Hannah Harris’ Major Project- Shadrack in Sula

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

Unintentional Leader

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. 


One day, 

A child.

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?

“Always. Always”2 

 “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. 

Now why 

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


  1. Morrison p. 14
  2. Morrison p. 63
  3. Morrison p. 157
  4. Mimics style of the final lines of “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  5. “Nondisabled Demands” by Jillian Weise


Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. 26 Oct. 2008, 


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.

Hannah Harris

Miranda Colbert’s Class Summary for 10/26/21

We began the class with a reward quiz, its questions based on the readings assigned for the week. There were protests and theories on what would happen if the entire class just refused to take the test but overall, the class was compliant. During this class period we mainly discussed the differences in relationships between persons with disabilities and vice versa, bringing up the question if it was even possible for a person with a disability and an ablebodied person to even have a healthy relationship. 

The first poem we analyzed was Jillian Weise’s “The Old Questions” which was assigned the class prior, but never discussed.Throughout the poem the speaker is trying to have an intimate moment with the potential partner but is interrupted by the partner’s intrusive questions. After reading, Dr. Foss explained that the purpose of this poem was to explore the idea of curiosity vs intimacy. When asking what the class thought of the poem it was mentioned that the partner seemed to have more interest in the prosthetic leg rather than the speaker as a person. They also mentioned that the potential partner felt as though they had the right to know everything about it, as if it was an expectation. Their points were connected to real life examples when persons with disabilities are only connected to their disabilities rather than their personalities. For example, a female who is blind only referred to as “that blind girl.” Another point that was brought up was that the wall in the poem could represent a barrier for an experience the speaker could never have, a “love without prerequisites.” Dr. Foss interjected and mentioned that the reader could have that kind of love but just not with the partner the speaker is currently with. He also mentioned that there had to be some sort of connection prior to the start of the poem because they are in an intimate situation at the start. The discussion on this poem then ended with the point that the questions being asked to the speaker were nothing new, hence the title “The Old Questions”, as well as able bodied people feel as though they have the right to have their questions answered in exchange for something else such as an intimate moment.

We then moved on to focus on this week’s poem, Laura Hershey’s, “Working Together.” After reading, we concluded that the poem focused on the idea of relationships either intimate or not and the feeling behind them. Dr. Foss stated that the poem could’ve been read two ways, with a negative or positive feeling towards it and both versions had different messages to them. The negative view on the poem came from the phrases and words “sneer”, “heft”, and the job “no one thinks of doing.” Half of the class took that as the caregiver seeing the speaker as a burden and inferring that people with disabilities are nothing more than that. Just the job “no one thinks of doing.” It also implies that the speaker doesn’t like the way they are getting taken care of. The word “heft” feels as though the speaker is a burden that needs to be hauled or that the caregiver has to be reminded where certain limbs are, and they have to help the caregiver “forget”. The positive side saw the two sharing a bond and they each had their own jobs to do. The class saw the two in the same way as a parent helping their child; with lots of care and concentration. The interaction between the two inferred that there was no problem between able bodied persons and people with disabilities, that it wasn’t a burden or strange at all.

Anna Mollow and Robert McRuler’s, “Introduction” from Sex and Disability was our next topic. We broke into our first small group of the day where my group decided to focus on Anna’s experiences. We discussed how society has certain views on what disability is and how it should look like. For example Anna getting cat-called where the male told her she was too pretty to be disabled. Society feels as though disabilities are more physical than mental and there has to be something wrong with you for you to fit that standard. We also discussed how having a physical disability takes away the right for the person with the disability to tell anyone. Dr. Foss compared it to coming out and never having the chance to come out to whoever you want. He explained it as frustrating as well as extremely disrespectful. When getting back into large group discussion, the topic shifted on how people with disabilities were not seen as desirable in both intimate or work related situations. A classmate’s example was assigning parking spots based on socioeconomic class but then calling someone out when they dont look like the class they park in. Another classmate brought up the point that when it comes to the workplace, employers turn away people with disabilities because of image and the idea that an able bodied person would be more efficient. The action enforced the stereotype that people with disabilities are helpless and cannot be able to work and do better than an able bodied person. 

