This semester, I will be conducting a directed study with Maria Lima on British Black Short Stories. I look forward to the connections and interesting perspectives that reading Toni Morrison’s novels alongside the works that I will be reading for Maria will provide. This past week we had our first meeting, and she suggested that I watch A Terrible Transformations, Africans in America. This is a documentary that focuses on the unique history of Slavery in America– one that moved from a system of indentured servitude of all races, to the kidnapping and enslavement of people of African heritage. Overall, I found the film to be quite beneficial towards my understanding of the enslavement of people based on race in the United States, and thought perhaps it could benefit the rest of the class as well.
Along with a better historical understanding, I also found that there were significant connections between A Terrible Transformation and Morrison’s A Mercy. The documentary discusses the conditions of the Slave Ships and Middle Passage–the trading of slaves that D’Ortega subtly makes references to as “factors out of his control.” The documentary also discusses Slavery as something that affected not only the Slave owners and Slaves themselves, but an entity that was tightly intertwined into the American Social and Economic system, in such a way that all people were affected indirectly. This issue is that something that we discussed as a class upon reaction to Jacob’s notion that he “does not deal in flesh.” Just because his direct commodity is not buying and selling slaves, we determined that he is not entirely blameless, due to the fact that he deals in goods that are primarily harvested by enslaved labor.
If interested, I would strongly recommend viewing this documentary. It is available on Youtube, and I have provided the link below. I believe that it provides a sound historical understanding that could be of aid when dealing with the issues that Morrison addresses in her novels.
After looking at Jacob’s contradictory denial of dealing in “flesh”, which Hannah does a good job of explaining in her post, I started thinking about the ways that Toni Morrison made Jacob first appear to be a benevolent character, only to contradict that appearance after closer reading. The most obvious attempt to show Jacob’s altruism, in my opinion, was his rescue of the raccoon in the beginning of the chapter.
Saving a baby animal is about as in-your-face as Morrison could get to show that Jacob is a lovable guy, but she brings the raccoon back several times in a way that I think reveals the part of himself that Jacob denies. Continue reading “Jacob and the Raccoon”
I have never previously read a Toni Morrison work, and upon hearing about this class being offered, I knew I had to take it. I have always been interested in history, and what life was like in eras before me.
I believe that it is crucial to learn about our history and in my previous experience learning about it, I was not very engaged reading out of textbooks and observing powerpoints. Novels are powerful; they allow the reader to connect with a fictional or nonfictional character and experience firsthand their life and the lives around them. Toni Morrison takes slavery and presents it in such a way, that it really allows the reader to vicariously understand what times were like when black slavery was present in America. In the first two chapter’s of A Mercy, we get a sense of how the story is told; through perspective narration. This way of storytelling is engaging as well as informative, as it allows readers to understand the emotions, feelings, and thoughts of the people forced to live in this absurd era.
Hey, all. I just wanted to share this short reflective essay that I wrote to Beth a few days ago, detailing some thoughts on my self-identity in relation to Toni Morrison’s works and the upcoming semester:
Toni Morrison writes for black people. I’ve been thinking about this statement over and over again since the first day of class. It wasn’t until the end of my first fiction workshop that I had considered using my narrative voice to talk about the black experience. I wrote a short story about the creation of the notorious Bloods and Crips; gangs that have been tainted by media and corrupted social structures; gangs that began as clubs and fraternities for underprivileged minorities who couldn’t join white clubs in the community. That story still haunts me to this day.
By the time I had dabbled in poetry and left the world of fiction behind—albeit temporarily—I had already written a myriad of pieces about what it meant to be black in America; poems ranging from topics like Emmett Till to the slave trade. At the time, I was still a novice when it came to discovering my voice: what did I want to talk about? what was I using my poetry to do? was I writing for myself or for others? I also didn’t want to limit myself to one topic of discussion; in other words, I didn’t want to be the black male writer—because I was definitely the only one in all of my workshops—who specifically wrote about the black struggle. The thought of this troubled me; it made me feel stagnant. I was afraid that those around me thought that I was cliché and was only using my voice for shock value or guilt tripping. I think about this now, and maybe I was indeed right to do those things. Continue reading “Beginning of Semester Reflection and Hopes”
Having previously read Beloved, and now reading A Mercy, I found myself curious about some more of Toni Morrison’s background. In particular, I was curious about where the inspiration for her books came from, considering both had a similar context and themes. Interestingly, I found out that Morrison was born in Ohio and attended an integrated school. Continue reading “Toni Morrison’s Inspiration?”
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.
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?
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.
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.