Morrison’s Book, A Mercy as a Symbol of the Active Inner Narrative: Rereading and Empathy Cultivation

Before an expulsion takes place, a notice is issued. This definition of notice resonates most with this topic and our course concepts: “a formal declaration of one’s intentions to end an agreement, typically one concerning employment or tenancy, at a specific time”. The experience of reading a book is a lot like becoming a tenant in an imaginary world. Any book that we get into our hands, can be “my shaper and my world as well” (Morrison 83). When we enter this imaginative, fictitious world, we know that it is fake; yet, how we respond to it is very real. We bring who we are in life, into the book with us. However, to be true to ourselves, we must be able to notice and read what is happening on the page, that is unless we put trust into the author and the characters. In Toni Morrison’s novel, A Mercy she has created a narrative scheme that ties a reader’s fate with the protagonist through the use of imperfect, dynamic characters and point of view. This interconnection can foster empathy for the characters, which directly aligns with Morrison’s moral of the story. Morrison’s message in the book is for readers to notice how narratives from all people, especially those who are expelled, need their stories to be heard and shared because expulsion should not happen to anyone in a literary or physical sense.

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The Expulsion of Freedom

Freedom is an abstract force, applicable in different facets of life. “Being Free” is something America has always prided itself on since the Revolutionary War when America won independence from Great Britain. Freedom is a privilege that many individuals come to America to find. However, during the 2008 housing crisis, many Americans got a glimpse of what it was like to lose some of that freedom. Americans were financially suffocating from their mortgages that failed them as the housing market crashed. After reading A Mercy by Toni Morrison, I was able to see a different perspective of freedom; the perspective of a young girl, Florens, who was born enslaved and traded off away from her mother at a young age to work on a farm. For the purposes of this essay I will focus on Florens’ views on freedom as well as the lack of freedom Americans experienced during the housing market crash. Freedom is a privilege that can be seen clearly for some people, but not clearly for everyone. A Mercy’s emphasis on Florens noticing freedom but not having the ability to interpret it is something that has helped me to better understand how expulsion occurs and especially what happened during the 2008 housing crisis. 

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Finding Freedom in Bondage: How we Instill Trust in Documentation

As individuals, we all have our own definitions of freedom; however, as we have come to understand more recently, freedom is not up to our own determination as much as we would like. The recent pandemic has come to toy with our concept of freedom as personal liberties, such as visiting a friend or going to a store or even kissing someone goodbye have been stripped away from us without our choosing. Despite orders to isolate coming from good intentions of our government in order to save others and flatten the curve of the coronavirus (and should be listened to), it has caused many, including myself, to reflect upon the individual’s conditions of freedom and the power we have over such. In America, we are lucky enough to have liberty more often than not to do what we would like, however, under that, we are also bound to the law as United States Citizens. As individuals, we may also find our freedom bonded to things, such as student codes of conduct, bills, and contracts with other individuals and companies. Each one of these reinterpreting our means of freedom as these contracts instill trust in us, as well as vice versa, with consequences for both sides when this is broken. When examining the 2008 housing crisis this is made quite clear as these contracts and mortgages were bounded upon trust both by financial definition, but also by the definition of trust as the belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something on both sides. Inevitably, the breaking of such resulted in the loss of freedom and even expulsion from houses or work for some. In connection to A Mercy by Toni Morrison, this connection between documentation and freedom is made quite clear throughout the reading as characters, such as Florens are bounded to contracts determining their individual freedom whether they fully understand or not, just like those in the 2008 housing crisis. 

