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Reading banned books: Sula 

In honor of Banned Books Week, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary student Luke Hillier reflects on Toni Morrison’s Sula, sharing the lessons the book taught him as a 17-year-old and teaches him today.

A week before the start of my senior year of high school, I stowed away at my grandmother’s house with an armful of required summer reading for AP Literature that I had successfully procrastinated facing all summer. The lack of Wi-Fi and poor cell service made her home an ideal site to endeavor through one canonical classic after another until I finally reached my contemporary choice from the list: Sula by Toni Morrison. More than a decade later, I can vividly remember being enthralled by the story that unfolded page by page, following the lives of the titular character and her childhood friend Nel.

After a shared girlhood marred by disturbing traumas, Sula sets off upon a path of fierce independence while Nel settles into a quiet life of domesticity with her husband in their hometown. When Sula returns years later, she is a force of scandalous disruption in Nel’s life and across the wider community. Refusing to succumb to the social norms impressed upon her as a Black woman, Sula becomes a pariah and scapegoat for the townspeople, who come to relish her status as a homegrown monster in their midst. However, by the novel’s devastating conclusion, readers are invited to consider alongside the characters if good and evil are ever as binary as we want to believe.

It comes as no surprise that all of Morrison’s work is being put on the chopping block of school curriculums across the country. Her writing unabashedly centers Black characters and the experiences and perspectives that shape them, which inevitably exposes the falsehoods of American exceptionalism and threatens a politicized sanitation of our national history. And Sula certainly features moments of unsettling violence, sexuality and emotional turmoil.

But as a seventeen-year-old reader, these features made the reading impactful. For perhaps the first time, I was reading literature that seemed to genuinely trust me to hold complexity that I had already become well-aware was present in real life. The moral ambiguity at the heart of Morrison’s novel didn’t lure me into parallel waywardness. Rather, it equipped me to better wrestle with the ambiguity I found within myself and those around me. Ironically, the impulse to ban books like Sula, to pursue censorship under the guise of protection, seems to mirror the very scapegoating central to Sula’s themes. Banning books insinuates that we can exile what is morally complicated and troubling as Other to avoid reckoning with the reality that it’s ultimately unavoidable because it’s within us too.

Although I wasn’t a Christian when I first read Sula, it recalls the parable of the prodigal son in the Gospel of Luke as I reflect on it now. Of course, rather than being received with a banquet feast, Morrison’s wayward daughter’s homecoming is marked by the vilification that the biblical son anticipated. In turn, Nel stands in the shoes of the elder brother, but her self-righteousness goes unconfronted for years without anyone playing the role of the gracious father to challenge her. While Sula pays a more obvious price for this version’s narrative deviation, it is Nel who is ultimately severed from connection with her beloved friend and, even more so, with herself due to this inability to face the unseen truths within her.

For Christians, this is the sort of self-reflection that the tender security of God’s grace empowers and abets, and yet we are so often on the frontlines of these attempts to limit encounters with art like Sula that helps foster such a process. Both Morrison’s and Luke’s narratives invite us to cast aside the simplified renderings of heroes and villains we’re used to in favor of reckoning with the comingled beauty and brokenness within each of us, beginning with ourselves.

Note: September 18-24, 2022, has been designated Banned Books Week by The ALA. For more information see www.ala.org)

Presbyterian Outlook supports local bookstores. Join us! Click on the link below to purchase Sula from BookShop, an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores. As an affiliate, Outlook will also earn a commission from your purchase. 

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