Sula, Toni Morrison's second novel, was published in 1973. It was generally positively reviewed in venues like The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and St. Louis Dispatch, though Sara Blackburn's review in the New York Times did make some controversial criticisms of Morrison's "narrow" focus on a small-town Black community (see our reception history essay for more on this controversy).
At its core, Sula is a novel about two friends, Sula Peace and Nel Wright, who grow up together and then grow apart. They live in a loosely-organized, predominantly Black community called “the Bottom,” which exists on the edge of the predominantly white town of Medallion, Ohio. Some sources have indicated that Morrison may have had the city of Pittbsburgh, PA in mind in constructing Medallion; she had based her account of the place on stories she'd heard from her mother, Ramah Wofford (nee Willis).
The time frame is roughly 1919-1965 -- the end of World War I to the peak of the American Civil Rights movement. Sula and Nel are sometimes peripherally and sometimes centrally involved in a series of violent acts. However, the pattern of violence in the novel is different from what we might expect after reading The Bluest Eye. Characters like Eva Peace, who kills her son Plum, and Sula, who accidentally drowns a little boy called Chicken Little, have backgrounds involving struggle and suffering, but the deaths they are connected to do not specifically spring from their own personal traumas.
Another symbolic mystery in the novel is the character called Shadrack, a World War I veteran who comes back from the war deeply traumatized (he is experiencing what we would today called extreme PTSD). He lives in the Bottom as an eccentric fisherman and doer of odd-jobs, who creates a curious annual event called “National Suicide Day." Solving the mystery of Shadrack may help us understand the strange pattern of Deaths in the Peace family, even though the two phenomena are not directly linked.
More than 300,000 African American soldiers served in the military in World War I, in segregated units. The majority were relegated by the Army to support roles and were not allowed to enter into active combat. Some units did, and served with distinction (someone should really make a movie about the 369th Infantry regiment, the “Harlem Hellfighters,” which sustained the highest casualty levels of any American army unit in the war…). Upon returning to the U.S. from Europe in 1919, many Black veterans, especially in the South, were dismayed to find that the Jim Crow segregation policies were still in effect. Others, in the North, were angry to be shut out of access to good-paying jobs by white-dominated labor organizations (we’ll see this issue also raised in Sula in connection with a big bridge/tunnel project later in the novel). These veterans were more likely to rebel against mistreatment, and their discontent may have played a part in the wave of lynchings and Black protests that occurred in the “Red Summer” of 1919. Shadrack, of course, does not quite fit that pattern; his is not a protest against racial injustice. But what is his “National Suicide Day” about? This is one of the many questions critics and readers have puzzled over in Morrison's novel.
Finally, Sula is about the nature of the Black community itself. What are the factors that led to this particular community emerging as it did under segregation -- and what might be factors that might lead to its ultimate breakdown and dissolution?
There are a few historical terms we might want to be aware of as they pertain to Sula (and we’ll see them in other novels as well).
One is the Great Migration -- the pattern of large scale migration of Black folks from the South to the North following the Civil War and the Reconstruction. Most of the Black neighborhoods in northern cities emerged at this time (roughly 1880-1930). Importantly, though large numbers of people were moving North, they often retained emotional and cultural connections to their Southern roots, and there’s a dialogue in Morrison’s novels between southern Black culture and northern Black culture that recurs in many of Morrison's novels, including Song of Solomon, Beloved, and Jazz.
Another key historical term is Urban Renewal. This is the process (mainly from the 1950s-60s) by which predominantly Black urban slums were torn down and rebuilt, either with more updated, upscale housing and shops (read: gentrification), or in some cases large-scale municipal projects (highway overpasses, big sports stadiums, etc.). The story of Urban Renewal and its impact on Black communities is a complex: in truth, the neighborhoods that were torn down in these big projects were in fact extremely marginal places, often intentionally so (these were places where Black folks were allowed to live under segregated housing that was very much as active in the North as it was in the South). But the result of the demolition is that whole communities were displaced, and with them a cultural legacy -- a sense of place and belonging.
A version of that story is described in Sula, with the Bottom being originally hillside land that was seen as undesirable for white settlers in Medallion. Later, however, as Black folks moved out of the Bottom over the years the area was redeveloped and turned into a golf course frequented by wealthy white residents; the neighborhood itself ceased to exist. In addition to the resemblance to Pittsburgh, the neighborhood known as The Bottom in Sula seems to resemble a predominantly Black neighborhood in Detroit, known as "Black Bottom." This area was redeveloped in an urban renewal project in the 1960s, and largely wiped out as a result.