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, A 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 A 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.