“Nel was the first person who had been real to her, whose name she knew”
Toni Morrison (1931-2019) rightfully holds countless plauditory appellations; her name is commonly associated with linguistic talent, complex novels, and harrowing truth. She is widely acclaimed as one of the most influential writers in both the 20th and 21st centuries. This is no shock for anyone who has picked up any of her works—whether fiction or essays. The topics she addresses are daunting and the voices she creates essential. Morrison initiates a conversation on what ostensibly constitutes the structural core of human life: history, friendships, love, relationships, community, freedom, and identity.
Humanity is diverse; naturally, Morrison’s depictions of life consider the wide array of ensuing perspectives on such human issues. Each of her works functions as mirrors reflecting both the worst and best of humanity in nuanced tableaus. Her novels are transformative, as they push the comfortable boundaries of accepted thought on the humanly constructed concepts of freedom/liberty, community, and self-understanding.
Morrison’s second novel Sula delves into a black community—in the Bottom—that is largely separated from the rest of the world. With this direct focus on this one place and one group, Morrison is able to thoroughly dissect the complex issue of identity.
The Weight of One’s Name
Issues of identity are a potent concern of Morrison’s throughout her works. While her ruminations are riddled with complexities, one fascinating recurring outlet of identity is that of names. In Sula, names hold a much higher significance than simply acting as a mere denotation. A name is more than an identification tag; it conveys a component of one’s identity. Most of these names act as an entrance-way into understanding and truly knowing a person.
The Bottom—Irony of Naming
“It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion […] it is called the suburbs now, but when the black people lived there it was called the Bottom” (Morrison 3)
The first significant name presented is that of the Bottom. This naming is highly charged with irony. As the narrator evinces shortly into the novel, the Bottom’s name was created by the whites as “a joke,” a racist joke (4). This community lives within the definitions determined by whites. They live at the bottom of the social ladder in America, forced into this place regardless of how high they try to climb as long as they are living under this definition. Even though they have moved “up in the hills” to a town on a hill—echoing Winthrop’s famous vision of American exceptionalism: “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.the city upon the hill”—they are unable to escape from the sustained oppression of white definition, thus remaining in the Bottom.
“Slowly each boy came out of whatever cocoon he was in at the time his mother or somebody gave him away, and accepted Eva’s view, becoming in fact as well as in name a dewey” (Morrison 38)
This weight behind names carries over into the characters. One of the first instances Morrison presents significant character naming is with the three Deweys that Eva Peace takes into her home. These boys are all of different ages, with different ethnicities, backgrounds, families, and stories. Eva tends to rename her tenants based on their personality; so when each boy comes at separate intervals, she “snatched the caps off their heads and ignored their names” (37). Interestingly, after she renames each boy as a Dewey, the boys become impossible to distinguish from each other to the point that even one of their mothers could not pick out her own child. Their names are more than a system of identification, it distinguishes who they are—with the same name, they share an identity.
Ajax—or, in truth, Albert Jacks
“But what was this? Albert Jacks? His name was Albert Jacks? A. Jacks. She had thought it was Ajax. All those years” (Morrison 135)
Sula’s realization of Ajax’s actual name is quite fascinating, especially when considered under the light that she is one of the few who understands the weight of truly knowing one’s name. There are two specific instances that Sula ruminates over the need to know one’s name: once when she grieves over her lost friendship with Nel and then when she is coming to terms with Ajax’s departure. With Ajax, Sula realizes that “I didn’t even know his name. And if I didn’t know his name, then there is nothing I did know.” (136). The moment she loses her perceived understanding of Ajax’s name, Sula loses Ajax, who fades into a man she never truly knew.
Name and Identity of Sula Peace
“She was pariah, then, and knew it. Knew that they had despised her” (Morrison 122)
Sula Peace is an anomaly. Unlike every other character living in the Bottom, Sula’s identity is wholly based on subjectivity, uninfluenced by the community’s expectations and lifestyle. Even while she lives within the community, she exists entirely outside of it. Her very presence is an unremitting dissension of the Bottom’s societal expectations and standards.
The people living in the Bottom have a rigidly structured understanding of what the ideal lifestyle is. This mindset is embraced by all besides Sula; in the instances that the narrator evinces the town’s ideals, these references always address the people as “they,” a unified plurality. Her very name—Sula Peace—acts as an ironic portent of the disruption she embodies; rather than bringing peace, she disrupts the community life. This begins with the novel’s title; Sula ultimately provides the reader with a communal overview of a unified black community, one in which Sula does not find a sense of belonging. The title simultaneously links her to the people of the Bottom while separating her from the “they” of the community long before her character is even introduced.
The etymology of Sula’s name is especially important. In traditional African traditions names hold a vital link to life—a tradition Morrison continues in her works—and the name Sula holds African origins. The name in the Babangi language has numerous definitions as it can mean “any one of or a combination of the following: (1) to be afraid, (2) to run away, (3) to poke, (4) to alter from a proper condition to a worse one, (5) to be blighted, (6) to fail in spirit, (7) to be overcome, (8) to be paralyzed with fear, or (9) to be stunned” (Lewis 91).
Sula at different points in the novel manifests each of these meanings—for example running away from the Bottom or being paralyzed and needing to depend on Nel’s composure after Chicken Little’s death. But from all of these, the two most crucial aspects of her person and name are “to fail in spirit” and “to be overcome.” Sula defies the community’s confinements and definitions only to ultimately be entrapped and defined by the community, contained by avoidance and forced to live as a pariah. No one in the Bottom acknowledges her name, repressing even this privilege of Sula’s and replacing it with the names of “devil” and a “witch.”
In Sula, names hold the key to one’s identity. Not only does this deeply tie Morrison’s work with African traditions, but it replicates the very experience of emancipated slaves. Renaming allowed newly freed slaves the chance to tangibly claim ownership of their identities. Throwing off the names given to them by whites was a way to claim not only some aspect of their identity but also ancestral African ideals over white American ones. It was a way of escaping the pragmatic attitude white slave-owners had towards names (simply a system of branding) and adopting the understanding that is an extension of identity.
Lewis, Vashti Crutcher. “African Tradition in Toni Morrison’s Sula.” Phylon (1960), vol. 48, no. 1, 1987, pp. 91–97.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. Vintage International, 2004.