“Hell ain’t things lasting forever. Hell is change.”
It is time for change; slowly, painfully, but inexorably the spirit of the age sheds old rags and dons a new garb. The mutes are beginning to discover a voice that had been trapped in their windpipes; eyes see things that they had hitherto only watched; and hearts ache with a new throb of hope mixed with fear of which no one can tell which is greater. From this sense of foreboding out comes Sula.
The excluded community confined up in the hills outside a small Ohio town is made, through centuries of social conditioning, to see themselves as different and separate from the white people. They know who they are and they also know they are not the same as the people who live in the town down the hills. They aredifferent, in every imaginable way. You could see that.
They are scandalised when Sula, one of their own, embarks on a path that’s opening up out there, a path of education and mobility, of employment and relocation, of mingling with the white folks as their human equal, if not racial, social or political equal. Gods be good, the black people are offered to live their lives like the white folks!
“It was a fine cry – loud and long – but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”
When she returns home after a long absence Sula is transformed into an unintelligible mass of thoughts and actions her people find difficult to square: It’s like a white girl in black skin. Or so people think. Unpardonable. Outrageous. Her community is devastated; nothing is more sacrilegious than dressing like white people, speaking like them, behaving like them, being like them. And what’s more, Sula has taken a white man for a lover. Sula, we’re not the same. Ah, what an incredible fact of human psychology that even if you do not lose a sense of identity and self-respect, you eventually come to accept the role to which your oppressor designates you.
Sula becomes a pariah in her own community, uncomprehending and incomprehensible. The ominous signs that lend her a preternatural aura testify to something strange. People see those signs in retrospect, from her birth to childhood, from her growing up as a daughter of a woman abandoned by her husband, from the way she looked at them when she was a child, the way she walked and sat, ate and gestured. Sula, they reach on a terrifying conclusion, is not a young black girl but a phantom implanted from a world of shadows. She is almost a witch, and if she really is not, she ought to be one.
Sula’s character is a symbol (self-contradictory, torn, divided, compartmentalised, unmappable) of the conflict borne of the changing values that had held together isolated, nebulous, inward-looking black communities across the United States in the age of institutionalised racism. Values constructed so carefully over centuries when challenged elicit a response that’s always out of proportion. Sula is a couldn’t-care-less woman whose threatening individuality alienates her from her community. For this she is taken to task. Her own dealings with her family and the community bespeak a cruelty she’s picked up in the course of her contact with the outer world. She, a black woman, treats her own kith and kin with a shade of contempt with which they had always been treated by the White Others.
Her character elicits mixed reactions. Sometimes you want to blame her, sometimes blame her family, sometimes you want to blame the sudden rush of new ideas that has thrown the whole social equation out of balance.
Was it the new life among the white folks that turned her against herself? Or was it to do with her troubled early years, living as she did with her mother who had taken to selling sex as the most natural vocation a woman might take when her husband walked out on her, causing a rupture in relations with the community? Or did her people, unable to take her novelty, pushed her to the wall, turned her into an alien in her own skin?
What made Sula, Sula? This is a question you’ll be grappling with by the end of the novel.
“You have been gone too long, Sula.
Not too long, but maybe too far.”
(First published 1973)