Finally, we talked about the two fiction pieces that were assigned, Keith Banner’s, “The Wedding of Tom to Tom ” and Susan Nussbaum’s, Good Kings Bad Kings. When discussing Banner’s work the group focused more on the ending. With the main character, Anita, taking Tom and Tom to the motel after their “wedding” Dr. Foss asked the group if the action inferred that love between people with disabilities was seen as a joke. As if they were throwing the couple a bone. The class was split between answers, half of the class seeing Dr. Foss’ point after the statement while the other half still seemed to believe it was a kind gesture. The negative half of the class thought that the story was trying to focus on the obsessive behaviors of Tom and Tom and infer that people with disabilities cannot desire one another without the obsession. The other half of the class pointed out the relationship between Anita and Archie was the obsessive one, not Tom and Tom. Dr. Foss then asked that side if that meant that it was able bodied relationships that are seen as obsessive and unhealthy rather than the other? The class could not come up with an answer and could only ask another question: was the story actually progressive or just disappointing? When Nussbaum’s novel came up in discussion, my group focused on what we enjoyed about the story and what caught our attention rather than the deep topics. A classmate brought up how in the story Joanne just wanting human interaction was the reason she got her job, but at work she was put on display as a “role model.” We found it interesting how she was fine with that even though to us it seemed as if she was being used. Class ended before we could come to a conclusion.

Duck Joke Count: 4

“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.” -Miranda Colbert

Bailey Merriman’s Class Summary for 9/23/21

The class began, as it does somewhat frequently, with a reward quiz. Once we had finished with that, Dr Foss went over the readings we would be discussing during the class, which consisted of Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s piece “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory”, Snyder and Mitchell’s introduction, and Jillian Weise’s “Nondisabled Demands”. Although the class talked about a multitude of different things, a majority of the class discussion was about the intersectionality between disabled communities and other oppressed groups, as well as the tokenization of those with disabilities.

The first reading we discussed was Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory”. Dr. Foss had the class split into four small groups, with each group being assigned a section of the article, these being Activism, Representation, the Body, and Identity. While discussing the piece, each group wrote down their thoughts and questions they had before passing their sheet to allow for another group to discuss that section. Many of the conversations were about how many of the things feminism is fighting against are also affecting disabled people in similar ways. For example, throughout history women’s bodies and minds have been “culturally disabled”, and have been seen as incompetent and weak, which was compared to the ways disabled people are often seen by society in similar ways. The ways both women and people with disabilities are often forced by societal expectations to put their appearance over their health was also discussed, with the example of women wearing corsets or binding their feet and disabled people being expected to undergo painful surgeries or therapy, was also a topic that was brought up.

After reforming as a full class, we started our discussion with Snyder and Mitchell’s introduction “Cultural Locations of Disability”. Dr Foss began this dialogue by bringing up their controversial take that the Holocaust was not very shocking, and was instead the logical outcome of a society that needs perfection and hygenics. He brought up their idea that a society’s need for perfection and normalization puts all bodies at risk, but especially disabled ones. The class then began discussing the problems with the medical model and the social model of disability. The class agreed that one of the main problems with the medical model was that it pathologized disabled people, while the biggest problem with the social model was that it identified disability with only it’s negative encounters, and victimized those who are disabled. We then compared these two models with the cultural model that Snyder and Mitchell present. The cultural model seemed to be the best model presented, as it sees disabled people as entire people, instead of just victims of oppression, as well as acknowledging disability as both “human variation encountering environmental obstacles and socially mediated difference that lends group identity and phenomenological perspective” (10).

The final reading the class discussed was Jillian Weise’s poem “Nondisabled Demands”. After the poem was read to the class, the first point raised was about the last stanza “If you refuse to answer then we call/your doctor. Then we get to say/You’re an inspiration”. We discussed how often disabled people are pulled into the public eye and then labeled as inspiring or brave solely because they are living with a disability, and how doing this allows society to ignore the oppression the people they are calling inspirations have to face. The idea that many people view all disabled people as the same, and that if one person is comfortable talking about their disability then everyone else is as well was also discussed. This led into a conversation about tokenization, and how people from oppressed communities are forced to become representatives for everyone else in that group, regardless of whether or not they consented to doing so.

“I pledge”- Bailey Merriman