Something Other Than a Family Quarrel: The Beautiful Boys in Morrison's Sula

By Mayberry, Susan Neal | African American Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Something Other Than a Family Quarrel: The Beautiful Boys in Morrison's Sula


Mayberry, Susan Neal, African American Review


Toni Morrison's second novel, praised for its celebration of girls' friendships, is dedicated to boys. The writer inscribes Sula to her young sons, whom she "miss[es] although they have not left [her]." By deliberately creating a vacuum with, and then extending the storyline beyond, Sula's death, Morrison's book, like her dedication, illustrates that it is "sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you." In technique and focus, Sula embraces absence, inversion, doubling, opposite, and other, attributes which, along with community and a sense of humor, are the secrets of African American endurance captured in the opening "nigger joke."

Morrison's is the "womanist" insight that relationships between African American men and women must be understood not only in terms of the intersections of gender and race, but also in terms of their participation in a larger, historically racist culture. (1) The inversions and conundrums which are essential to the survival of the African American community, and a credit to African American ingenuity, critique power and injustice in America. Sula challenges us to reconsider how histories of tops and bottoms, ups and downs within American social structures become convoluted into the ironic hierarchies and differences in African American society. The book also reminds us to miss our beautiful black boys before they leave us, to consider any difficulties between black men and women in a cultural as well as racial and sexual context.

Because of her delight in flouting traditional or fashionable bottoms and tops, Morrison has been taken to task by (white) feminist critics for not supporting the party line. In her 1971 article "What the Black Woman Thinks About Women's Lib," she had already begun to answer these critics with the blunt response: "Well, she's suspicious of what she calls 'Ladies' Lib.' It's not just the question of color, but of the color of experience" (15).

The essay explains that attempting to find consensus among African American women on any subject is a doomed prospect because they have consistently, and deliberately, defied classification. However, it surmises that consensus about and support for the women's liberation movement, viewed by many black women and men alike as a predominantly white "family quarrel," has been even more elusive because relationships between black women and black men have simply been historically different from the majority of their white counterparts. Accused of portraying black women in some novels as victims and in others as castrating females, Morrison retorts that black women have borne their crosses "extremely well" and that "everybody knows, deep down, that black men were emasculated by white men, period. And that black women didn't take any part in that" (Stepto 384). Like Zora Neale Hurston, Morrison evaluates the position of the black woman in America as having been for years "de mule uh de world," a scapegoat for black male frustration and rage but nonetheless a stubborn workhorse liable to kick or bite upon provocation and seeming not to have become the "true slave" that white women discern in their own history (14). Forced out of her "profound desolation" to invent herself, the black woman has combined being a responsible person with being female. As such, she has come to feel morally superior to white women, and to their men, and free to confront her world, including her man, on her own terms ("What the Black Woman Thinks" 63).

Nellie McKay distinguishes between black and white feminist literary traditions by the presence or absence of their creative ancestors. She observes that many white women writers claim to have invented the authority for their voices in an effort to break the silence of what Virginia Woolf calls "Shakespeare's sisters." Contemporary black women writers, however, look to the examples of their grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and sisters to continue a powerful artistic heritage that is not white and not male (McKay 399). …

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