Community in the World of Sula
The novel Sula by Toni Morrison centers its focus on the community of Medallion, Ohio. Within this town located in the hills is a less wealthy and typically black population, this area is referred to as “The Bottom”. Even within The Bottom there is scrutiny and separation between groups of people due to lifestyle choices. With the strife involved between the townspeople it is clear to see that while there is the larger community of Medallion, it is further broken down into mini-communities by wealth, race and lifestyle. When using these identifying factors, the novel demands that we rethink the parameters in which we define our communities. By analyzing each of these traits we can gain a better sense of identity and belonging, and whether or not ostracizing those who don’t belong is valid for the health of the community as a whole.
Those who reside in the foothills of Medallion are generally white and wealthier than those in The Bottom. Eventually, the wealthier citizens of Medallion decided that they wanted to include the land of The Bottom as part of their community, but not the people residing on the land as explained in the text, “It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom (Morrison 9)”. This quote shows that being black, and identifying as a black person excludes a person from belonging to the overall community in the town of Medallion. Therefore, the culture of the neighborhood was regarded as not important, in fact “Generous funds have been allotted to level the stripped and faded buildings that clutter the road from Medallion up to the golf course (9)” to destroy any sign of those who did not belong to the wealthy white population. With the rich and vivid descriptions that Morrison uses to describe the neighborhood before deconstruction in the paragraphs following those quotes, she asks us to visualize ourselves within that community, and to think about the significance of race being a deciding factor in exclusion from the overall community of Medallion. The novel requires us to question whether Medallion benefitted more from a golf course than it did an active and thriving black neighborhood with its own history and culture.
“The Bottom” is a sub community of Medallion, not quite another town, but considered a neighborhood. It is almost exclusively black and poor. Even within the town people are out-casted. Those residing within Eva’s house are almost another sub community within the sub community of Medallion. There are the permanent residents of Eva’s family, and also boarders who come and go. The women in the household are known for being carefree and loose with their sexuality, which is frowned upon in the rest of the community. Eva has a steady stream of men who come to entertain her and Hannah enjoys the intimate company of the husbands in the neighborhood. Knowing the reputation the household has, Helene is initially cautious when her daughter Nel befriends Sula because “outside the house, where children giggled about underwear, the message was different (46)” in the Peace household. This is where even from a young age Sula learned “that sex was pleasant and frequent, but otherwise unremarkable (46)”. With this difference in philosophy and lifestyle, it may appear that the Peace family causes chaos within the black community. The opposite may be true though, the men of the neighborhood felt that ”she was unquestionably a kind and generous woman and that, coupled with her extraordinary beauty and funky elegance of manner, made them defend her and protect her from any vitriol that newcomers or their wives might spill(47).” While the women may have wanted to distance themselves from her and Eva, the men felt that she was such an essential part of their community that they would defend her place within it. This contrast requires us to rethink the place that the Peace household held in the neighborhood. Is it an entirely different community in that house, or is the community of The Bottom at least somewhat dependent on the house?
When Sula arrives again in Medallion after disappearing for 10 years, she is met with much criticism. Most already knew that her upbringing taught her to be sexually liberated, however, her rumored affairs with white men stirred much distaste from the community. The final strike is met when she begins a rendezvous with her childhood friend Nel’s husband. While The Bottom is ostracized from Medallion for racial reasons and the Peace household’s identity was separated due to sexual lifestyle, Sula finds herself not belonging to any of the community because of both racism and sexual identity. Her lack of belonging to the community is so extreme that she is not even welcome by Eva and the Peace household. While her mother was defended by the men, Sula was not. The men claim “The route from which there was no way back, the dirt that could not ever be washed away. They said that Sula slept with white men (105)” and she would be excluded from any mercy. She is not white therefore she does not belong to Medallion and her liberal view on sexual relationships excludes her from The Bottom. She could leave and find her place within another community, but while traveling she discovered “All those cities held the same people, working the same mouths, sweating the same sweat (105)”. With this in mind, where does a woman like Sula belong? Morrison forces us to reexamine the parameters in which we choose to include or exclude someone or something into our society. In our modern society it would seem silly to completely banish a woman for affairs with a white man, but could we say the same about having an affair with the man married to your best friend? Especially when we consider that Sula brings the community closer together. When she died, that unity was also broken.
The novel demonstrates that our communities and who we accept to belong to them are strictly defined by the traits of those held within the community. In Sula the topics of racism and lifestyle were determining factors for who was involved and who was not. Despite the intention for these parameters to exclude people who may harm the community, it can be seen through the progression of the novel that these exclusions actually harmed the communities more than they helped. By building a golf course Medallion lost the lively culture of a black neighborhood in the hills, by excluding the Peace household the women of The Bottom lost out on the friendship of the generous and kind Peace family, and with the death of the infamous Sula the ties that held their community together dissolved. With this in mind, perhaps we can one day coexist as one vibrant community. The community of humanity.