The chapter begins by explaining the destruction of a neighborhood in Ohio. Known as the Bottom this neighborhood was previously inhabited almost entirely by Black people and looked over a mostly White, mostly wealthy, valley town named Medallion. The narration is given in the past tense, indicating that the destruction of the Bottom is not imminent but rather that it has already passed.
In the preface, the narrator laments the loss of various local businesses and landmarks known to former inhabitants of the Bottom that were razed to make way for the Medallion City Golf Course. With the loss of these buildings and the departure of former inhabitants of the Bottom the neighborhood was transformed into the suburbs.
A short anecdote included in the preface explains how the neighborhood came to be called the Bottom despite it being elevated land in the hills. According to the story, a master told his slave that he would receive freedom and land after completing a number of challenging tasks. Once finished with these tasks the slave was granted freedom. Yet, because his master did not want to give up good land, the slave was given “bottom land.”
Deceitfully, the master told his slave that the “bottom land” was the bottom of heaven. It was rich, fertile, and arable land. Fooled, the slave and an entire community of Black people begin to inhabit the area. Only later did they discover that the land the Bottom was in fact infertile and intemperate.
The preface also describes the musical nature of people in the Bottom. Singing and instruments could be heard throughout the neighborhood. Visitors to the neighborhood might witness a woman dancing the “cakewalk” in public for a crowd accompanied by harmonica and organ players. Despite this dancing and singing, there is also mention of a lasting pain among the Bottom’s inhabitants, a pain that, according to the narrator, can go unnoticed by visitors and outsiders.
Sula is structured with an end at its beginning. The preface describes the destruction of the Bottom, the setting of the story, before the reader even knows what existed there before its demise. The beginning is characteristic of works written after the two World Wars. In this context, people began to view things as fragments, chronology no longer occurred in linear fashion, and the idyllic landscape is shattered. Sula mirrors this by beginning and ending in the same time period, creating a chronological cycle instead of a linear passing of time.
Race as a theme is prominent in the introduction. There is a clear social stratification between whites and blacks in the segregated Ohio community. This segregation exists in the modern day and in the past. Even at the most recent point in the novel, blacks remain under the control of whites. Their communities are destroyed for the construction of the “suburbs” and golf courses that they would not be allowed to enjoy.
Race also plays a role in the fabled origin of the Bottom. According to local lore, a master takes advantage of his power over a black slave and gives him less arable land for completing difficult tasks. The black slave accepts the land and the lie the master tells him that the land is called “bottom land” because it is the bottom of heaven. In truth, the land is less arable and less fertile than the valley land, which is inhabited mainly by whites.
The preface foreshadows the destruction of a neighborhood. It sets up expectations through destruction of what the Bottom will be like as it is thriving. The preface also foreshadows society’s confusion with two main characters, Shadrack and Sula and reveals the meaning of the book’s title.
Morrison chooses to introduce the mainly black community in the Bottom through the point of view of a white outsider. This man from the valley walks through the valley and describes his surroundings. Morrison remarks on this by admitting that she needed to cater to her largely white readership by including a familiar way to ease into the novel that is centered on the black community. To enter directly into Shadrack’s story would make the story inaccessible and cause readers to focus on the wrong thing.