Black History is American History

A question that Beth posed in class this week asked us to understand what Toni Morrison means when she stated that her literature is intended for black folks. In this blog post, I’d like to dive into what I believe that she meant, with a special mention to a quote from the PBS film, Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery, that stated indignantly that “slavery is indeed an institution that is American.”

Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery noted the contextual history of Morrison’s novel, Mercy, by placing us in the time leading up to slavery – the movement that occurred during the Middle Passage and then the buying and selling of black bodies. In Mercy, a work of historical American fiction, the quote “slavery is indeed an institution that is American,” should be noted in categorizing the novel as a work of “historical American fiction.” Among the many statements mentioned throughout the film, each able to shake the roots of what Joan Dayan recalls as “the sorcery of law… hidden at the heart of the modern state,” and which Beth sites in her “The Archive of the Archive of the Archive,” stating that slavery is an institution that is still present in our American ways and that its history will continue to haunt black lives is what brings Morrison’s work to life today. I inferred that this is what the producers of the film want us to learn from saying that. The statement is supported by reference to how the Declaration of Independence, the doctrine that asserts our nation’s foundation, was not made with consideration for black lives. The plethora of these kinds of dismissals present in our history continues to subjugate and dehumanize black people in the United States. It highlights a modern slavery that is a relic of what was never dealt with during Reconstruction.

Moreover, I think that stating that “slavery is indeed an institution that is American” brings currency to what we study in class. Saying that slavery is American includes its history and all of its implications in our present day society. It denies the perspective that some Americans have of “colorblindness” and elucidates Morrison’s assertion that her literature is meant for black people. It is meant to empower black people and to remember black history. It includes black lives, and the history of these black lives, and contextualizes this history to our present day society, giving a voice to the #BlackLivesMatter movement today.

For all these reasons, I applaud the showing of Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery because now, we know in brevity what we are working with. We know that what Morrison is teaching us is a delicate balance of our American history, including what has been erased and what we are yearning to learn.

White VS. Non-White

For my first blog post, I want to answer the question Dr. McCoy presented to us on Wednesday after watching Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery. The question was, “Given what you have seen so far, how does the video cross check with what you have read in A Mercy?” The film discusses the slow transition from impermanent indentured servitude of both blacks and whites to a violent colony-wide institution based in severe racism. In A Mercy, Morrison also describes this transition, but quite differently. While the video explains this process historically and as happening over the course of centuries, Morrison represents it instead in the interaction between a tradesman, Jacob Vaark, and a tobacco planter, D’Ortega.
Continue reading “White VS. Non-White”

Jacob’s values and religion

On the second day of class (my first day since I joined late) I remember discussing Jacob and his apparent distaste for slavery. We spoke specifically about the line, “Jacob winced. Flesh was not his commodity.” Without context because I hadn’t starting reading the book yet, my initial reaction was a torn one. While on the surface one might think, “Oh wow, Jacob is so virtuous he rejects slavery!” the fact he still refers to the slaves as “flesh,” dehumanizing them, shows he is not so far removed from the idea of slavery.

However, I do think there’s something to be said for society and culture at this time; I believe it accurate to say it would be difficult to find any white person who flat out rejects slavery in all forms (in fact I’m taking a history course about working in America during this time period, and my professor repeatedly says we must remember what the time period was like.)

So, for the time period, I would agree Jacob is against slavery in comparison to someone like D’Ortega. The next argument we brought up in class is whether Jacob’s ideas toward slavery stem from religion or his belief in a self-efficient work ethic, and whether this matters when putting it into terms of morality.

To this I bring up an entirely different point: perhaps it is not the question of religion vs. work ethic, but a combination of both. When Lina is first rescued she goes to live with Presbyterian’s who say, “God hated idleness most of all.” To me, this sounds like a combination of religious belief with Jacob’s work ethic. I wonder if that is where Jacob’s obsession with working hard, doing things for yourself, not being lazy, etc. comes from. Perhaps at some point Jacob was exposed to this Presbyterian thinking. If so, one could argue his rejection of slavery is not only because he thinks it “cheating,” in a way, to accept slave labor instead of working yourself, but also somehow rooted in religion and God. However, this is all just speculation.

I do not think it matters the reason, when it comes down to it, I see Jacob as a man of morals and virtue.

“Phantom” Assumptions and Expectations

Dr. Beth invoked an excellent metaphor for the outside forces that affect our responses to cultural productions like Morrison’s A Mercy. The idea is that we as products of various cultural and other forces bring expectations and assumptions into the space of the classroom, and if we do not try to root our responses in the text themselves, we are often possessed by these thoughts and “scripts” that may have nothing to do with the text. As someone that considers themselves as very conscious of these forces (from other English classes and my personal life), and as someone that has negatively been shaped and centered in the culture by them in various ways (primarily as a queer individual), I was very surprised to find myself “possessed” by these scripts while reading A Mercy. Continue reading ““Phantom” Assumptions and Expectations”

A Response to “A Terrible Transformation, Africans in America”

After having watched the documentary today in class that Sarah had previously mentioned, Dr.McCoy gave us about ten minutes to reflect on any significant connections that we could see between the documentary and Toni Morrison’s A Mercy.  While Sarah had already started this discussion with her post, I think it is only appropriate to continue this discussion. Continue reading “A Response to “A Terrible Transformation, Africans in America””

A Response to “How to Read Texts Not Written For You?”

