Literature Study GuidesSulaPart 1 Introduction Summary

Sula | Study Guide

Toni Morrison

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Sula | Part 1, Introduction | Summary



The narrator begins the novel by mourning the disappearance of the Bottom to make room for a golf course and mansions for white people. The narrator also relates the story white people tell about how the Bottom came to be a neighborhood for black people, referred to as a "nigger joke," meaning one that white people tell when they are down on their luck so they can laugh at people who are worse off than they are. The black people of the Bottom also tell it to cover up the pain of having been shuttled into a segregated neighborhood in which farming can't thrive but not being allowed to work in town or work on construction in their own area because of their skin color. The "joke" goes like this: A farmer asks his slave to do a series of difficult jobs for him, and in return he promises the slave freedom and a piece of bottom land. However, once the slave fulfills his part of the bargain, the farmer decides he isn't willing to give up good farmland. To get out of his end of the deal, the farmer lies to his former slave, telling him that he had meant to give him bottom land but would have to give him valley land instead. The farmer convinces him the hills are bottom land, the "bottom of heaven." He insists on having the land in the hills and doesn't discover until it is too late that the hills are a terrible place to plant. The area becomes a neighborhood solely for black people, with many of the houses owned by whites. The people of the Bottom sometimes tell this story or dance or play music or tell other stories to cover up their pain.


This section starts the novel off with the theme of racism, noting that the farmer plays a "nigger joke" on the slave by taking advantage of his ignorance regarding the land. The narrator notes that this is a joke white people tell to feel better when they lose their jobs—at least black people are worse off than they are, they think. They rationalize the obvious unfairness and discrimination of the situation, which is in reality just another example of racial segregation and giving black people the short end of the stick.

Similarly, the narrator notes this joke is one black people tell to alleviate their suffering. Dancing and telling jokes and stories, even making fun of themselves, is part of the neighborhood's African American culture. Moreover, it is a response to despair, something the community collectively tries to suppress, no matter how far down they are pushed and no matter how much they suffer. Their pride and their dignity remain intact because they are the ones taking control and telling the joke.

The poetic language and description of a woman dancing to music shows the beauty that exists in the Bottom despite the pain the community experiences. Many people there are jobless because local businesses won't hire African Americans. Morrison frequently describes emotionally painful situations in beautiful, expressive language, exciting and soothing readers' sensibilities with passages that simple description could not achieve.

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