The Presence and the Absence of Men: How Racist America Shapes Characters in Toni Morrison’s Sula

Considered to be one of the most widely celebrated Black American writers of our time, Toni Morrison has made an undeniable impact in the literary world over the last fifty years. Her simple portrayals and her honest depictions of everyday lives of ordinary Black people and their daily struggles in a racially-prejudiced world make her works reach a wide audience of any race that shares the pain and suffering of her characters. Among many other notable awards, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for her remarkable contributions to African-American literature.
Sula, Morrison’s second novel after The Bluest Eye, was published in 1973 and gained popularity as a real reflection of the hardships of a less privileged community. The story, situated in a small town in Ohio in the years between 1919 and 1965, traces the lives of the residents of The Bottom and their survival in a hostile White world. While Sula focuses on the title character Sula and her friendship with Nel, the reader gets to meet other members of the community of The Bottom.
The damaged homecoming war veterans Shadrack and Plum and the frustrated emasculated men as seen in the character of Jude bring the reader closer to understand the struggle Blacks went through in the America of the twentieth century. The matriarch figure Eva who, along with her granddaughter Sula, defies the social norms set by a White patriarchal system and takes important actions also highlights the period when the system of slavery limited Black men’s power.

Among racism and discrimination as the main themes discussed in Sula, Morrison explores female friendship and development, the horrors of war and the aggressive forms motherly love can take. This paper is concerned with the image of the Black community in America during the first half of the twentieth century as represented in Toni Morrison’s Sula. It mainly focuses on how racial discrimination, war and the economic situation shape African-American males’ lives (or characters?), and the effects of that on the females at the time.
Shadrack and Plum: Damaged Black Veterans
Toni Morrison’s Sula begins with Shadrack’s return from World War I (1914-1918). The novel, chronologically structured, starts with the year of 1919 when Shadrack is back home after his first battle in France. Later in the novel, the reader gets to meet Plum who also witnessed the chaos of the European war of 1914. Upon their return from World War I, the two damaged Black homecoming veterans never receive the psychotherapy nor the treatment they need to recover from the horrors they faced in the battlefield in Europe. Morrison brings attention to the neglect and displacement African-American soldiers are submitted to when returning to a home ruled by racist Whites.
The two traumatized Black soldiers portrayed in Sula represent a wider spectrum of African-Americans who risked their own lives to better the lives of their community. During last century, Black men served in U.S. wars hoping that this patriotic act would bring them the civil rights that they were denied in their country. As a marginalized group, African-Americans saw the war as an opportunity to transform their situation and build an honorable future in post-war America.
Ferdinand Kpohoue, a senior lecturer of American Literature & Civilization in the University of Abomey-Calavi, acknowledges that around 200,000 African-American soldiers participated in WWI. These soldiers were encouraged by Black leaders who hoped that their heroic participation and sacrifice would improve the racial conditions and treatment in a racially-prejudiced America (22-23).
But as illustrated in Sula, the returning Black soldiers were neglected, alienated and even deprived from health-care services necessary to help them cope with the traumatic experience. The optimism of their leaders proved to be fruitless. When returning home, Black veterans’ service and sacrifices did not grant them the rights they fought for. After their participation in the US army during World War I, both Shadrack and Plum enter the state of shell-shocked . The post-war violence
Sula, as an anti-war novel, exposes the treatment of racist America towards the traumatized Black veterans.

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