Tony Morrison on Black Oppression and Cynicism

After our discussion of racism and reading on the first day of class, I did some research on Toni Morrison and her views on slavery.  I came across this guardian article on her views.  I paid particular attention to the part on her critique of American history.  I say that in the second chapter, Morrison makes a statement on the reasons behind the acceptance of oppression of black people, and the ideology that leads to its continuation over centuries.  Jacob Vaark is offered a payment and states “flesh is not my commodity,”(25) which gives his disapproval of the transaction, despite his eventually acceding.  I say that Toni Morrison did not use this exchange to indicate a moral superiority from Vaark.  I say that she’s in fact demonstrating Vaark’s tacit approval of slavery, and relaying to the reader the cultural and economic reasons that permitted slavery to continue for centuries before ending in the civil war, and for oppression to continue for years after.

I present French philosopher Slavoj Zhizek’s work to inform Morrison’s statement on slavery.  Zhizek discussed the concept and danger of cynicism as an ideology.  This ideology occurs when someone disapproves of an ideology (slavery for ‘A Mercy,), but participates in the system anyways due to their economic benefits from participation,  The ruling class in particular, would refuse to change a system they believe is wrong simply because they’re secure while in the current ideology.  A summary of Zizek’s writing that I am using can be found here.  Though Toni Morrison’s work never directly connected with that of Slavoj Zizhek, I say she intended to the same concept of cynicism in ‘A Mercy’ with Vaark, to demonstrate the hopeless situation blacks were thrown into with slavery, in concision with her theme of hopelessness for black people.  Zizeks’ stated ideas are merely the best quantification of that concept of cynicism I could summon.

By verbally rejecting slavery, Vaark represents moral high ground for those empowered by the system.  However, Vaark ultimately does accept a slave girl in payment, which I say is Toni Morrison’s indication that disapproval in a system but continued participation without action is tacit approval.  I’ll dig even further for Morrison’s meaning.  Vaark is also a merchant.  As stated by Hannah Embry in her post, he obeys the system by purchasing goods produced by slaves in the triangle slave trade (Africa-Americas-Europe,) and therefore gives profit to the system of slavery, therefore he’s engaging in cynical ideology by acknowledging his principled disapproval of the system of slavery, yet participating anyways.  I say that by developing Vaark, the white protagonist’s character, in this way, Morrison uses cynicism to show the way the endless cycle of slavery and greater black oppression continues.  Since the enslaving class profits from slavery, they are unwilling to change the even if they morally oppose it.  As a result, powerless black people like the narrator in Mercy are forever swept up in the apathy.

“Surrogate” in A Mercy

In our class discussion on Wednesday, “fungible” was one of the terms that Dr. McCoy projected on the board. Defined as “able to replace or be replaced by another identical item”, we talked about things standing in place of other things especially with its relation to slaves and the idea of people being treated in such ways. Dr. McCoy wrote “surrogates” on the board and I found that word particularly interesting because I had also written it in the margins of page 30 when Jacob thinks “perhaps Rebekka would welcome a child around the place.” He sees the narrator as a surrogate daughter for him and his wife, who have dealt with numerous tragic deaths of their young children. Surrogate also has a special meaning I think for Jacob himself; as an orphan, he grew up with no family so the relationships he cultivated have been surrogates for the life many people take for granted.


Another thought I had regarding the word “surrogate” was how it relates to the narrator. Because she is obviously not the mother’s favorite, she has women who act as surrogate mothers. Some questions that I have still would be how important are surrogates for both the narrator and Jacob, and will that be a uniting force for these characters?

Flesh vs “The Flesh”

As I put the word flesh into the google search bar various things related to flesh popped up, on that was particularly instructing to me was “Flesh in the bible”. I read an article on the word “flesh” being in the bible. The author stated that in many ways when flesh is mentioned it is often referring to the physical body flesh. But when the word flesh is followed by the word, it takes on a whole new meaning. “The Flesh” refers to the part of us that is isolated from God. It is the part of us that rebells and doesn’t want to do what we are told, the teenage rebel of our inner self. According to the article I found it is the part of us that wants something even though we are not allowed to have it. The flesh follows its on desires and thoughts rather than the ones that are “morally” righteous.

So what does this have to do with the way Toni Morrison used the word flesh in her writing. Most likely she used the word Flesh to mean the physical sense. Jacob not wanting to trade with flesh because that wasn’t following his Morals. But technically Jacob was rebelling against D’Ortega’s way of doing things and not wanting to do something because an authority figure told him what to do. Back when slavery was a thing the norm was to trade with flesh humans. Jacob was going against the traditional idea and following his own ideals and desire. For me both definitions of “flesh” and “the flesh”, seem to explain the character of Jacob in  Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.

A Different Take on “Flesh”

In Rachel’s post, she points to the etymology of the word “flesh” in the lines “Jacob flinched.  Flesh was not his commodity”.  She suggests that when he does trade enslaved people, he views them as bodies; as fungible, mutually interchangeable, as in without individual personhood.  

I’d like to examine these lines through a different lens. If I remember correctly, Dr. McCoy suggested in class that this line may give the reader insight into how Jacob makes peace with the violence he takes part in.  He says he only trades commodities which are raw goods such as gold and coffee.  Jacob has a physical reaction to the suggestion that D’Ortega settle his debt with enslaved people.  He winces and says he does not trade flesh (25). This suggests that he does not want to trade enslaved people.  He is content with trading raw goods.  However, these goods are produced through the violent exploitation of enslaved people.  Therefore, he does trade in flesh.  He is an integral part of the capitalist loop that upholds chattel slavery.  The line “flesh was not his commodity” is untrue not only because he ends up settling his debt through the trade of a human, but because he profits directly from the system he’s attempting to reject.

Continue reading “A Different Take on “Flesh””

Flesh and Souls

When Dr. McCoy gave the suggestion for us to look into this topic, I immediately knew I was going to do so regardless of whether or not I wrote it as a blog post. For a while now, flesh has been a recurring topic in my writing, and as a Creative Writing major it’s something I am still exploring through fiction and poetry. However, I have not looked at it through the lens of slavery, which I will try here and now to do.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word flesh comes from the Old English flæsc, meaning “meat, muscular parts of animal bodies; body (as opposed to soul).” Looking at this root, I am drawn to the emphasis on physical body “as opposed to soul,” as though merely an empty casing. Here, I’d like to draw a connection to the setting of this word within Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, in which the word is spoken within a religious colony. Souls would have been of particular concern for the inhabitants of such a place. In regards to slavery, this reading would have a particular significance, as the enslaved persons are being viewed by the slave owners as “commodities” and less than human.

I would then like to draw our attention to the character Jacob who speaks the line “Flesh is not my commodity” in the second chapter. While Jacob regards himself as morally upright and looks down upon the plantation owner D’Ortega’s lavish lifestyle, does his using this term provide us the reading that he may not view the enslaved as full human beings, but rather as bodies lacking a soul? If so, is he then as morally upright as he so thinks?

Semiotics and Visual Literacy

Semiotics. A subject that I am not very well read in but am trying to learn more about in my spare time. Why do I bring it up? Because I found it useful to think about in our first reading of Morrison’s A Mercy, and it connects to the Davis/Morrison video that Dr. McCoy posted. In the video (which, if I’m being honest, I have only watched the first twenty minutes of) Morrison discusses the “power of reading and of course understanding the meaning of what one reads and what I like to think of as visual literacy.” This “power of reading” and “visual literacy” can be understood as another phrasing, or maybe a more specific type of Semiotics. Continue reading “Semiotics and Visual Literacy”