Experience As a Tool

When I originally sat down to map out my thinking for our class’s essay regarding Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, I really struggled. To pull some vocabulary from the prompt, I felt as if I wasn’t noticing anything closely enough to construct a strong essay, so I decided to wait, give myself some time, and read what other classmates were thinking in their essays. Thankfully, the decision to see what my peers were writing about proved successful, as my classmates are truly brilliant and were able to offer avenues I hadn’t yet considered.  

As I was scrolling through my peers’ work, a specific quote caught my attention. In the beginning of Emily Tsoi’s essay, she used the following Dionne Brand quote: “My job is to notice, and to notice that you can notice.” Using this quote was an inventive idea and ultimately led me to my own essay topic. (Thank you Emily!) I noticed Emily’s use of the Brand quote because it had been an epigraph to Dr. McCoy’s African American Literature class that we both happened to take last year. Emily’s choice to use this quote showed just how recursive things can be in our day to day, semester to semester, and year to year lives.

After re-reading Brand’s quote, I decided to try and notice why I was struggling with the prompt. Why was I having trouble moving forward? After giving my own struggles some thought, I noticed why I was struggling.  

While most cases of expulsion in Morrison’s A Mercy involve the act of noticing but an inability to interpret/respond, I’d argue that the first act of expulsion in the book, Florens’ mother offering Florens to Jacob Vaark, was a reaction to Florens’ mother’s interpretation of her own environment. Florens’ mother states, “One chance, I thought. There is no protection but there is difference” (195). While Florens’ mother did not have tools to stop expulsion from occurring, I think that it is important to recognize that she noticed the danger of her situation, and had other tools, her intelligence, experience, and insight as a slave, to interpret the situation and weigh her options. By using her past experiences, Florens’ mother reads into Jacob and makes the educated guess that he is less harmful than D’Ortega, and ultimately decides that sending Florens with Jacob Vaark is the lesser of two evils. So while I think that the prompt can most definitely apply to certain forms of expulsion in A Mercy, I also think that the first form of expulsion we experience as readers (Florens’ mother offering Florens to Jacob Vaark) pushes back against the idea of not having resources to assist in interpretation. 

After noticing my struggles and pushing back on the prompt, I desired to find an example that fit the prompt, because I knew there were plenty (I just had to notice them). Interestingly, I didn’t have to look far for an example, I just had to look from another angle. In the first instance of expulsion, Jacob Vaark has a completely different understanding of the trade than Florens’ mother. As readers, we later discover that Jacob Vaark partially understands the brutality of Florens’ expulsion from her family; however, Vaark does not have the experience to understand that what Florens’ mother did was an incredibly selfless act. Jacob reflects on the deal he made with D’Ortega: “He believed it now with this ill-shod child that the mother was throwing away, just as he believed it a decade earlier with the curly-haired goose girl, the one they called Sorrow” (39-40). Vaark does not have the same upbringing or experience as a slave to see Florens’ mother for what she really is, the bigger hero. While Florens’ mother offers Florens to Vaark because she sees that he is the lesser of two evils, Vaark cannot begin to understand how Florens’ expulsion from a family could be a form of protection. Instead, Vaark notices that expulsion is painful but lacks the tools to read into Florens’ expulsion as anything more than pain. 

The fact that different characters have different tools to assess the same situations is what makes A Mercy so raw and encapsulating. Florens’ mother is able to read the situation and notices that Vaark is a “gentle” slave owner because she has endured other, harsher slave owners, and knows the difference between how they act. Even with the tools to assess the situation, Florens’ mother lacks other tools, like freedom and autonomy, to stop a form of expulsion from occurring. As readers, we are left with Florens’ mother’s agonizing thoughts on the situation as a chapter in A Mercy. On the flip side of this, readers see how a lack of experience or insight as a slave leads to Vaark’s ignorance.

As readers we see that Vaark believes he is a hero, taking in a child that a mother expelled.  With a mixture of different storylines, Morrison creates the complex, beautiful  web that is A Mercy. I am so thankful for this prompt because it encouraged me to step back and notice each strand of the web at a time. By dissecting these strands I’ve discovered that each person has some sort of tool in their tool box, we just have to notice them.

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