Just as those purchasing mortgages were bounded to these contracts, slave owners such as Jacob Vaark also had formed a contract which bound Florens and her freedom to such,  misconstruing her definition of freedom. Florens, who was expelled from her original master at a young age has known no other life than slavery. In this, it is evident that she finds trust within her ownership as it is all she has known and often misconstrues her understanding of freedom in correlation to being owned. This is evident when Florens meets the indentured servants on her journey to go find the Blacksmith, as she states, “They are certain their years of debt are over but the master says no [and sends them to work]…I [Florens] don’t understand why they are sad. Everyone has to work” (46). These servants, just as Florens, are also tied to documentation, however, their bondage comes in the form of debt just as those who found themselves caught up in the 2008 housing crisis. Evidently these indentured servants broke the trust with those whom they owed their debts to, the consequence of this being their freedom being turned in for work on account of their documentation, which aligns quite closely to the narrative of those who had to work their way out of debt in the 2008 housing crisis. Therefore, the major underlying difference between Florens and these indentured servants, being the expulsion from their own freedom. To Florens, “The dog is not free, it is simply waiting to be found,” (82) hinting towards the documents that bind us and expel us from our freedom when this trust is broken. The power the documents have over Floren’s freedom becomes more evident, however, when they are expelled from her possession.

On her way to find the Blacksmith, Florens is given a letter that binds and proves her ownership offering her a sense of security on her journey; however, when this letter is taken away from her she is expelled from the freedom of safety, similar to those in the 2008 housing crisis. On her journey to find the Blacksmith, Florens is given a letter from Rebekka her master that proves her ownership. Despite not knowing what is in the letter as it is sealed, Florens trusts the document as a means for her to go safely from place to place, just as those who purchased mortgages found themselves trusting the documents that allowed them to purchase a home. Floren’s understands the power in which the document holds as, “With the letter, I belong and am lawful. Without it, I am a weak calf abandoned by the herd, a turtle without a shell, a minion with no telltale signs but darkness I am born with, outside, yes, but inside as well and the inside dark is small, feathered and toothy” (135). Therefore when this documentation of her ownership is stripped away at Widow Ealing’s home, she is expelled from her freedom as the letter gave her the ability to move freely from one place to the next. The instability of not being bound to a document causes Floren’s anxiety and expulsion from the comfort found in the letter and trust; “I am shrinking,” Florens states, “I am not the same…Something precious is leaving me. I am a thing apart” (135). Despite the freedom from the documentation of ownership, she does not find trust in the instability of being free from such,  just like those who lost their insurances during the economic crisis. Not being bound to safety and freedom by these documents, therefore deconstructing mediations of freedom for both. Just as those during the crisis may have clung onto family or other people for security, Florens attaches herself to the Blacksmith as she is attracted to the freedom he can bring her despite their relationship being another form of documentation that binds her.

