Rachel Grace Chaos’ Major Project

“Once people understood the boundaries and nature of his madness they could fit him, so to speak, into the scheme of things”
“Golden”

The two paintings in this project are reflections of characters in Toni Morrison’s Sula. For the paintings, the mediums are collage and acrylic paint on canvas. The original goal in creating these paintings was an aim to reveal the implicit biases in each variation of a human and relate to our discussion of Sula that focused on how Morrison represents various disabilities. In the end, it became much more nuanced than that. The final works do, I hope, reveal the perspectives of disability that Morrison shows in Sula, but they also reveal the celebration of disability that Morrison creates in her text. 

First, a disclaimer: Morrison creates the characters in her novel to have complex identities that include race, gender, and physical, mental, and emotional disabilities. My pieces focus on textual descriptions and circumstances surrounding disability, I am not in any way trying to speak about Black individuals’ identities and their experiences, I am just continuously inspired by Toni Morrison and her work and created these pieces in response to her text.  

The physical process of creating these pieces centered around finding the appropriate clippings from magazines that I felt illustrated each idea best. In looking through the catalogs and catalogs and catalogs of magazines in my collection, the vision of the paintings comes together. The paint plays a big part in creating these pieces because color holds a lot of meaning to individuals. The left side of Sula’s piece could not just be a plain grey because her view of life still has depth. Can one properly convey madness without paying close attention to how they use the paints at their disposal? Once I finished combing through Morrison’s text, clipped the magazines, and mixed the paint, it was time to assemble the masterpieces. 

The first piece of work is an illustration of Morrison’s perspective of madness as illustrated through the character of Shadrack. The title of the piece is the quote that inspires it: “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). Shadrack’s madness becomes the “fabric of life up in the Bottom of Medallion” (Morrison 16) and essentially, he fades into the background of the town, therefore the grey landscaping, grey clouds, and grey painted background show how the world exists with Shadrack; people simply “had no attitudes or feelings about Shadrack’s annual solitary parade” (Morrison 15). Morrison describes Shadrack and his “madness” on the “first… National Suicide Day” with “eyes [that] were so wild, his hair so long and matted, his voice so full of authority and thunder” (Morrison 15). Shadrack wears striped pants in the painting to represent his madness and has a small breaking bomb at the bottom of his feet as a metaphor for his “thunder” cracking the foundation of the town. 

Shadrack has an ability that no one else has in the novel, he empathizes with Sula. His ability to connect and reassure Sula, an almost untouchable entity, makes him one of the sanest characters in the novel, although the town sees him as “wild”. The yellow growing out above and beyond Shadrack shows the light that Shadrack brings to Sula in providing permanence in her life with his word “always”. The spirals spanning outside of Shadrack’s yellow identity are a metaphor for his National Suicide Day. Morrison introduces the act of National Suicide Day as an act of madness, but in the end, it is Suicide Day that recognizes suffering as human because “the same folks who had sense enough to avoid Shadrack’s call were the ones who insisted on drinking themselves to death or womanizing themselves to death” (Morrison 16). Shadrack, a madness-aligned character exists as a disabled identity in the town because of his mental disabilities from the war, but also in celebrating the same day every year, he provides sanity to the people who otherwise would not receive it. 

The second painting displays on the left how Sula sees the world and, on the right, how the world sees Sula. This painting is titled “Golden”. Sula exists, both through her birthmark and through her actions, as a spectacle and a body that violates the norm. Sula is a disability-aligned character because of the way others view her, she exists as “the devil in their midst” (Morrison 117). The right side of the painting reveals the spectacle and disgrace others see in Sula through the image of red representing the image of the “devil”. On this side, Sula wears a red dress, exists in a red cloud, and thinks in red thought bubbles because she is “the fourth” face of the “God of three faces they sang about” (Morrison 118). The fire, a symbol of something that continues to grow and devour surroundings, serves as a metaphor of the “birthmark that spread from the middle of the lid toward the eyebrow” which “grew darker as the years passed” (Morrison 53). This side also features a bird to represent “the plague of Robbins” (Morrison 112) with Sula’s return and a thought bubble with the image of a person jumping out of a window to represent the trauma of Hannah’s death that Sula carries with her. 

The left side of the painting represents how Sula sees the world and is based on the description of Sula’s eyes at the beginning of the novel, she has “gold-flecked eyes, which, to the end, were as steady and clean as rain” (Morrison 53). Sula remarks that “the real hell of Hell is that it is forever” (Morrison 117), which shows how dull she feels forever is. Consistency is Hell and “ugliness [is] boring” (Morrison 122) and Sula’s “lonely is [hers]” (Morrison 143), so I painted the background of her perspective grey with white flecks throughout. Sula’s overall perspective on life is that it is dull and boring, which so contrasts with how the town sees her. So, the two perspectives now live in conversation together on this painting revealing how Morrison writes Sula as a disability-aligned character and uses her to illustrate implicit biases. 

