Immigration and Labor Patterns in Toni Morrison's Sula

Article excerpt

Toni Morrison's Sula (London: Vintage, 1973) which meditates on female companionship and the nature and meaning of good and evil through its vivid portrayal of the two black girls, Nel Wright and Sula Peace, also ably documents "the complexities of life during the first part of the twentieth century ... especially for black Americans" (Bessie W. Jones and Audrey L. Vison. The World of Toni Morrison: Explorations in Literary Criticism. [Durbuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1985]: 49). Such a social realist concern is unmistakably evident not only in Morrison's fictionalization of the conflicted racist ideologies and the implications of the immigrant presence on African American opportunities but also in the novelist's meticulous recording of the steady gains made by the African Americans in the occupational industry during the post - World War II period.

The first half of the twentieth century in America with its unprecedented racism coupled with a liberal policy on immigration aimed at expediting its industrializing mission witnessed the selection and organization of the nation's labor force in certain ways. More significantly, the nation was in the grip of a fierce competition and conflict among various racial and ethnic groups attendant on its structural characteristics being decisively impacted by the immigrants drawn largely from Southern and Eastern European ethnicities. Victim of racist ideologies and the baleful immigrant presence, African Americans' deteriorating socio-economic conditions during this era also made them vulnerable to psychological trauma of every kind.

The vexatious issue of racial discrimination in the work world is forcefully exemplified in Sula through a perceptive delineation of the lives of Jude Greene and Ajax. Their living conditions in the novel are richly suggestive of the lot of the African Americans in occupational industries during the first half of the twentieth century. As a rule then, the whites passed over the blacks in the labor market preferring the cheap labor of immigrants. For instance, the gang boss of the road crew turns down Greene despite his six-day long wait to get a hearing, though the former would mindlessly "pick[s] out thin-armed white boys from the Virginia hills and the bull-necked Greeks and Italians" (82). Such institutionalized racism in a way engendered a new social order where immigrants enjoyed a higher premium than that of the blacks who were consigned to social and economic deprivation. Starkly enough, Greene sees the whites hiring three feeble old colored men for petty jobs including "picking up, food bringing and other small errands" (81). Morrison makes a telling comment on the rancor of the white psyche that would rather see the blacks deskilled and permanently languish under low-paid menial jobs.

If Greene's plight reveals the force of racial discrimination in the world of civil labor, that of Ajax's gives an insight into the near invisibility of the blacks in the skilled workforce such as the air force industry. Ajax despite his impressive physique (5'11'', 152 lbs. …

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