Throughout Morrison’s novel, Florens finds herself entranced by the Blacksmith unknowingly binding herself to him as a form of documentation and freedom, despite her belief that her attractiveness is grounded in love and sex. To Florens, the Blacksmith appears as a man above all other, she finds him seductive and allusive. Throughout the novel, she ties her attractiveness to the Blacksmith on accounts of love and eroticism and binds herself to him describing him as, “my shaper and my world as well. It is done. No need to choose” (83). Her relationship to the Blacksmith, therefore, binding her sense of freedom by controlling her actions and her thoughts. Floren’s instills a sense of trust in him on the account of her documentation which in this sense appears in the form of a relationship. Floren’s even sacrifices and expels her sense of freedom in regards to this trust as she quite openly gives up her freedom for him, “I don’t want to be free of you because I am only alive because of you” (82). Floren’s understanding of trust here can be equated to the trust individuals instill in the important documents that keep themselves safe and “free”, such as during the 2008 crisis. Although Florens does not equate her relationship to the Blacksmith as a form of documentation, she is aware of the power he can have for her as a free man. The Blacksmith’s power, therefore, can be equated to those in the economic world who had the power of controlling these documents and the people who signed them; “He had rights, then, and privileges, like Sir. He could marry, own things, travel. Sell his own labor. She should have seen the danger immediately because his arrogance was clear” (53). Without knowing, Florens is attracted to the safety and freedom a relationship with the Blacksmith can give her on the documentation of her relationship. Evidently, when she is expelled from such later in the novel, Florens has to redefine her perception of freedom. She reconnects herself to the wilderness just as those who found themselves in the midst of the crisis had to find a way to reconnect with a new form of freedom without the security of these documents.  Toni Morrison’s novel, A Mercy, sheds light upon the power documents, contracts, and relationships have over our freedom, whether it is evident or not. In the novel, Florens is just one of the characters who provide insight into this concept as she attaches her freedom to documentation both knowingly through the contracts that bind her as a slave and also unwillingly through her relationship with the Blacksmith. Just as Florens finds herself in a series of contacts that she instills trust into and that determine her means of freedom, the parallel between those who instilled trust in their contracts during the 2008 economic crisis becomes clear. When this trust is evidently broken both within the novel and with the events of the crisis, expulsion from definitions of personal freedom is a result. The way in which Morrison binds Floren’s freedom to her documentation, therefore, leaves readers to rework their understanding of how our own personal freedoms and the power it has over our expulsion are controlled by such. In our current state, we as individuals are learning to rework our understanding of freedom as the coronavirus has stripped away many of the personal liberties we once had. Many people are learning to rework their lives from the expulsion of security, rework contracts with bills,  rent, and health insurance, as well as redefine their means of freedom as we are bound to a new understanding of freedom on the documentation of our government’s orders and the importance of our relationships.

“The Europes” vs Wall Street

While reading A Mercy, I think I took for granted all of the natural comments and sightings that Florens had mentioned throughout the text. I saw them mostly as adding to the story and to describe a scene. Now looking back, I have been able to text crawl through the book, and find scenes, and passages that help me understand life during this time, and the variety of people that were all working during this time, and had come from other places/ where expelled from there original homes.  Particularly looking on page 174 of A Mercy, “ Six English, one Native, twelve African by way of Barbados. No women anywhere” here Florens was listing off the type of the different men that she saw working in the field but the only thing she said that they had in common was the fact that they all truly disliked was the master’s son. Why would that matter? When things fall apart, the only thing that would unite them would have been the fact that they all dislike this one man, they would need to learn to find themselves, and then also live as a group. 

I also think recognizing how Florens sees them and calls the white people as, “The Europes” like on page 63, is a prime example of how even the Europeans are all new and where pulled from Europe as well. Every time she says that it is a reminder that they are not actually from America, but from Europe. This also reminded me of the movie Old Man and the Sea and The Big Short because in each of those the depressed(with money, goods, or emotions) characters referred to the giant or larger companies not as people, but as a thing, as “ Wall Street” or as the “Tax people”, and now “the Europes”. I found how characters like Mr. Gettridge, Florens, and the folks who suffered from the housing crisis talked about large institutions or groups of people in the broad sweeping sense.  Many people were “enslaved” to their mortgages living paycheck to paycheck, by no means, is it like slavery, but more of a saying. People during the housing crisis who had fallen into the trickery or fraud of the Wall Street men, later found out that their houses would soon not be there’s but the banks. The folks during this time were trapped into walking away from their beautiful house or trying to maintain status and working for the rest of their life to pay it off.  Any race, any ethnicity, any hair color this applied to everyone. 