On the topic of implicit biases and devaluation of disabled bodies in disability studies is Snyder and Mitchell’s Introduction to Cultural Locations of Disability. Snyder and Mitchell discuss that “the devaluation of disabled bodies places in jeopardy all bodies that exist within proximity to ‘deviance’” (Snyder and Mitchell 5). This relates to my illustration of Sula because she exists less as a disabled body and more so as a deviant body in Morrison’s text and it is her “deviance” that marks her identity in the town, as illustrated on the right side of “Golden”. More so, Snyder and Mitchell discuss the cultural model of disability and come to an “understanding that impairment is both human variation encountering environmental obstacles and socially mediated difference that lends group identity” (Mitchell and Snyder 10). The idea of impairment as something that is socially mediated is relevant to my discussion earlier of Shadrack’s othering at the hands of the town. Shadrack exists as an othered body because “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). Shadrack’s disability is, in part, a result of social mediation and how they designated him in society, which is visible in my portrait of him. The paintings reveal the idea of implicit biases of disabled bodies and Mitchell and Snyder’s discussion of “deviance” and how society deems what is acceptable and in what category it is. 

1252 words

I pledge- Rachel Grace Chaos

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. Sula. Vintage Classics, 2020. Print.

Snyder, Sharon L., and David T. Mitchell. Cultural Locations of Disability. The University of Chicago Press, 2015. Print.

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 

Somehow

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. 

Then 

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

Footnotes: 

  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

References

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

https://web.archive.org/web/20081026180517/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/GilYell.html.

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

Megan Hofmann’s Class Summary for Thursday, September 16th

Class, of course, began on Thursday with a quiz. Once the morbid quiz was complete, Dr. Foss reviewed the schedule our class would be following and named the readings we would be analyzing. The authors included Jasbir Puar, Chris Bell, and Toni Morrison. The class focused mainly on the two theory readings, and discussion involving these authors and their correlating articles proceeded in the same order as formerly stated. Through group discussion involving the two articles, our class concluded that white individuals remain the focus of disability studies due to a long history of marginalization towards minority groups in the field.

Class proceeded by Dr. Foss giving students adequate time to review Jasbir Puar’s article, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” from The Right to Maim. My groupmates and I discussed whether both disabled and debilitated aligned individuals fall under the same category of “disability.” Although we did not come up with a definitive answer, the group concluded that individuals with disabilities in debilitating circumstances battle unique hardships due to lack of resources. In addition, the group discussed how individuals in power remain in authority by targeting minority groups and disabling them through the act of maiming. We specifically focused on Puar’s claim, “This is what I call ‘the right to maim’: a right expressive of sovereign power that is linked to, but not the same as ‘the right to kill.’ Maiming is a source of value extraction from populations that would otherwise be disposable” (18). The group concluded that Puar point stands true, when someone becomes disabled by being maimed, they are less likely to be a threat to the group in power.

Dr. Foss then brought the class together to discuss the article as a large group. He started by stating that over 50% of police shootings are towards black bodies, supporting this claim by giving specific examples of local tragedies where black individuals have been targeted by local police. Foss then went on to discuss one of Puar’s points that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict also revolves around the intentional debilitation of a population and how individuals with disabilities in the Middle East face challenges such as transportation due to issues associated with the area’s infrastructure. The class moved on to discuss the topic from a historical stance, stating that throughout history, minority bodies were expected to attain physical disabilities, such as the bodies of enslaved people. This conversation concentrated on the topic of white fragility and how similarly to the topic of race, white fragility can relate to disability studies as well because the topic of disability can cause anxiety amongst white populations, especially when related to minority groups.

Dr. Foss then gave the class small group time to review Chris Bell’s article, “Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal.” My group discussed Bell’s obvious sarcasm towards the topic of disability, and how disability studies solely focus on white disability. The group specifically considered Bell’s ten-step list that sarcastically informs the reader of easy strategies in how to keep disability studies fixated on white disability instead of becoming more inclusive. The group quickly noticed that Bell’s article, like the central points in Puar’s article, focuses on the topic of white fragility. This conversation turned to large group discussion that revolved around Bell’s ten-step list. Classmates highlighted Bell’s use of reverse psychology, claiming that by stating, “Make no effort to be more inclusive in your scholarship. Do not start today, do not start tomorrow. Wait for someone else to do inclusive work” (281), Bell is calling society to action.

Lastly, the few remaining minutes of class were used to briefly discuss Toni Morrison’s, Sula. Dr. Foss emphasized different characters and their correlating disabilities such as Eva who has one leg, the triplets who are hinted to have an intellectual disability, and Plum who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. The class discussed Toni Morrison’s intentions of wanting the reader to be exposed to differing perspectives, but whose intentions instead were at times inappropriate and insensitive towards cultures that she was not educated enough to speak for. The discussion was then concluded with a duck joke and class was dismissed.

“I pledge” – Megan Hofmann