BOOKS: Racial Dynamics in Toni Morrison’s “Sula”

By Aaron Jackson

In her 1973 novel, Sula, Tony Morrison made it her business to infuse her work with as many racial overtones and allusions indicative of African American struggles during the Jim Crow era as possible.  Morrison, writing fiction in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King’s public civil rights battles and hard won victories of the 1960’s, was trying to give that continuing struggle more context and meaning. One of her goals was to show readers the complex (and long term), effects of color prejudice.  One of the book’s main vehicles for expressing these sentiments is Morrison’s implementation of the character “Helene.” Helene is posed as a symbol of “whiteness” within the black community, and her journey throughout the novel is representative of the oppressive dynamics of white supremacy. One way that Morrison displays this is by showing Helene’s treatment of her child “Nel”.  Measuring Nel’s looks against stereotypical standards of white beauty, Helene insists on telling her daughter to pull on her nose to narrow it, and to pull a hot comb through her hair to straighten it.

 
Helene’s motivation to get Nel to change her appearance to a more Eurocentric one, stems from the fact that she doesn’t want her daughter to experience any sort of shame or hate based upon her appearance (in this case, being black). This complicated motivation may seem contradicted by a line on page 18 that describes Helene as being:  ” …grateful, deep down in her heart that the child had not inherited the great beauty that was hers.”  But Helene’s relief in Nel’s appearance being exceptionally black, has its roots in her shame about how her own mother had used her fairly European looks to, indirectly, cause Helene to feel shame.

 

The two situations of Helene prompting her daughter to look “less black” but also being grateful that she does look black (more black than creole), helps to illustrate a personal struggle of Helene’s. It illustrates a struggle that denies Helene 100% comfort in her and her daughter’s assimilation and suppression of their black features (to be protected from whites). There is no simple, comforting  solution to her inner conflict. On the one hand, she has to do what she feels is necessary to help shield her daughter from discrimination based on her black features.  Yet knowing that she is forcibly Europeanizing Nel’s appearance, and therefore making her more desirable by racist standards, conjures up the great sense of shame she remembers feeling for her own mother.
This mental struggle can also be used to explain Helene’s self-loathing. Right off the bat, it’s pretty obvious that Helene feels shame towards her mother and how she used her looks to bring shame to Helene. This causes self-loathing, since Helene inherited her mother’s looks, and she always has to live with the fact that black women similar in appearance to her were considered capable of performing sex work.  This however would not explain why Helene would still want Nel to look at all like her mother, if she is trying to avoid that particular sense of shame. Thus Helene’s self-loathing,  might also stem from the racist society she lives in . . . and the fact that she is not confident in her blackness. This insecurity is revealed in the line about Helene on page 21 of Sula:  “Like a street pup that wags its tail at the very doorjamb of the butcher shop he has been kicked away from only moments before, Helene smiled”.

 

Due to living in a society that hated blackness, Helene had learned to unconsciously hate her blackness as well. This was a method of protection for her (as well as for many other black folk) as through the rejection of her blackness, and assimilating into white standards, she discarded at least one thing that whites hated about her, and ran a lower risk of experiencing discrimination. This obviously would cause her to hate her blackness, as well as herself and the blackness of those around her – which is illustrated in the novel by her forcing Nel into these European standards. She wanted to protect Nel from the ugly face of racism, but she also hated Nel’s blackness, as well as her own.