“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.” – Maya Angelou (a Black woman who be knowing)
Greetings Black Fam! Happy back to school week for all of the parents sending their youngins to these institutions of learning and don’t have to worry about summer arrangements anymore. With back to school comes a lot of reading. But it’s not only the babies who be reading. It’s about the Black women who been reading as a means to enter new worlds, revisit familiar ones; reading as a tool for reflection and reading as a tool for healing.
As an avid reader, it was only right that I throw a book discussion on here because #BlackWomenBeReading. I am loving the work of Glory Edim, creator of Well-Read Black Girl as well as the dope ass work Ola Ronke is doing as the creator of The Free Black Women’s Library. They are definitely Black women who be knowing.
Today, however, we are discussing Toni Morrison’s Sula as only BWBK can. I am joined by Cynthia (episode 1) and a voice you will hear more of, Kristina (who will be on the next episode.) We are serving you lots of Black girl analysis, Black girl experiences and Black girl shit talking.
Enjoy the audio and leave a comment. The writing has been edited to capture the highlights of our discussion.
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BWBK: This is Black Women Be Knowing, episode 3. We are talking about Toni Morrison’s Sula. I am sitting with Cynthia from episode 1 and a Black woman who be knowing who you will get to know on a future episode, Kristina. We saw the Toni Morrison documentary, The Pieces I Am with some other colleagues about two months ago. And one of the things we realized is that we needed to get our asses together and read Sula, actually re-read it because we’ve all read it before. But Toni Morrison is someone you have to return to every decade just to figure out what kind of immature ass thinking you had.
So right now we’re gonna get into Sula. So Cynthia is gonna lead us through [the beginning] of the conversation with the main character, Sula and her best friend Nel. So we talk a lot about women and friendships so let’s talk about how that manifests itself in the text.
CG: So we’re starting with looking at the beginnings of their friendship, thinking about how they felt about each other, and how comfortable or uncomfortable they felt with each other. So I’m gonna start with a quote from page 29 and how they felt in each other’s homes.
Reads excerpt about the cleanliness of Nel’s home and Sula’s heavily populated home with her grandmother as matriarch.
This is making me think of a good girlfriend I had named Kim, whose mother was addicted to drugs and she lived with her grandmother. They were very proper though and when I went to her house, there was a sense of peace that I didn’t have in my house. My mother was very strict. She was like you can’t wear shorts, you can’t listen to music. There was a freedom in [Kim’s] house that I felt and I know that when Nel went to see Sula, opposite of what she probably felt with her own mother, was this sense of freedom.
KD: Yeah, when I think about my best friend, we had totally different upbringings. So she was always at my house and she liked the structure and the big family and the overt loviness of the house. But when I went to her house, I very much loved the aspect of freedom as well. I definitely think that’s what attracted us to each other. I definitely felt that when I read that part of the book, [it was about] you know- loving the opposite of what you had.
BWBK: Growing up, I had a friend whose mom’s house was very similar to Sula’s home. You would see people playing cards and at some point everybody and they mama would show up. And you would be like, “Oh, who over at Aunt Ronie’s house now?” And my friend would be like “Oh, my uncle staying here now.” And you just be like, “Oh hey Uncle” and everyone just be chilling and hanging out.
And my household was not strict. It was not proper or none of that shit. But it was cool to be at someone’s house who always had people over and you got to see how adults had fun. And adults would be singing and talking about Soul Train or whatever and the door stayed unlock. It was just [reflective of] a simpler time.
CG: And so we continue to look at the development of Sula and Nel’s relationship and how they were one. And how Sula took it upon herself to be the protector. And we see that more clearly on page 54 when they’re walking. And her friend Nel is being bullied by the white boys from the valley. And of course Sula being herself is like “Nah that shit is not going down like that.”
And Sula’s thinking, ‘but what am I gonna do or what can I do to let these boys know that we’re serious about who we are and about protecting our bodies.’
Reads excerpt where Sula sliced the tip of her finger to warn the boys of what she would do to them if they continued to harass them.
That’s crazy. She’s saying I will sacrifice my comfort and myself for my friend and for us.
KD: That’s where Morrison is doing some character development so that we understand the position that each of the friends takes in the friendship. And it gives us a very clear picture that in a way Sula is Nel’s prince, in the traditional way that the prince will save you. But in this case it’s [Nel’s] friend who’s saving her in this very masculine way. [Sula’s action makes it clear that] I’m gonna physically put myself in harm’s way to protect you. And later on, we see the development of that but it definitely feels like Morrison planted this idea here. They have positions we’re assuming they’re taking in the friendship.
