João de Mancelos

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The construction, destruction and reconfiguration of a community

in Toni Morrison’s Sula

João de Mancelos

“[...] if ten thousand worlds had been my own,

I would have freely parted with them all

to have exchanged my condition

with the meanest slave in my own country.”
Olaudah Equiano (a former slave), Equiano’s Travels

1. In the paradise of the enemy
Africans have always attached a great significance to the land — essential for their economical and spiritual survival — and have adored it through legends, myths and chants. Ironically, History proves that few ethnic groups have been so barbarically uprooted and dislocated from their environment. Slavery is a dark chronicle of loss — but also a saga of resistance and reinvention of an ethnic group put into bondage in the paradise of the captor. It is no wonder that contemporary African-American writers like Alice Walker (The Color Purple, 1982), Sherley Anne Williams (Dessa Rose, 1986) or Toni Morrison (Beloved, 1987) found in slavery material and inspiration for poignant novels that testify against the comfort of indifference, create awareness, and demand historical responsibility.

Negroes first lost contact with their land of birth by being captured and brought as slaves to the sugar islands of the Antilles, the cane fields of Brazil, and the plantations of British North America.1 Transportation in the hot, stinky, over-crowded and infected hulls of slave ships lasted over four to six weeks and many — especially the children and the old — didn’t resist and succumbed to smallpox or dysentery.2 Despair was common, suicide was not rare and, with hardly any exceptions, mutiny proved to be futile.

Living and toiling in a nation where everything was different (language, dominant ethnicity, political system, myths and beliefs) confused the captives and led them into an identity crisis.3 It is hard to imagine their anguish, so crudely expressed in figures: historians estimate that sixty million slaves died — victims of sickness, starvation, cruelty or suicide. This is uncertain data; indeed some researchers would hold that the number could triple this.4

The distance from Africa brought about ethnic fragmentation and a loss of communal identity. In order to prevent any chances to rebel, it was usual for planters to buy slaves from different tribes, ensuring that they were not able to understand each other’s languages. For the same purpose, and to facilitate communication between Negroes and the white foremen, slaveholders forced the captives to give up their native tongues and adopt English both at home and in the fields.

This change of language accounts for an irrevocable loss of a large patrimony of legends and traditions — forgotten because untranslatable into English or into the North-American social, religious or cultural reality. The consequence of this compulsive acculturation was the removal of any historic and literary past upon which slaves could have based their identity.5

With the loss of land, the African-American was also robbed of his own name, a crucial aspect of identity. The slave’s original name was frequently replaced with a nickname in accordance with his/her physical appearance, psychological characteristics or biographical incidents.6 In an interview with Thomas LeClair, Morrison reflects upon this topic:

If you come from Africa, your name is gone. It is particularly problematic because it is not just your name but your family, your tribe. When you die, how can you connect with your ancestors if you have lost your name? That’s a huge psychological scar. The best thing you can do is take another name which is yours because it reflects something about you or your own choice.7
Examples of this practice abound in the pages of Morrison’s Beloved: Paul D is called so to distinguish him alphabetically from the other slaves with the same name, and Sixo, because he was the sixth of a group of male Africans. Even after the abolition of slavery, African-Americans continued to find new nicknames for their own, some of them witty and imaginative: Soaphead combed his hair with soap instead of lacquer; Milkman had been breastfed until a later stage of his life. Other names were taken at random from the Bible — this is the case of two baby girls: Corinthians and the even less-fortunate Pilate, who inherited the name of the roman procurator from Judea responsible for condemning Jesus Christ to crucifixion.

A second diaspora and a second loss of the land took place in the 19th and 20th centuries when thousands upon thousands of African-Americans abandoned the southern states and went to the north. The aim of this new journey was to escape the persecutions and lynching that darkened each day of the lives of the black people in the south. The north became the Promised Land, as the popular song revealed:

Yes, we are going to the north!

I don’t care what state,

Just so I cross the Dixon Line

From this southern land of hate

Lynched and burned and shot and hung,

And not a word is said.8

The preferred destinies of successive waves of migrants were the cities of Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Pittsburgh and New York City. Only the first of these saw the number of African-Americans multiply by eight between 1910 and 19209, while the years 1916 to 1918 saw the exit of more than 450 000 black people from the South.10

This new loss of the land led to a second crisis of identity. The black person of the south had to learn the ways and customs of the north and had to adapt to a different landscape and climate. In short, the identity crisis of the African-Americans (without name, nor liberty, nor ancestors) is deeply rooted in the loss of the homeland.

In this paper, I intend to study:

a) The different attitudes that, in Toni Morrison’s Sula, African-Americans and European-Americans present in relation to the land;

b) The tensions and dilemmas that derive from these two opposite perspectives;

c) The way in which capitalist progress alters the modus vivendi and the identity of a rural African-American community.

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