- The Racial Economies of Fun in the Bottom
In 1973, as the former Jim Crow South was remaking itself into the nation’s Sunbelt, Toni Morrison published her second novel, Sula. It opens and closes with striking fictional images of the racial, economic, and environmental transformations shaping the U.S. leisure and real estate industries. Morrison wrote,
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. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom. . . . Generous funds have been allotted to level the stripped and faded buildings that clutter the road from Medallion up to the golf course. . . . There will be nothing left of the Bottom. . . .
A joke. A nigger joke. That was the way it got started. Not the town, of course, but that part of town where the Negroes lived, the part they called the Bottom in spite of the fact that it was up in the hills. Just a nigger joke. The kind white folks tell when the mill closes down and they’re looking for a little comfort somewhere. The kind colored folks tell on themselves when the rain doesn’t come, or comes for weeks, and they’re looking for a little comfort somehow. . . . The nigger got the hilly land, where planting was backbreaking, where the soil slid down and washed away the seeds, and where the wind lingered all through the winter.
Which accounted for the fact that white people lived on the rich valley floor in that little river town in Ohio and the blacks populated the hills above it, taking small consolation in the fact that every day they could literally look down on the white folks.
At the conclusion of the novel, Morrison’s protagonist Nel reflects on the changes in Medallion and the Bottom as she walks through town. [End Page 710]
Things were so much better in 1965. Or so it seemed. You could go downtown and see colored people working in the dime store behind the counters, even handling money with cash-register keys around their necks. And a colored man taught mathematics at the junior high school. The young people had a look about them that everybody said was new. . . .
In the meantime the Bottom had collapsed. Everybody who had made money during the war moved as close as they could to the valley, and the white people were buying down river, cross river, stretching Medallion like two strings on the banks. Nobody colored lived much up in the Bottom any more. White people were building towers for television stations up there and there was a rumor about a golf course or something. Anyway, hill land was more valuable now, and those black people who had moved down right after the war and in the fifties couldn’t afford to come back even if they wanted to. . . . only rich white folks were building homes in the hills. Just like that, they had changed their minds and instead of keeping the valley floor to themselves, now they wanted a hilltop house with a river view and a ring of elms.1
Morrison’s characters inhabit the changing racial and environmental economies of life and leisure that Andrew Kahrl and Victoria Wolcott historicize. Morrison’s Nel is not sure how it happens that her neighborhood is replaced by a golf course from which she, if not because of ongoing segregation then because of relative poverty and low-class status, is barred. Nor does Nel fully grasp the political machinations through which the “rich white folks” exercised their change...