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Sula | Context

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Feminism, Women's Roles, and Domestic Violence

In the early 1970s the women's movement began its second wave in response to the repression of women despite the existence of an increasingly free society. Women still had difficulty attaining financial independence, and birth control was not an accepted part of women's health care. The anthology of feminist literature titled Sisterhood Is Powerful, edited by Robin Morgan, was one of the most influential books of the decade, inspiring women to demand equality in the workplace as well as at home and in relationships. Ms. Magazine was also influential in exposing sexism in the media as well as publishing essays by noted feminists and novelists such as Alice Walker, who wrote The Color Purple (1982). Feminist presses such as Virago also opened up venues for feminist writers to publish their work.

Sula addresses the role of women in relationships as well as in the community, and Sula's determination to be her own person was met with negative criticism and deep resistance from other characters in the novel, just as feminists in the late 1960s and early 1970s met with resistance and were heavily criticized when they demanded equality. The start of the women's movement also began to shed light on the problem of domestic violence and the acceptance of violence against women by society as a whole. Toni Morrison's work, especially her first two novels, was instrumental in bringing to light issues such as domestic abuse and infidelity as well as the relationships between women in African American communities, single motherhood (she was a single mother during the time that she wrote Sula), and the expectations of women in society. However, Morrison herself said that with Sula she wanted to present the friendship between two women as a more complicated, nuanced relationship than was presented in the feminist movement's notion of sisterhood. At the time she published Sula, she described as "a very radical thing" her portrayal of a nonsexual relationship between two women in which the women do not focus their conversations around men. In the novel she also shows how women are encouraged to dislike each other and put their trust in men, a trend that the feminist movement hoped to address.

Race Relations

After the civil rights marches of the 1960s, the 1970s marked an era of civil rights legislation to ensure voting rights, access to education, and economic opportunities for African Americans. However, there was also a backlash against this legislation, despite the increasing presence of African Americans in many aspects of public life, including government and the media. Efforts to desegregate schools were often not successful, and although attitudes about race were changing in some communities, the changes were slower to arrive in others.

Toni Morrison's novel Sula reflects this resistance to equality and the perception of black people as ignorant, which begins with the "nigger joke" that white people tell about the Bottom land. The story goes that the land had been relegated to the black population as the result of a farmer's effort to swindle his newly freed slave, and this tale is told to rationalize the fact that black people are all in the hills, which is not fertile land for planting, while whites have taken all the good land. The men in the community want to build their own roads and bridges, but white-controlled construction companies refuse to hire black men.

By the end of the novel, in the late 1960s, black people are working in the town of Medallion, handling money and taking positions that were denied to them earlier, but there is still a definite divide between the rich whites and the rest of the town. The hill land suddenly becomes the place to be once gentrification sets in, and none of the black people in town can afford to live there anymore.

Critical Reception

By the time Sula hit bookstores, most critics and a growing readership acknowledged Morrison as an important African American writer whose talent for vivid sensory description and lyrical writing was unassailable. However, white critics who viewed English literature as a Eurocentric, mostly male-dominant canon pigeonholed Morrison's work as merely an example of African American literature. The New York Times published a review that said Morrison's novel did not reach far enough outside its fictional parameters to encompass a broader experience, meaning the inclusion of the white community. The review claimed that Morrison would limit herself if she didn't expand her vision.

Yet Morrison wrote about the black community from personal experience and drew on her life as an African American woman to create her novels. Alice Walker, another notable African American novelist, was among the many who felt compelled to respond to the white reviewer of Sula in a letter to the editor, saying that the reviewer, "like only too many reviewers before her, is incapable apparently of experiencing black fiction as art but must read it instead as sociology." In later interviews Morrison stated she doesn't feel it is necessary or desirable for her to write about white people, and she thinks the question of why she doesn't is patronizing and diminishes her literary focus, which is her own community. The themes are universal, but to Morrison, the place from which she writes has to be African American.

In Sula, the novel's universal themes of love, suffering, betrayal, and friendship as experienced in a small, mostly African American town in the 1920s and 1930s enthralled readers, if not all critics, by allowing them to better understand the values of female friendships as well as the forces that interfere with and disrupt those bonds. Through the account of Nel and Sula's relationship, Toni Morrison explores the themes of community and social alienation and poses intriguing questions on race and gender rather than providing answers or guidance. Chosen by media powerhouse Oprah Winfrey for her book club in 2002, Sula remains one of Morrison's most popular novels.
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