BWBK: We talked about this before we started to record and the great thing about Morrison and her writing is the way it holds up a mirror to yourself. In this one, I was like hell, I’m Nel. I know I’m Nel. I’m not cutting a got damn thing on myself. I’m running. I may talk shit when I get to safety but I’m not cutting off my finger. But I do think I had friends who were like that. I remember being in middle school and knowing girls who knew their friend was wrong as fuck (in this case Nel and Sula are being antagonized by these white boys) but was still like “we gon’ beat this bitch up.”
KD: I was the complete opposite. I was the Sula. I put myself out there for friends who were dead wrong. And I had to learn a few times that just because you do that doesn’t mean that people will value you any better. I was the friend who was called because I wasn’t afraid to speak up and I was a little crazy. For the friendships that I have cultivated, I’m still that friend. I’m still the friend that’s gonna argue and I’m still gonna put myself out there if I feel like you need help.
And it’s interesting because thinking about it from a masculine perspective, people do say because I grew up with boys I have taken on the protector role.
BWBK: That’s interesting because that makes me realize how Nel and Sula are absent of males. They don’t have any male protectors. You don’t really hear about Nel’s dad in any significant way and Sula’s dad passed. They, out of necessity, have to protect [themselves], more specifically, Sula has to protect Nel.
Since we mentioned men, we’re now gonna talk about the Peace women. We have Eva, her daughter, Hanna and Hannah’s daughter Sula. And it’s not always peaceful. It’s interesting that Morrison gives them that name. On page 41, we start to see what they’re relationship to men is like.
“It was manlove that Eva bequeathed to her daughters…The Peace women simply loved maleness for its own sake.”
We talk about Eva, the grandmother who has one leg but is still very charming. Morrison doesn’t necessarily talk about her having sex but she does talk about her flirting with the men who drop in. And she’s a little bit more direct and tell-it-like-it-is. Whereas, her daughter Hannah has a very different way that she displays her male love.
Reads excerpt on Hannah and the ease with which men could lay with her without feeling like they “needed fixing.”
Although Eva gave them this gift, i.e. you’re gonna love men/manlove, but the way you love men varies. I was wondering what everyone’s position on Hannah was. I thought the way she owned her sexuality was unmatched.
CG: I don’t know. I’m conflicted because she did own her sexuality but was it also about her self-esteem? I’m thinking about the fact that she had to be with someone else’s person or man. We are talking about her sexual freedom and it was her choice to be with these men but what did it do for her spirit?
KD: I feel like Morrison built Hannah to be beyond those types of needs. So Hannah’s need was physical. She didn’t even like men to sleep over. She chose who got to sleep over. You had to be out of her bed by the time the sun hits. Those things, traditionally that we think women need from men [don’t apply here.] Her needs were physical which makes sense why she would be with other women’s husbands.
Like [Hannah], Eva is also the type of woman that people would tell you not to be with. Don’t be argumentative; don’t tell him what you think; don’t tell him what to do. These women are completely different in approach but both are getting what they need from these men. Eva is getting a sparring partner and Hannah’s getting the physical attention.
BWBK: I do see her as someone who is choosing this life. I don’t think it’s like I have nothing else to do so I’ll do your husband. But I do think that she’s very strategic. Because these dudes are fucking her so clearly they’re not dope as [far as being] mates. So if I can just have sex and not get involved with all of your drama and not have to nurture you…
We don’t get into Hannah’s thoughts. Who was her husband? How did they get together? Was it romantic? There’s so much we don’t know and that’s omitted.
When I look at Millenials, they are very unclear about their boundaries. Hannah has them whether we agree with them or not, she has them. Her thinking is, You mess with me at your own risk.
KD: What I respect about the Peace women is that they design the relationship that they want with men where I don’t necessarily see that with Nel. Nel falls into the relationship that she accepts.
When I read Hannah, I was like Yaaass, girl.
BWBK: As we’re talking about the Peace women, a very interesting exchange takes place between Eva and Hannah. So Kristina’s gonna walk us through that.
KD: Reads excerpt where Hannah asks Eva if she loved her and her siblings and Eva gets offended.
This has me thinking about the relationship I have with my mom which I would categorize as a great relationship but that question has definitely come up. I thought it was interesting that Hannah brought it up because it seems that in Eva’s mind she’s done everything for her. You have a home; you never went hungry; you’ve gotten what you need physically so to ask that feels like a slap in the face.
