Sula, published in 1973, is Toni Morrison’s second novel. Morrison’s novel explores the life-long relationship between Sula and Nel, two African American women living in the small Ohio town of Medallion. Although the novel is set in the early 1900s, Morrison began composing the novel in 1969, a time of upheaval and activism in the African American community. Morrison’s cultural moment reflects the novel’s themes, which address racism, bigotry and oppression of minority groups. Morrison draws from these issues to illustrate how she, as well as her two protagonists, face multiple forms of oppression as African American women.
Sula explores the choices for African American women from the time of slavery through the 1960s. Through Sula and Nel, Morrison illustrates the difficulties African American women face. These women recognize social hierarchy and their “place” within this system. Morrison writes, “Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white nor male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they set about creating something else to be.” In other words, Morrison suggests that the world offers little to no hope for personal agency or choice for African American women. Nel and Sula address this in two very different ways. Nel becomes a wife and mother, thus sustaining the values of the African American community. Sula, on the other hand, chooses and “experimental life” which attempts to find opportunity outside her society. Nel rejects Sula’s determination, explaining that African American women “can’t act like [men].” To put this another way, Nel argues that society refuses African American women their independence; the only place for these women is in the home occupying the role of wife and mother. Sula rejects these limitations and refuses to take a husband or to bear children. Morrison’s juxtaposition of these two women reveals the necessity of both ways of life. Sula’s self-knowledge and Nel’s connection to the community are equally essential. In this way, Morrison reveals the limitations placed on African American women, both inside their own community and within the greater society. Morrison, therefore, is hopeful that African American women can succeed outside their primary community. However, she warns that the individual cannot depend on society but must, instead, rely on oneself.