Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

Toni Morrison: Sula (Tunnel sequence).

The 1941 rulings of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) declared that there could be no discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries (such as the mass production of military hardware, airplanes, tanks, and other vehicles in Detroit, a center of the “Arsenal of Democracy”) due to race, creed, color, or national origin


In 1941, tens of thousands of auto workers at the Ford River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Mich., overcame many obstacles to build a union from the bottom up and to win a strike that had a strong potential to turn into a "race riot."

In the mid-1960s serious riots took place in many black ghettoes (e.g. Watts, LA, Newark, NJ, Detroit). These were the ‘long hot summer’ riots, caused by poverty, discrimination and black anger. These riots were a serious domestic crisis for Johnson’s government. Whites blamed the riots on black ‘lawlessness’. Blacks knew why their anger was boiling over.


In large part, the reason for the race riots of the 1940s was a result of World War II. The racism in the United States a the time was so pronounced, that Axis (German and Italian prisoners-of-war) POWs were in many cases treated better than the Black servicemen and -women. Also Black servicemen returning from that war had been treated with more respect on foreign soil (as had happened after World War I), and now felt that they had earned the right to be treated equally by putting their lives on the line for their country. It was an insult to them that they should return to a country that appeared, in many ways, ungrateful for their sacrifice. The black community rallied and started to demand more rights. They had always felt that they were treated unfairly, but now they saw the futility of waiting for change. They knew they would have to effect the change themselves if they were to ever achieve the status they desired.





Text describes spontaneous black riot in a town in Ohio 1941, leading to a full-fledged catharsis (lots of them die.) Originality resides in the origins of the riot : not anger, but a liberating mirth, and the first collective celebration of Shadrack’s NSD. No clear-cut political message, yet numerous references to the situation of Blacks in US and the causes of the 1940’s and 1960’s riots. The qualities of the text probably lies in the absence of message, even though the author conveys in magnificent style the reality of the situation. TM certainly aims at placing the episode in a precise historical moment, but eventually appears closer to spirituality (ck MLK) than to hard-core politics. A black female writer delivering her message about her identity and what makes the community exist.


A Writing technique as painting technique: style as metaphor.

* Progression in the syntax: from leaping rhythm to long sentences.

Alternance verbs/no verbs

From mirth to catharsis

* Variations in rhythm: music (Black)

Binary, ternary, ternary x 2

Image of the group.

* Accumulations & anaphoras: excess (enough is enough)

metaphorical accumulation

Pre-eminence of three-term enumerations: demonstration (message)


B Symbolic elements: spirituality.

* The sun as paradoxical (paganism?)

* The tunnel as paradoxical: hope reversed, no light at the end

The tunnel as Moloch.

* Drowning as anti-baptism (most Blacks are baptists)

Reference to the real community (ecstasy of river baptisms)


C Politics.

* A collection of grievances, duly referenced in history.

* Historical reference of the riots

* Collective suicide as failure.




Fine piece of writing, perfectly constructed to suit the purpose. A community which is not a community, doomed. Symbolic treatment of the episode, an almost-parable. The intrusion of tragedy in everyday life. Message delivered through a constellation-like distribution of points of view (no clear presence of the author or narrator.) TM’s own vision of the reality, at the same time pessimistic (no solution in democracy, no solution in revolution) and optimistic: value added to the true pillars of the community. Remarkable absence of white people, making the demonstration even more intimate.





Everybody, Dessie, Tar Baby, Patsy, Mr. Buckland Reed, Teapot's Mamma, Valentine, the deweys, Mrs. Jackson, Irene, the proprietor of the Palace of Cosmetology, Reba, the Herrod brothers and flocks of teen-agers

Collection/accumulation effect after everybody: nicknames, names, surnames, groups, families, functions.

(Note reprise on line 39)

(Note clash with par. 2: Notion of community vs pied-piper’s band, ruckus, crowd, parade, curious ,disorder, headless display)


got into the mood and, laughing, dancing, calling to one another, formed a pied piper's band behind Shadrack. As the initial group of about twenty people passed more houses, they called to the people standing in doors and leaning out of windows to join them; to help them open further this slit in the veil, this respite from anxiety, from dignity, from gravity, from the weight of that very adult pain that had undergirded them all those years before. Called to them to come out and play in the sunshine-as though the sunshine would last, as though there really was hope. The same hope that kept them picking beans for other farmers; kept them from finally leaving as they talked of doing; kept them knee-deep in other people's dirt; kept them excited about other people's wars; kept them solicitous of white people's children; kept them convinced that some magic "government" was going to lift them up, out and away from that dirt, those beans, those wars.

