“Toni Morrison: Sula’s Application of Literary Activism” by Kristian Guynes

Posted: January 2, 2013 in Vol. 2: Fall Essays 2012

sulaToni Morrison is known for her talent as a literary activist. Through her novels, Morrison embraces the ability to encourage a much needed change within our society. She feels the need for us to accept the struggles of our ancestors. In doing so, it will help us to move forward while still remembering the past but not holding on to it. In this paper, I will aim to show how Morrison, in relation to her novel Sula, embraces the culture and struggles of her ancestors and directs it toward the need for a change. To start, I will discuss how Morrison recollects the past of her people within her novel. The work exposes numerous issues that haunt many African-Americans. She uncovers the hardships of the black man and its impact on the African woman, the struggles between mothers and daughters, and the strong use of judgement toward someone who goes against the norm and doesn’t give in to the stereotypes that society has placed on them. In addition, I will lay forth the ideas of Susan Neal Mayberry and a partnership between Diane Gillespie and Missy Dehn Kubitscheck and how they perceive the struggles of both African-American males and females. Next, I will expose Karen F. Stein along with Barbara Lounsberry and Grace Ann Hovet to support this idea. By showing the past struggles of African-Americans and giving them a voice to why and how they became that way, Toni Morrison successfully embraces social activism in her writings by encouraging us to accept these flaws and in return allowing room for growth within our society without the need for the “other”.

Although many people feel that the injustice toward black males has stopped after slavery, Morrison captures the oppression that continued to linger long after. In an article by Susan Neal Mayberry she says, “Everyone knows, deep down, that black men were emasculated by white men (Mayberry, 518)”. Black males struggled with societies view of needing to provide for their family. Although the majority of them were hard workers, they would lose out on jobs to the white males solely because of their race. This would leave the black men feeling like their manhood had been taken from them. They started to feel depressed and discouraged. As an outlet of anger, black men would turn to the mistreatment of the black females; mostly their wives. Mayberry states, “Morrison evaluates the position of the black woman in America as having been for years a scapegoat for black male frustration and rage (Mayberry, 518)”. Not only would their frustration lead to abuse, but also to alcoholism, to drug addiction, and to abandoning their family. In Sula, we are shown the effects of addiction through the character Plum. He was the favorite child, but because of the pressures from society he became addicted to heroin. When his mother found out, she did what in her eyes was right and burned him to death. The reason for the burning, was to cleanse him. The symbolism of burning something is to purify it. By burning Plum, she felt that she was helping him as a form of rebirth or a new start.

Boyboy is another example of a black male that had to endure similar issues. He was an African-American male who was married to Eva. He underwent many hardships, working for a white man. Before he left Eva, the story explains that they didn’t have a happy marriage. Morrison writes, “He did whatever he could that he liked, and he liked womanizing best, drinking second, and abusing Eva third (Morrison, 32)”. Because he dealt with the stress of being a black man working for a white man, he began to feel inferior. He turned to drinking to help ease the pain he felt, and he turned to womanizing and abusing Eva to make himself still feel like a man. By having power over someone in his life, he didn’t feel completely useless. Morrison wanted to give a voice to the black male.

Before we judge the actions of the black males, she wants us to first think about why they acted out like this. In an article by Rita A. Bergenholtz, she quotes Morrison saying, “I don’t want to give my readers something to swallow. I want to give them something to feel and think about (Bergenholtz, 90)”. Morrison is insinuating that she doesn’t want the reader to just read her stories and automatically judge the characters based off what they did. She wants her audience to be able to realize that there is more to them. In an article by Diane Gillespie and Missy Dehn Kubitscheck it states, “In her postulation of two very different gender-determined visions of the self, Chodorow concludes that ‘masculine personality…comes to be defined more in terms of denial of relation and connection (Gillespie and Kubitscheck, 24)”. What these authors are stating is that males feel the need to be masculine and with that comes the desire to be an individual apart from female presence. They also mention that, “Because boys must successfully separate from the mother, individuation becomes the overriding  issue in the development of masculine identity, while connection and involvement with others are denied (Gillespie and Kubitscheck, 25)”. Males learn at a young age that they shouldn’t attach themselves to a female or else they lose their masculine identity. This idea starts at a young age, in which they try to break away from any close relationship with their mothers. The thought then branches to their relationships with other women. They aren’t able to stay with them, unless they feel in charge. This means that they are financially able to provide for their wife and family. Like Boyboy, many other African-American males at the time failed to do so and left their wives.

