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Immigration and labor patterns in Toni Morrison's Sula.

Toni Morrison's Sula (London: Vintage, 1973) which meditates on female companionship and the nature and meaning of good and evil through its vivid portrayal of the two black girls, Nel Wright and Sula Peace, also ably documents "the complexities of life during the first part of the twentieth century ... especially for black Americans" (Bessie W. Jones and Audrey L. Vison. The World of Toni Morrison: Explorations in Literary Criticism. [Durbuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1985]: 49). Such a social realist concern is unmistakably evident not only in Morrison's fictionalization of the conflicted racist ideologies and the implications of the immigrant presence on African American opportunities but also in the novelist's meticulous recording of the steady gains made by the African Americans in the occupational industry during the post - World War II period.

The first half of the twentieth century in America with its unprecedented racism coupled with a liberal policy on immigration aimed at expediting its industrializing mission witnessed the selection and organization of the nation's labor force in certain ways. More significantly, the nation was in the grip of a fierce competition and conflict among various racial and ethnic groups attendant on its structural characteristics being decisively impacted by the immigrants drawn largely from Southern and Eastern European ethnicities. Victim of racist ideologies and the baleful immigrant presence, African Americans' deteriorating socio-economic conditions during this era also made them vulnerable to psychological trauma of every kind.

The vexatious issue of racial discrimination in the work world is forcefully exemplified in Sula through a perceptive delineation of the lives of Jude Greene and Ajax. Their living conditions in the novel are richly suggestive of the lot of the African Americans in occupational industries during the first half of the twentieth century. As a rule then, the whites passed over the blacks in the labor market preferring the cheap labor of immigrants. For instance, the gang boss of the road crew turns down Greene despite his six-day long wait to get a hearing, though the former would mindlessly "pick[s] out thin-armed white boys from the Virginia hills and the bull-necked Greeks and Italians" (82). Such institutionalized racism in a way engendered a new social order where immigrants enjoyed a higher premium than that of the blacks who were consigned to social and economic deprivation. Starkly enough, Greene sees the whites hiring three feeble old colored men for petty jobs including "picking up, food bringing and other small errands" (81). Morrison makes a telling comment on the rancor of the white psyche that would rather see the blacks deskilled and permanently languish under low-paid menial jobs.

If Greene's plight reveals the force of racial discrimination in the world of civil labor, that of Ajax's gives an insight into the near invisibility of the blacks in the skilled workforce such as the air force industry. Ajax despite his impressive physique (5'11'', 152 lbs.) remains outside of the "barbed wire" (127) cheated of his dream of becoming a pilot. Unable to find work even in small towns, Ajax indulges in "the idle pursuits of bachelors" (127) often "lounging around the pool hall, or shooting at Mr. Finley for beating his own dog, or calling filthy compliments to passing women" (125). In cataloguing the travails of Green and Ajax, Morrison unmistakably identifies color line as a mediating force in the formation of racialized workforce.

With the significant social changes inaugurated in large measure by the Second World War, the employment scenario of the African Americans underwent a positive change. This historical fact informs the "1941" (signifying the beginning of the World War II) and the "1965" sections of the novel. To cite an instance, while the Bottom blacks were refused jobs in 1927, they were somewhat successful in gaining employment in 1941 in segregated industries. This reconfiguration of the work spaces implies that the Bottom blacks "would not have to sweep Medallion ... or leave the town altogether" (151) in search of work. With the civil rights successes of the sixties behind, "things [turned out to be] so much better" that one could find "colored people working in the dime store ... [even] handling money" (163). The burgeoning class of the colored professional is yet another stride in black pride during this period. The reference to a colored man teaching mathematics at the junior high school in the "1965" section of Sula is an apt example of this growing black professional class. In narrating these success stories of the African Americans, Morrison foregrounds the increased level of participation and recognition of the blacks in occupations and sectors of economy during and after the Second World War.

By depicting the lives of Bottom blacks, Morrison in Sula offers an incisive analysis of how immigration coupled with racist ideologies impacted African American opportunities and also altered the distribution of the labor force in certain ways (Gail Lewis. "Black Women's Employment and the British Economy." In Feminism and Race. Kum-Kum Bhavnani (Ed.). [Oxford: OUP, 2001]: 297-318.). In doing this, Morrison not only illuminates the nature of African American un/employment and their quotidian socioeconomic survival, but also dramatizes their experience of being discriminated for occupations as a "servitude that [is] almost as oppressive as slavery itself" (Stephen Steinberg. The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America. [NY: Atheneun, 1981]: 172). Further, the novel charts the steady gains made by African Americans in the labor market during the civil rights era that signaled justice and hope. In forcefully articulating the ethnic and racial tensions in Sula, Morrison also succeeds in documenting how the African Americans eventually broke through all embargoes into diverse occupations.

Sathyaraj,V. and G. Neelakantan, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, India
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Author:Sathyaraj, V.; Neelakantan, G.
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 1, 2007
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