Concatenation of anaphoras. Variation in rhythm (binary, ternary, ternary x 2)

Note pre-eminence of ternary rhythm throughout the passage.

Accumulation effect, metaphorical accumulation (pent-up frustration, too many things to bear) Explicit political message (+ evocation of an impossible democratic solution -> impossible violent solution as well.)


Some, of course, like Helene Wright, would not go. She watched the ruckus with characteristic scorn. Others, who understood the Spirit's touch which made them dance, who understood whole families bending their backs in a field while singing as from one throat, who understood the ecstasy of river baptisms under suns just like this one, did not understand this curious disorder, this headless display and so refused also to go.

The real Black community: landmarks of unity: whole, from one throat, spirit’s touch, dance, river baptisms) Note corollary with drowning. Negro spirituals, The Baptist Church. Order in dignity and solidarity. Perhaps the only positive element of the passage. May enlighten the political message.


Nevertheless, the sun splashed on a larger and larger crowd that strutted, skipped, marched, and shuffled down the road. When they got down to where the sidewalk started, some of them stopped and decided to turn back, too embarrassed to enter the .white part of town whooping like banshees. But except for three or four, the fainthearted were put to shame by the more aggressive and abandoned, and the parade danced down Main Street past Woolworth’s and the old poultry house, turned right and moved on down the New River Road.

Rhythm of sentence (verbs) Descent: down x 4. Boundary between blacks & whites. Actual transgression. Banshees: imminent death. Political contents: geographical segregation/submission


At the mouth of the tunnel excavation, in a fever pitch of excitement and joy, they saw the timber, the bricks, the steel ribs and the tacky wire gate that glittered under ice struck to diamond in the sun. It dazzled them, at first, and they were suddenly quiet. Their hooded eyes swept over the place where their hope had lain since 1927. There was the promise: leaf-dead. The teeth unrepaired, the coal credit cut off, the chest pains unattended, the school shoes unbought, the rush-stuffed mattresses, the broken toilets, the leaning porches, the slurred remarks and the staggering childish malevolence of their employers. All there in blazing sunlit ice rapidly becoming water.

Accumulation again, verbless sentence: immobility. Political contents explicit in enumeration. Oxymoron blazing ice (possibility evocation of Hell) Transience: ice becoming water: twofold meaning, hope & despair. Double function of the sun expressed through dazzled and hooded.


Like antelopes they leaped over the little gate-a wire barricade that was never intended to bar anything but dogs, rabbits and stray children-and led by the tough, the enraged and the young they picked up the lengths of timber and thin steel ribs and smashed the bricks they would never fire in yawning kilns, split the sacks of limestone they had not mixed or even been allowed to haul; tore the wire mesh, tipped over wheelbarrows and rolled forepoles down the bank, where they sailed far out on the icebound river.

Contrasts with rhythm in previous passage: onlmy one sentence, breathless violence. Accumulation effect again + contrast with verbless sentence in previous paragraph, accumulation of violent verbs. Antelopes might suggest animality & Africa. Contrast betawwen river baptisms and icebound river. Paralysis. Reprise political & social contents. Past forms: preterite, would, pluperfect.


Old and young, women and children, lame and hearty, they killed, as best they could, the tunnel they were forbidden to build. They didn't mean to go in, to actually go down into the lip of the tunnel, but in their need to kill it all, all of it, to wipe from the face of the earth the work of the thin-armed Virginia boys, the bull-necked Greeks and the knife-faced men who waved the leaf-dead promise, they went too deep, too far ...

Reprise collective aspect. Political contents explicit (cf hired/fired) Personification of the tunnel completed (something to kill) Extension of whiteness to late fluxes of immigration. Biblical dimansion of vandalism: wipe from the face of the earth + paradox, since it is a tunnel. Cf the end of the tunnel // the mouth of the tunnel -> doomed to fail.


A ·lot of them died there. The earth, now warm, shifted; the first forepole slipped; loose rock fell from the face of the tunnel and caused a shield to give way. They found themselves in a chamber of water, deprived of the sun that had brought them there.

Catharsis. The tunnel as Moloch. Anti-baptism. The sun as traitor (opposed to the Spirit)

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