Problems not only stem from being in a marriage, but also losing in touch with their culture. After coming back from war, Shadrack loses everything. Morrison writes, “He is alienated, ‘with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no address book…’ (10). The community recognizes his distance by considering him crazy. Rather than attempting to understand his struggles and the reason why Shadrack went crazy, they take the easy way out by labeling him as the other. Morrison wants her readers to realize that when a person gets stripped of their culture and belongings, it is traumatizing. Gillespie and Kubitscheck write that Shadrack was, “ ‘a grave black face’ unconnected to anyone else, he alone of the male characters ‘struggle[s] to order and focus experience’ and in so doing stakes out ‘a place for fear’ so that he can control it (Gillespie and Kubitscheck, 26)”. By creating “National Suicide Day”, Shadrack has control over an aspect in his life. The holiday becomes widely recognized within the community, therefore making Shadrack feel less like the other. He uses that day to feel like a regular being within the community; like he is a part of something. No one is excluded from  participating in “National Suicide Day”. This feeling helps to dispel the notion that he is now the “other” or the outcast within Bottom. By knowing this, we can say that Shadrack is not crazy, but rather he is lost and just attempting to find his self; his culture identity.

Not only does Morrison not want us to automatically judge the men of that time, but also understand what their actions do to the black woman. Gillespie and Kubitscheck claim that, “Childlike in the vulnerability of their dependence and consequent fear of abandonment, they claim to wish only to please, but in return for their goodness they expect to be loved and cared for (Gillespie and Kubitscheck, 31)”. They are suggesting that women realize many husbands leave their wives, so during the marriage their goal is to please their husband. Since they have a fear of being abandoned by their husbands, they commit to being the caring of their spouse; in return, all they want is to be loved and cared for. If a male does decide to leave (which most times they did), women automatically jump into the leadership and provider roles. From this, most women like Eva tend to strongly dislike their former spouse. In an article by Barbara Lounsberry and Grace Ann Hovet they say, “She doesn’t know what to feel when he returns, but suddenly finds the answer in ‘hate’ (Lounsberry and Hovet, 127)”. By Eva having hate for her husband, she is unable to move on out of this cycle. According to Gillespie and Kubitscheck, “Women developing this ethic of care progress through three stages, which are characterized by unique definitions of moral responsibility to others (Gillespie and Kubitscheck, 28)”. These steps  characterize how she will live her life. These steps include, “First, an unsocialized state, her primary concern is survival. Second, she selflessly immerses herself in other people…Selfishness is equated with immorality. Third, a woman includes responsibilities to herself as well as others (Gillespie and Kubitscheck, 28)”. These actions are demonstrated within the novel, Sula. When Eva’s husband, Boyboy, leaves her and their family, she is forced to be strong and provide for her  children. Gillespie and Kubitscheck state that, “Eva gives of herself, literally, to secure food for her children (Gillespie and Kubitscheck, 31)”. Eva works a lot to be able to feed and care for her children. Her first instinct as a mother is the will to survive. This will also branches out to her children. The relationship between a mother and her children is very strong. The mother invests numerous hours committed to the caring for her children.

The relationship between a mother and daughter is an important point within the  novel because Morrison wants to give a voice to why women were used to living the way they did. Not only does Morrison want us to stop the judging if someone was a good mother or not, we must first recollect their history and understand how they came to be. Within the novel, we are exposed to a cycle that happened a lot within that time period. The daughters would follow in the footsteps of their mothers. We are shown the relationship between Helene Wright and her daughter Nel. Both did not want to turn out like their mothers. Helene was raised to always be on guard. Because of this, when she had entered through the wrong way on the train, she was called out for doing so. The men on the train looked at Helene with hatred. Morrison states, “She resolved to be on guard- always. She wanted to make certain that no man ever looked at her that way (Morrison, 22)”. She would now have her guard up, so that no one could look at her as being inferior because she was a strong woman. Nel made several attempts to stray away from following in her mother’s footsteps. Nel said, “I’m me. I’m not their daughter, I’m not Nel. I’m me. Me. (Morrison 28)”. She tries to break away from being identified as her mother’s daughter and be classified as herself. She wants to be able to write her own history, rather than have her mother’s past become her future. She failed to do so as she followed her mother’s path. Barbara Lounsberry and Grace Ann hovet address this by saying, “Nel’s vows are ultimately as futile as her mother’s…Nel reverts to her mother’s rigid middle-class morality: marrying, living for her children, working hard as a cleaning woman for ‘respectability’, and visiting old people at the close of her life as a ‘good church woman’ (Lounsberry and Hovet, 126)”. This cycle of following their mothers’ footsteps were hard because that is all they knew and what society expected out of them. This cycle stemmed from generation to generation because that is how women were brainwashed to be by the many poor examples before them.