For Hannah, it seems that she’s desiring a love from her mother that she hasn’t received in the way she needs to receive it. The way that you gave me love wasn’t necessarily the way I needed love. That makes me question whether it was love or obligation.
CG: That speaks to the way children perceive love. They don’t need the things. They need you. As a parent, you do assume that you’re showing love. Maybe I’m not saying it but I’m showing you and you’re supposed to interpret that this is what it means. So for some of us, we need to be a little more concrete. I’m speaking softly to you and rubbing your head and playing with you as Hannah asks her mom, “did you play with us?”
BWBK: Part of me, thinking about the mother daughter relationship, I’m in the middle of that. I have my issues/relationship with my mom and I have my relationship with my daughter who’s an adult now.
The interesting thing about my relationship with Kaori (my daughter) is that she’s not even in a place, like Hannah, to articulate what she actually means. [You see Hannah] searching for the right words to try to get her mother to understand her position.
There’s a way that Eva keeps talking about the things and you can tell she was definitely in survival mode. When we’re trying to justify, we always talk about what we could’ve done. Like “I could’ve just left you.” “I could’ve just left like your daddy left.”
As a mom, especially with girls, the burden is placed on you. It’s still an interrogation of you. It’s hard because you want to hear your child and you want them to know that you love them but you’re also trying to protect yourself.
KD: So what happens between our childhood and our own venture into parenthood where we don’t remember that we had those feelings. It seems that Hannah would have tried to correct the ways of the mother with Sula but she doesn’t.
Is it very specific to Black folks? Because we’re in survival mode so much, is that just the way it is? Our children will never understand it until they do.
CG: My mother was actually very demonstrative because her mother was not. She did make an effort to break the cycle. If you hear me speaking softly it’s because she always spoke to us very soft. Even the way she woke us up, it was very gentle. But we did get spankings and she would explain it to us. This is why you’re getting a spanking, (Laughter)
BWBK: Now we gotta talk about these niggas, Because they saying things and doing things. So the first person we’re gonna look at is Nel’s husband Jude.
Reads excerpt about Jude’s motivation for marrying Nel.
Jude kind of marries Nel on some “you’re here, I’m here. Let’s do this.” But mainly this is men marrying their mamas. He needs someone to care for him, to rock him and he just transfers that responsibility onto Nel. This has nothing to do with love and who he wants to be for her.
CG: It’s so wrapped up in his manhood and what it means to be a man. He did want to work construction and because he couldn’t find [his manhood] in his work, he had to find it in the form of getting married and being the head of household.
KD: I’m gonna read a little further down, “The two of them together would make one Jude.” He wasn’t even considering her as a person with her own purpose. A lot of her womanhood was defined by what she would do for him. The fact that marriage was gonna make him a better person or upgrade him is still very prevalent in our society. There is no idea that she would be her own person outside of him.
BWBK: The error is the idea that two halves make a whole which is inaccurate. Two wholes should come together to make a stronger whole. But if you function under the two halves idea, somebody’s whole self gotta go. In a lot of relationships, the person who gotta go is the woman.
CG: When men connect with us, they’re connecting to our whole selves. I remember when I started dating my son’s father. I was doing dance classes; I was in massage school, exercising. And then I got so engulfed in him that I stopped going to dance classes and he was like, “Wait a minute, I fell in love with all of that. I still need you to do that.” I worked so hard to design myself and define myself and I gave it up so easily.
BWBK: This is a good segue to Ajax (who pursues Sula.) Kristina, you wanna walk us through Mr. Ajax?
KD: So I’m gonna start on page 126. (Reads excerpt about his love for airplanes, the freedom his mother gave him and his interest in Sula)
Ajax had a very different thought process from Jude, as he mentions that “Sula’s life was her own.” Whereas Jude was interested in he and Nel becoming one Jude. He had many women but the woman he chose to pursue was her own woman.
BWBK: You can tell Toni Morrison studies people. The fact that she can so accurately get into a man’s psychology is genius. We know some Judes but we also know some Ajaxes. Because Jude’s position was, Don’t know yourself, Nel. Know me and make that your life’s work [which is very different from Ajax.]
CG: And really him listening to her talk and really getting to know her. They have some meaningful exchanges and [Ajax fell] in love with all of it. Her ideas, her mind…connected him to his mom. He definitely respected her independence, her way of being and her choice to be.
