Morrison begins the novel with a short prologue that focuses on change: the leveling of a black neighborhood — the Bottom, situated in the hills above the valley town of Medallion, Ohio — in order to create a golf course for white people. Years ago, in the 1920s, only white people lived in Medallion and only black people lived in the Bottom; now, the Bottom has become a suburb of the valley town, and the white people who formerly would never have set foot in the black community vastly outnumber their black counterparts.
The Bottom got its name from a cruel trick played on a black laborer by his white farmer boss, who promised the black man that if he'd do some difficult chores for him, he'd receive his freedom and some fertile "bottom land" as compensation. When the work was completed, the white farmer deceitfully told the black man that the bottom land he promised him was actually situated up in the hills overlooking Medallion, but that this particular piece of land was the best because from God's viewpoint it was the "bottom of heaven."
The black man gladly accepted the white farmer's explanation and the piece of land; however, it wasn't long before he realized that the steep, hilly bottom land was cursed with endless erosion and could be farmed only through backbreaking labor and toil.
Morrison's Medallion, Ohio, is an upside-down world. The once-worthless land that a white man jeeringly gave to a black man is now being metamorphosed into a socially desirable locale for white people. But this inverted order is not merely an ironic setting for the novel; it is an essential theme of the novel, for as Morrison has said, "Evil is as useful as good. Sometimes good looks like evil and evil looks like good." What may seem good initially may prove to be not so good after all, and what may seem evil on the surface may later prove to be of value.
The ways that we perceive the ever-changing presence of good and the ever-changing presence of evil are directly related to our shifting opinions of events in the prologue. For example, although it might seem as though bulldozing the Bottom's dusty shacks and replacing them with a swanky golf course epitomizes civic progress, if we listen to Morrison we realize that this now-desirable land will never again be filled with the quality of vibrant life that it once had under its black citizens' stewardship. Country clubs and golf courses are not characterized by the "shucking, knee-slapping, wet-eyed laughter" that once echoed through these hills when the black community lived here.
Humor was especially abundant then, and it even influenced — ironically — the names of businesses — for example, the Time and a Half Pool Hall, which is intentionally humorous and part of Morrison's interweaving of the change/reversal motif. Although the phrase "time and a half" means that someone working at that scale gets more money for working overtime, the men in the pool hall aren't working overtime; actually, they aren't working at all. Another business that is humorously named is Irene's Palace of Cosmetology, a take-off on the names of pretentious beauty parlors — or salons — for rich white women. This particular beauty parlor is hardly a "palace." Palaces are generally associated with rich people, but the only rich people in the valley are the whites who live down in Medallion, not up in the steep-hilled Bottom.
Morrison ends the prologue with a couple of items of suspense: Back in 1920, she says, the black population of the Bottom was wondering what a man named Shadrack "was all about," and what a little girl named Sula "was all about." In fact, the community wondered what it itself was "all about." By beginning at the end, Morrison shows us what will eventually happen to this laughing, loafing, music-loving, nurturing, close-knit black community, which gains and then loses its identity. The circularity of Morrison's narrative, beginning as it does with the Bottom's end, takes us all the way to the novel's closing sentence, which emphasizes this circular pattern: "It was a fine cry — loud and long — but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
Nu Nile a hair product used by blacks.
a bit of a cakewalk, a bit of black bottom, a bit of "messing around" The cakewalk and the black bottom are names of lively dances; messing around is a euphemism for flirting and touching.
mouth organ a metal harmonica, housing a row of free reeds set back in air holes and played by exhaling or inhaling; mouth organs are often used in folk music and sometimes in country-western music.
bottom land The most desirable land that a person can own, true bottom land is rich and fertile and characterized by its dark, loamy texture. In the novel, years of rain and erosion have slowly washed the valuable top soil down from the surrounding hills to the true "bottom," or valley, and created this so-called bottom land, yielding far better crops than what people harvest on the nutrient-poor, hard-to-cultivate soil up in the hills.