“In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood.”
So starts “Sula” by Toni Morrison, a text from “African American Literature II,” and Patrick Bernard’s favorite Morrison novel. Bernard, associate professor of English and program chair of Africana studies, has been teaching at Franklin & Marshall since 2001 and also teaches a Toni Morrison seminar for senior English majors.
“What did you think?” he asks at the start of class in Goethean 207.
“I was...wow,” says first-year Jevelson Jean from Irvington, N.J.
“With one exclamation mark or two?” asks Bernard with a smile, picking up his chalk. “Why, ‘wow!!’?”
“There are so many themes,” says Jean. “Love, death, loss. It’s not a long book, but there’s so much incorporated in it.”
Soon the list of themes fills the board: not only love, death, and loss, but also lust, sisterhood, parenting, community, individuality, sexuality, gender, identity, family and womanhood.
The course explores these themes and more in a study of African American literature from the Reconstruction era to the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Aesthetic/Black Power movement, and beyond.
After gathering the class’s first impressions of the “Sula,” Bernard asks everyone to open their books to the first page. “The prologue is always a microcosm of the novel,” he says.
“That place” that Morrison describes is called the Bottom, a black neighborhood high in the hills of Medallion, Ohio. Its name is ironic, the result of a trick played on a slave in years past. Though his master had promised freedom and a piece of land in exchange for difficult work, once the work was finished, the master was reluctant to give away any of his good land. Instead he offered rocky soil in the hills and called it the Bottom, saying, “It’s the bottom of heaven—best land there is.”
“For Morrison, place has invested in it notions of equality, inequality, and community,” says junior Laura Sabatino from Scotch Plains, N.J.
“This place is not vacant. It’s filled with life,” he says. “The more close reading you do, you see it’s history, temporality, time and memory.”
In the tight community of the Bottom is Sula, a woman who defies traditional expectations. She leaves the town and lives elsewhere for a time. She never marries. She commits adultery, enjoys the pleasures of the flesh, and values her mind most of all. She says, “My lonely is mine.”
“How does Morrison want you to see Sula?” asks Bernard. Hands shoot up all over the room.
“I saw her as a feminist—she doesn’t care what people think,” says one student.
“But the point of feminism is to uplift other women, and I don’t think she does that. She’s selfish,” says another.
“She’s not going to follow society’s norms; she’s going to be who she wants to be,” says a third.
Whether liked or disliked, Bernard does not lead the class towards any certain conclusion. Rather, he brings them back to the text and encourages them to base their conclusions in Morrison’s words and in the criticism that surrounds them.
“As you always see, Morrison’s novels focus on women, particularly black women. You must all read the articles on intersectionality—how we cannot limit black women’s experiences to race,” he says. “As you read a novel, you should also have the vocabulary to talk about the larger discourse it faces.”
The board quickly fills with white chalk as Bernard notes the students’ comments. “It shows them, ‘My thoughts counted,’” he says. “Every time we teach a text at F&M, we don’t teach it the same. We don’t lecture. There’s not knowledge gained to give back. Our role as professors is to make knowledge active in a classroom.”