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Toni Morrison’s A Mercy

September 19, 2011

I was less than thrilled with Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. I kept thinking I have read Florens before, much better sketched in, far more provocative and searing. Did I catch Morrison’s Sethe (from Beloved) re-appear as some flickering incarnation in Florens’ nameless mother? Both are about slave mothers who do un-motherly deeds to their girl children to save them from the horrors of slavery. But there is no comparing Sethe — she is one of those literary characters, a force — as if she is some extraordinary person I had met in the past and now cannot forget.

Even the congenial relationship that A Mercy’s slaves have with their white masters feels borrowed from Beloved (where the first slave-master was a ‘good master’ and the novel goes into a whole lovely narrative about ‘good masters’).

A Mercy‘s main slave masters are far more decent, and the treatment Morrison gives them at the end of the novel feels kind of odd. Especially Rebekka. How-come she turns into a raging, mean old woman via religion, specifically Baptism. It felt like some mis-understanding.

I was particularly unhappy about the sexuality in the novel. Morrison often pushes the boundaries on writing women’s sexuality and desire. Usually in a way that feels empowering and is, you know, hot. But here, Florens’ characterization as docile, love-starved doesn’t seem to have any redeeming lessons. Especially juxtaposed with her consuming passion for the African blacksmith. And then there is this excerpt from when Scully (one of the white indentured servants) sexually assesses the various slave women in the farm. On Florens’ “rape-ability”.

On the other hand, if he had been interested in rape, Florens would have been his prey. It was easy to spot that combination of defenselessness, eagerness to please and, most of all, a willingness to blame herself for the meanness of others.

It’s easy to dismiss this as the vile thoughts of a racist, white man for a black woman. But somehow the narrative felt almost sympathetic, understandable. Instead of painting in the sexually violent reality of black slave women, it seems to be revealing the workings of a potential rapist. The reader is being clued in, warned with age-old, sexist, victim-blaming trope.

It’s a very small book, and it’s still Morrison (even formula Morrison is still glorious). Below is an NPR interview with her about the book. It’s all kinds of interesting.

It strikes me how similar the politics that Toni Morrison describes in the clip above unsurprisingly echoes caste politics. This notion of dividing an oppressed people so that empowerment (in the form of identities, not rights or privileges) goes to a few — intimately connecting labor and the color of one’s skin, for the benefit of those who own land and property.

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