“Mama, did you ever love us?” She sang the words like a small child saying a piece at Easter.
“Now,” Eva looked up across from her wagon at her daughter. “Give me that again. Flat out to fit my head.”
“I mean, did you? You know. When we was little.”
“No. I don’t reckon I did. Not the way you thinkin’.”
“Oh, well. I was just wonderin’.” Hanna appeared to be through with the subject.
“An evil wondering’ if I ever heard one.” Eva was not through.
“I didn’t mean nothing by it, Mamma.”
“What you mean you didn’t mean nothing by it? How you gone not mean something by it?”
“Awww, Mamma? Awww, Mamma? You settin’ here with you healthy-ass self and ax me did I love you? Them big old eyes in your head would a been two holes full of maggots if I hadn’t.”
“I didn’t mean that, Mamma. I know you fed us and all. I was talkin’ bout something else. Like. Like. Playin’ with us. Did you ever, you know, play with us?”
“Play? Wasn’t nobody playin’ in 1895. Just ‘cause you got it good now you think it was always this good?”
And here, a mother and daughter in Ohio, America, circa-Depression, discuss their “relationship”—why exactly they live in the same home unto that moment, why they are two grown women shelling peas together, what they have to show for it and each other.
In Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula, published by Alfred Knopf at a time when “Black Power” commingled with Blaxploitation and Black revolution, three generations of impoverished Black “whores”—the third generation being educated, city-dwelling and experienced with “White men”—confront each other and their interior mysteries within their stately Ohio mansion. How is the home still standing? Who has passed through it? Who dies off within it? Who returns to claim it? Why are all levels occupied by vestigial people we would love to know better but almost hate to know at all: three adopted toddler mulatto brothers who appear oddly the same and all finally wind up with the same name as a result (The “Deweys”), a cracked-out son torched in sacrifice when he will not rehabilitate (“Plum”), a good girl-bad girl come home who will self-preserve before she practices the Good Negro commitment to never put the family elderly into a nursing home (the title character “Sula”).
Not only does Sula finally throw the one-legged matriarch Eva into a nursing home and go on about what will be a shorter life than she had hoped. But she also shades her best friend she has grown up with and formed herself with—a willowy, flexible and malleable character named Nel, that type of best friend who forgives Sula for condescending her, patronizing her, losing touch with her and finally sleeping with her husband.
Sula, in many ways, is an ugly novel. I was introduced to it as a junior and wandering English student at the University of Chicago, in a course entitled Fiction of Three Americas, by a psychoanalytic, Americanist and Joyce-loving professor who was a novelist as well; this book is what finally anchored me into a reason to study English Literature. That he would choose Sula, above all other of Morrison’s works, was a tribute to its awesome illusion of poetry as prose with the purpose of exposing the “put-down” Black American mind like never before. I held a wonder in my hands each day that I carried a work to class and could speak freely on it; Sula proved to be the most wondrous of them all.
Sula provides the propulsion of the novel that begins with her grandmother Eva and goes along to her mother Hannah. Sula has learned, and seen, and experienced beyond the village, township, subdivision, rural area or neighborhood where their home called “The Bottom” is situated. “Man-loving” life is not nearly as limited to The Bottom as Sula once thought it was, but that ultimately it may be grandly limited to this place—for here is the only place where she may remain a Queen Bee, a Diva who controls things, a woman large and in charge, an influence and not just a participant. In the space of ten years that Morrison questionably leaves absent from the novel, betwixt when Sula leaves her residence of “The Bottom” and how she returns, a bildungsroman of girlhood gone good, the best it could have been, a discovery of a self and a return to the place that made that self.
Not much to love goes on in Sula; the origin of money for the women’s home begins with Morrison’s early segment detailing the extreme constipation of Eva’s infant son Plum. 20 years later, this matriarch discovers that Plum maintains a severe drinking and drug problem in the basement of her home. Eva “gallops” down her staircases and burns Plum up. Yet, when Eva’s eldest daughter Hannah is burning to death due to an accident and oversight in the home, it is Eva who hurls herself outside of a high story window to rescue Hannah. And in the novel, it was Hannah who first brought up and discussed “love.” Aphrodite would balk. This “love” is not what one would expect.
Hannah’s crime, committed during a conversation with her mother Eva and over the ritual of shelling peas, was to, simply, ask about “love.” Among these rooms, these doors, this house, these women, these men, and these generations of sisters one minute and mothers to daughters next, there is no room for love. There is only room for getting by, surviving, one day at a time, and “Hi, how ya doin’?” to the people or things that one might think matters. Anything beyond that is open to chance, to luck and to impossibility in this world of Depression era working class Blacks that Toni Morrison so beautifully captures— for their honesty, loyalties, realities, gumption and strong, high heads.