any book in the catalogue of the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize in literature.
My interest in Toni Morrison’s work began with the Blueest Eye.
The Bluest Eye tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, whose turbulent life gets shaped by complex themes like sexual assault, racism, colorism, and poverty. At the time I read it, I had not read any of Morrison’s non-fiction pieces, so I didn’t realize the connection between her work and black feminist theory.
I set out on my next Toni Morrison novel after reading her essay in the Black Feminist Reader. In the essay, she analyzes her own work including the Bluest Eye and another novel titled Sula.
I figured I could read Sula with fresh eyes, through the lens of Black feminist theory Morrison applied to her work rather than as a passive reader.
Sula tells the story of two best friends, Nel and Sula, raised in the fictional town of Medallion in the post-World War era. The two girls come from different histories: Nel raised by the proud and respectable Helene Wright while Sula lives with her scandalous grandmother Eva and mother Hannah. As they grow, the girls’ lives are intertwined through many emotional and devasting incidents. Through love, sex, and heartbreak, the two women always manage to find each other.
I think the plot of this novel speaks to the complexity of Black women’s lives, particularly in relation to men. For instance, Sula gains a bad reputation among Black residents of Medallion because of a rumor that she had sex with a White man. The conservative community reserved a disdain for sexually liberated women in general, but the idea that a Black woman chose to engage with a White man sexually, due to the history of rape of Black women during and after slavery.
The complicated view the characters in the novel had of interracial sex reminded me of what I had read in historian Kevin J. Mumford’s book Interzones, which I tweeted about recently. The taboo of interracial sex between White women and Black men drove the development of segregated vice during the Great Migration, ultimately leading to the creation of interzones:
Just years after the closing of the red-lights districts, and the internal migration of prostitution from predominately white to African-American areas, another related development shaped development shaped the process through which black/white vice districts developed into interzones: Prohibition.” 1
Another aspect of Black women’s lives the book highlighted involved marriage. A number of the women in Sula were married, represented by an anonymous chorus of women who held themselves in esteem for having and maintaining relationships with frequently wayward husbands.
Characters like Helene and Nel saw marriage as a means to upward mobility. However, what these women find is that their husbands face discrimination in the labor market, unable to secure stable wages to provide for their family. Morrison, however, stays frank about the fragility of marriage. This offers a compelling comparison to the agency with which adult Sula moves through the little town of Medallion upon her return home with a college eduction and experiences of world travel. This speaks to a tension between education and marriage as a means for upward mobility for Black women.
If you’re looking a for a new novel to read by a Black woman writer, I recommend Sula.
- Mumford 1997, p. 28 ↩