KD: The things he likes most is airplanes. Liberation. He wants to be on the go and the ability to go when he wants to and Sula’s not interested in “nailing him” as Morrison writes. Sula affords him that liberation and she doesn’t have those expectations.
It’s not by accident that Morrison puts these two men in the book. They give us so much about womanhood, about relationships, about what men want, who they want to be, how they want to be in relation to women.
BWBK: Kristina and I are gonna move into the part when Ajax realizes that Sula is trying to nail him and how that goes. On page 133, (Reads excerpt with Sula wearing the green ribbon in her hair and creating a space for him in her hoe which signals that she wants to trap him.)
Sula’s such a fuck it, I don’t care about these niggas type of person. [Ajax] gets her by the simplest of methods. He just sits in her face and sits in their sex and talks to her and that ensnares her. Sula is very much a woman from the Bottom but not of the Bottom. When she tries to do what women in the town do to get a husband, it turns him off.
KD: How keen must he be on women that he starts noticing? He sees the pattern. He’s very aware of the pattern that women go through when they’re about to be possessive. As we’re reading I kept wondering what made Sula switch? What turned that on? All of a sudden she knew what possession was. It says, “it was an alien feeling for her.” She started thinking, where is he? What’s he doing? She never had those thoughts before.
CG: She believed that he saw her. She finally met someone on her spiritual plane- she was thinking that he is someone she could have some conversations with and who she could have some experiences with and be her real self with- her whole self.
BWBK: Now we’re moving into the finale, returning to where we started with Sula and Nel and their friendship. Spoiler alert, Sula fucks Nel’s husband, Jude and they stop speaking; Jude takes off. Then later, Sula gets sick and Nel goes to visit her and finally confronts Sula and talks about the why.
CG: Reads the excerpt where Sula tells Nel she should’ve gotten over it and continued their friendship.
Sula is thinking, We were friends. We shared everything. I cut my finger for you. We done other things that we kept very private- that we kept secret, to the point where people called us one person. So as the person that is closest to me, why would you let this person (Jude) come between us? Even if I did fuck him, if we’re friends, why wouldn’t you forgive me?
KD: It was a test of the friendship. Can friendship outlast betrayal? One question you asked earlier Cynthia was, Was this a betrayal? Nel knew who Sula was and how she was with men and she should’ve known that [Sula] being with her husband didn’t mean anything. To a certain degree, I could see how Nel would feel betrayed because she felt like Jude is what she had. The one man that I had, you had to have him.
It’s like a weird test of friendship. I feel like Nel would’ve taken Jude back and cut off Sula cause we’re taught to value certain relationships over others. That makes me sad because Sula was her person.
BWBK: The reason why it stuck out to me is because there’s a very similar situation in Nicole Dennis Benn’s Patsy. Patsy has a roommate and sometimes the roommate’s boyfriend comes over. Eventually, Patsy does fuck the boyfriend, feels guilty and starts acting funny with her friend/roommate.
All this guilt overcomes her and she admits that she slept with him. And the friend says, “Oh. men will fuck anything. That’s what all this was about?…” I think that’s what Sula wanted. Sula probably thought, ‘keep your little husband and we can keep our friendship because our roots run deep.’
I said this before- Sula is from The Bottom but she’s not of The Bottom and when she realizes that Nel is now OF The Bottom, she’s like, you one of them now and you’re judging me.
KD: But Sula, you also know Nel. It was a little bit unfair for you to think that she would’ve been OK with that. There needed to be some kind of ironing out and thinking about their friendship after it happened.
CG: Or before it happened…
KD: Again, if we were such good friends, why couldn’t we survive this?
BWBK: And so we had a very lengthy discussion… a dope discussion but if you had to share a takeaway, a lesson or even just give one word when you think of Toni Morrison’s Sula, what would that be?
CG: For me, the word would be transcending. Toni asks us to think about ourselves but think beyond our own understanding.
KD: I would say mine is liberation. I think [Morrison] puts it out there of what it means to be a liberated woman. To be liberated in general. And she pushes us to think about what that means and how we achieve it.
BWBK: I think to build on what both of you said, for me it’s about self-discovery. You see yourself in multiple characters, right. So I’ve been Nel at times; I’ve been Sula at times. I’ve known a Jude. I’ve known an Ajax. It’s so familiar and also putting that mirror up to the self and asking who are you? Who am I?
Thank you Cynthia. Thank you Kristina. Thank you Toni Morrison.
Black women be out here reading.
Black women be out here analyzing.
Black women be out here talking that shit.
And if you don’t know, now you be knowing.