Unintentional Leader: An Examination of Shadrack in Toni Morrison’s Sula
In disability studies, it seems there is no way to just leave people be. Disabled individuals are either ignored entirely or idolized for living with their condition, not that they really have much of a choice. By evaluating Shadrack in Toni Morrison’s Sula, I found evidence of both. Through most of the novel, Shadrack is isolated in his cottage and, while the residents of the Bottom know of him, they are perfectly content to misunderstand him and exclude him from their lives 364 days of the year: “Once the people understood the boundaries and nature of his madness, they could fit him, so to speak, into the scheme of things” (Morrison 15). However, in the final pages, Shadrack is made to be an unintentional leader and the object of “inspiration porn” to his fellow community members. I view this as Morrison’s critique of the way society is inept in its handling of disability either by under or overcompensating.
The first thing I noticed was Morrison’s choice of name for this disabled figure, and it gave me inspiration for the metaphor of my dance. His name alludes to the biblical narrative of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo in the book of Daniel. Here, these three men refuse to worship the statue of King Nebuchadnezzar and are punished to die in a fiery furnace (New International Version). Like Shadrack, they refuse to conform to society and would rather face death, just like the celerartion of National Suicide Day, than bow down. This also begs the question of what represents the king in Morrison’s novel. Perhaps, as in Good Kings Bad Kings (Nussbaum), it is the system itself and the evil it perpetuates. In Sula, not only is Shadrack scrutinized under the weight of his disability, but the entire community is held down by racism. Through this biblical reading, the minute appearance of Sula at Shadrack’s cottage after she drowns Chicken Little, while traumatizing for her, is Shadrack’s equivalent of the angel appearing in the fire. This is a glimpse of the eternal where one need “not be afraid of the change —the falling away of skin, the drip and slide of blood, and the exposure of bone underneath” (Morrison 157). It lasts just long enough, and her purple ribbon is left behind, giving Shadrack some hope that he might one day be liberated from the furnace and the rule of the bad king.
Shadrack breaks free from the furnace, but it does not lead to his happiness. Those who had ignored him finally praise him for “overcoming”, and they are inspired to overcome their oppression as well. Like the questioners in “Nondisabled Demands”, they “get to say/ [he is] an inspiration” (Weise), but Shadrack never asks to be one. Interestingly, when searching for Weise’s poem on my own, every publication of it I found online omitted the last stanza, “If you refuse to answer then we call/ your doctor. Then we get to say/ You’re an inspiration” (Weise). I was unable to find answers about whether this change was truly an omission from an earlier PDF version of the poem we read for class or if the stanza was added later, although the former seems more likely. It makes me wonder why that portion was removed given it relates to one of the central discussions we often come to during class about “inspiration porn”. I am left to question whether Weise no longer stands by her assertion that society does this even as I have explored instances of this very behavior in Morrison’s fictional society with this project.
This idea of “inspiration porn”, coined by Stella Young, has recently been examined at the crossroads of disability and race. Sami Schalk adds to this discourse in her discussion of the viral “Black Panther prosthetic” video from 2018 where a tattoo artist presents a young black amputee boy with a new prosthetic leg airbrushed with images from the new Black Panther movie (Scalk 100). In examining the media coverage of this video, Schalk sees the first wave of media coverage not as inherent “inspiration porn”, but she critiques the news outlets’ hyperfixation on the boy’s race rather than his status as an amputee, making them ableist in a sense just as bad as “inspiration porn” (Scalk 108-109). However, the second wave of coverage did just the opposite, downplaying race and drawing heavily upon the idea of “inspiration porn” (Scalk 111). I propose a reading of Shadrack as the subject of “inspiration porn”, especially at the end of the novel. Ironically, this fetization of Shadrack does the most immediate harm, not to him, but to the townspeople who sacrifice themselves in the tunnel: “Old and young, women and children, lame and hearty, they killed, as best they could, the tunnel they were forbidden to build” (Morrison 161). Here, the dynamic between Shadrack and his dying neighbors is not complicated by racial difference, but the inspiration received from Shadrack’s yearly event is finally enough to motivate a rebellion of the people against racial inequality. However, I do not believe this was ever Shadrack’s intention, and it links his name and his disabled status to deaths he never could have prevented. This emphasizes the inability to exist in that middle ground for disabled people; either their existence is minimized, or it is larger than the elephant in the room. No one gets free from oppression without being unhappy or dead. An unintentional leader cannot help.
These are the ideas I aimed to capture in my spoken word poetry and dance: the ways in which Shadrack’s character connects to his namesake, and the questions this raises about fighting the system, blind ignorance, and what happens when recognition of disabled inspiration goes too far.
I began by writing the poem which is included below. I selected the background music, “The Way” by Zack Hemsey, edited it to fit with the voiceover of the poem, and added it to the recording of my choreography.
Word Count: 993
No one listened to me, until they did.
At first, I couldn’t even listen to myself.
Didn’t know who or where I was. Didn’t know why
Death hung in the air and crept at every corner.
Decided I wouldn’t bow down to that King
That bad King.
Like those three Isrealites
Opposed to King Nebuchadnessar.
Except they got caught.
I got liberated.
My answer: National Suicide Day.
And “the rest of the year would be safe and free”1
That yearly celebration barely made up for
That cottage I kept within
The other 364 days.
Lonelier than all I’d even known.
No better than Meshach and Abednigo.
That was my furnace. Stifling.
Running, frightened, straight to my door.
Lord’s angel appeared in that furnace.
How long did I wish her to stay?
How long would I fight to defy the dead
And the living with their judgements?
“Assurance of permanency”3
1941: they followed.
I suppose I led.
Didn’t really mean to.
Down they went
Into that tunnel.
Bowed down to the wrong King.
Should they have done that?4
Made a leader
Of a man like me.
I never wanted
Them to say I was an inspiration.5
- Morrison p. 14
- Morrison p. 63
- Morrison p. 157
- Mimics style of the final lines of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
- “Nondisabled Demands” by Jillian Weise
Hemsey, Zack. “The Way” The Way, Self-released, 2011.
Morrison, Toni. Sula. 1st Vintage International ed, Vintage International, 2004.
New International Version. Biblica, www.biblica.com/bible/niv/daniel/3/. Accessed 12 Nov. 2021.
Nussbaum, Susan. Good Kings Bad Kings. First Edition, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013.
Schalk, Sami. “Black Disability Gone Viral: A Critical Race Approach to Inspiration Porn.” CLA
Journal, vol. 64, no. 1, College Language Association, Mar. 2021, pp. 100–120. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1353/caj.2021.0007.
Weise, Jillian. “Nondisaled Demands.” PDF on dis/lit course website. Fall 2021.
I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.