I’ve never publicly blogged before. Growing up as a rather shy person–in both my personal life and my writing–the idea of other people reading my work was enough to reduce me to a puddle. But as I’ve begun to find my voice as a writer in college, I’ve grown more comfortable with the idea of sharing my ideas on a public forum–and when I found out that a component of this course was public blogging, I was surprised to find myself more excited than nervous.

However, every time I sit down to actually begin to write, fear seems to keep creeping back in. But this time, it isn’t because I’m uncomfortable with my voice as a writer; it’s because, as a white person, I’m terrified I might do violence to the black community that Toni Morrison’s work was actually written for. Continue reading “A Response to “How to Read Texts Not Written For You?””

Black People Don’t Read

When Beth told us of how Toni Morrison mentioned that she writes for black people, the first thing I thought about was a topic that came up a couple times in Beth’s African-American Literature course. Several writers and critics who were covered in the course mentioned that Black people do not read. I remember thinking deeply about this idea and although I initially got defensive, I thought to myself, “It’s actually true. Black people really don’t like to read.”

Growing up in a minority environment, and going to minority schools, I witnessed first hand that reading was never a favorite pastime or even hobby for most Black people, myself included. I began to wonder why. There are many reasons that I can think of as to why Black people are not interested in reading, but for the purpose of this post, I will just connect this fun fact to Morrison’s statement about writing for Black people. Perhaps, Morrison notices that Black people do not like to read, and she feels as if the reason for it is that reading has been made out to be a White thing.

Throughout my childhood, the people that I saw who actually read books for fun were the White people on television. In real life, it was very rare that I would find somebody who I knew reading a book, unless it was assigned for a class. I think it is possible that one of Toni Morrison’s motives in stressing that she writes for Black people is to get Black people to read. She shatters the notion that reading is a White thing by making the Black community her target audience.

Morrison’s Potential Inspiration

I don’t mean to jump ahead, but Sara’s post got me thinking about Morrison and her potential motives for her writing. I too have been exploring some of the intersections between Beloved and A Mercy that I have seen so far (I haven’t finished A Mercy yet). I was intrigued by Sara’s question, “What inspired Morrison, if not her own personal experience of discrimination?” This then reminded me of one of the questions brought up in the first class meeting: “How can we parallel Morrison’s work to what we see in society today?” While I can’t speak for Morrison, I like to believe that at the end of the day, Morrison, like many others, is trying to achieve a more equitable society through her writing. Continue reading “Morrison’s Potential Inspiration”

The Way She Writes

One of the questions posed on the first day of class was whether or not reading one Toni Morrison book was akin to reading them all. I am very intrigued by this because, while most authors have definitive and clear themes and styles that they write in, would the fact that Toni Morrison is a more prolific author mean that she in fact has overcome that obstacle? I’ve only ever read Morrison’s Beloved and a small portion of Sula one lazy afternoon, and forgive me, but I’ve no intention of reading all of her works to find the validity of that question. However, my curiosity was fueled even more so after reading (slowly) A Mercy. To put it plainly, Morrison has an incredible command of the English language, her writing is at times poetic, and her characters embodies numerous styles of writing. I was so awed by her language that I reread the first few pages of Beloved in order to see what I had missed out on, because I didn’t have the skill to recognize it in high school. I saw a common theme of strong women, but not so much the poetry. So doing further research I learned that Beloved was published in 1987 while A Mercy was published in 2008. A twenty-one year difference is to a writer, I believe, a lifetime, which explains what I would loathe to call growth, but rather difference in the works. I was also able to find this article which is a book review of Beloved, by Mervyn Rothstein in the New York Times, from 1987, and contains a quote by Morrison that has stuck with me ever since hearing it last year in another class taught by Dr. McCoy ”It was absolutely the right thing to do, but she had no right to do it.” If you’ve not read Beloved, I won’t ruin it for you, but that is a profound statement even without the context.The article also explains Morrison’s inspiration for A Mercy and how she went about researching to write it. Finally, I think that I will be coming back to the question of whether or not to read one of Morrison’s books is to read them all, I haven’t found a suitable answer and hope you all keep it in your minds as well throughout the semester.

How to Read Texts Not Written for You?

I thought I’d use my first blog post to express my hopes and concerns for this course for the upcoming semester. Normally, I would go into a new course thinking about what I will “gain” from it, or how my study of the various assigned texts will be “useful” to myself.  But something feels wrong about this method of thinking with this course. Continue reading “How to Read Texts Not Written for You?”