Another relationship that is depicted within this novel is between Sula and Nel. In an article by Susan F. Stein she states, “To Nel, Sula brings not only loss and pain, but also, even after her death, and enlarged self-awareness…She comes to realize that caution had led her to accept limitations too readily and that moral smugness had blinded her to her own potential for evil (Stein, 149)”. Ever since they were young, Nel had always seen Sula as negatively as society does. Sula was different than your normal female who lived in the Bottom. Everyone in town saw Sula as being evil or bad luck. This idea started when they were children and Sula had accidentally let go of Chicken Little’s hand causing him to drown and die. Following this incident, Sula watched her mom, Hannah, burn to death. Although Nel was friends with Sula, she still judged her based on these events. Stein says, “Believing herself morally superior to Sula, Nel realizes later her own complicity in Chicken Little’s death…Sula’s grandmother Eva confuses her with Sula and asserts that she was involved in the drowning (Stein, 149)”. This claim upsets Nel, because she believed she had not committed any crime. Stein continues to say, “She has always been careful to think she saw him drown; with Eva’s challenge she acknowledges to herself that she watched and even experienced a secret excitement (Stein, 149)”. Stein pin points a major issue within the story. The whole time Nel was judging Sula because of the things she had done, but didn’t realize Sula wasn’t the only one. By Eva accusing Nel of being involved in the drowning of Chicken Little, she comes to realize that her and Sula aren’t that different after all. Nel finally admits at the end that she was wrong and that she was just as guilty as Sula was. She always viewed it as Sula’s fault because her hand had physically let Chicken Little go. All that time, she didn’t realize that it wasn’t the only act that was important, but also the fact that she stood there and watched. Stein points out this difference between seeing something happen, and actually watching something being done. The fact that Nel got somewhat excited shows that you can’t be too quick to judge someone because little did she know that there was evil lurking inside of her as well. She also shouldn’t have turned her back on her friend and given in to societies procedure of claiming that she was the “other”.

Morrison does a great job at capturing the realness and history of her ancestors. By showing the past struggles of African-Americans and giving them a voice, we are able to stop judging them for what they did. Many view the African-American fathers as being low-life dead beats, but this text helps us to view them in a much more authentic light. Morrison teaches what one for the most part fails to learn in a normal school curriculum. We automatically were taught to view them as the “other” (an outcast). This idea is also presented in the struggles that women face as a result of their husbands leaving them. We know it is hard for them, but most don’t realize truly the amount of work they invest in providing and caring for their families.   Also, what a lot of people misunderstand is how the actions of the parents greatly effect the children. Most times, this type of behavior and lifestyle is passed on through generations because that is the example that was given to them. Lastly, judging people and causing them to be the other because of the way others perceive them is wrong. With the acceptance of our ancestors’ past along with our own history, we will be able to learn from them and move on with our lives. In relation to accepting the past, we will no long feel the need to force the role of the other on someone just because society doesn’t agree with their actions and beliefs. By learning the struggles that our ancestors were faced with, we will be able to grow and become stronger as a result.

Works Cited

Bergenholtz, Rita Allan. “Toni Morrison’s Sula: A Satire on Binary Thinking.” African American Review 30.1 (1996): 89-98. JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3042096>.

Gillespie, Diane, and Missy Dehn Kubitscheck. “Who Cares? Women-Centered Psychology in Sula.” American Literature Forum 24.1 (1990): 21-48. JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2904064>.

Lounsberry, Barbara, and Grace Ann Hovet. “Principles of Perception in Toni Morrison’s Sula.” Black American Literature Forum 13.4 (1979): 126-29. Www.jstor.org. St. Louis       University, 2000. Web. 8 Apr. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3041476>.

Mayberry, Susan Neal. “Something Other than a Family Quarrel: The Beautiful Boys in Morrison’s “Sula”” African American Review 37.4 (2003): 517-33. Www.jstor.org. St. Louis University, 2003. Web. 8 Apr. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1512384>.

Written for Prof. Amy Nishimura’s ENG 440: Major Author

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