Within Jacob Vaarks household we had people of many different ethnicities, Florens, who is African, Lina who is Native,  Willard and Scully who were white men and all of these people worked for Jacob Varraks under the same household. This is about pre-racism slavery as Toni Morrison had mentioned in this video there WAS a time, wherein America slavery was NOT linked with racism. We can see that with the work done with Willard and Scully, and Lina. These people did not have a home, and the Vaarks home became everyone’s home. With that being said, when Jacob died, that was also the common thread, holding them together. Now they had to go on a journey of self-discovery, and hoping the group comradery would them bring all back to the house.  Since, they did not have as Morrison states, “an institution to hold them together, a tribe, or a race.” They had to learn to push back against everything that was or wanting to expel them and come to where they were accepted. Another insight that was picked up from listening to the video linked above, is Morrisons’ mention of the Bacon Rebellion. Bacons Rebellion took place in 1676, and this book took place during the 1680s so shortly after this event. She described it as an event where men of all races gathered to protest the governor of Virginia,  they did many awful things, burning cities, etc but in the end, the culture ended up viewing the Africans and servants as the people of fault, and they were worried that they would uprise again. Some take this to be a starting point for racial slavery in the United States which correlates with the expulsion of African people from their homes to fuel this new forming mode of work in the US. Although this is after the time frame of A Mercy, we can still see how this affects Florens in her personal self searching to find freedom, which she finds after she let’s go from the Blacksmith, “ Now I am living the dying inside” page 167 Florens was expressing her extreme rejection from the Blacksmith, but now she does have the freedom to build herself up. Florens at the end of the novel realizes the gift she was given to be able to live in the Vaarks house, it was a mercy. Offered by a human.  In a few years to come, many Africans would not have the freedoms that she had now, like being able to experience the freedom to discover herself.

Noticing Our Access to Resources And How It Shapes Our Experiences

“My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice”- Dionne Brand

When I first began Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, I had noticed how different characters noticed and reacted to their environment out in nature when narrating their portion of the novel. I had mentioned this in one of our Canvas chat discussions and Dr. McCoy had asked, “I wonder what you make of it?”. During that class period, I wasn’t really sure what to make of it, but as I read further and began to think further, I thought about how having access to appropriate resources both material, but also intangible, are vital in how one notices and reacts to their environment that then shapes their experience. People who do not have access to the necessary resources are often expelled from these environments where the resources are needed as a result. This is seen not only in Morrison’s A Mercy, but also in the 2008 housing crisis and the current crisis we are living through now.

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Just Another Number

When thinking about the housing crisis in 2008, I think about how inhumane and insensitive we must have become as a human race in order to get to the point that it came to. The housing market crash is directly related to greed, naivety and ignorance- all connected to the nature of humanity. Families were viewed as another number in the crisis. Their humanity was stripped away from them, and their displacement was not thought about for too long, as long as the top 1% were benefiting from the rest of the worlds pain and misfortune. After reading A Mercy by Toni Morrison, which was “coincidently” published in 2008, I notice the same kind of ignorance within the characters and their inability to see other humans as a whole rather than another number in the world. Just like the housing crisis, A Mercy highlights the pain many of the characters endure, however they lack the tools to fully understand why this pain is occurring and where the pain is derived from. The lack of tools to interpret each other has functioned as a way to expel people from the places that they once called home, whether it is literally or figuratively.

In this beginning of the semester, we watched a film in my “Expulsion and the Housing Crisis” course called The Old Man and the Storm. In this film, we became connected to Gettridge, an 82 year old man in New Orleans, and his family. This family was devastatingly affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, causing his children and grandchildren to be displaced and his wife taken away and put in a nursing home. For years, Gettridge worked hard to rebuild his home and bring his family back. According to Season 2009: Episode 5 in the Frontline, “The moving personal story of Mr. Gettridge and his family reveals the human cost of this tragedy, the continued inadequacies of government’s response in the aftermath of Katrina, and how race, class, and politics have affected the attempts to rebuild this American city”. Gettridge expresses how he received little to no financial assistance from the government to rebuild his home, which should have been enough for him to pack up his stuff to move out. However, Gettridge is resilient and refused to be another number to the government and their lack of tools to see him as an actual human being.

Just like Gettridge in The Old Man and the Storm, we see the same inability in the characters of A Mercy to view each other as human beings. We become aware of the forces that allow them to easily expel each other from the places they call home. For instance, Lina is unable to see Sorrow for more than what she appears to be; quiet, inadequate, and evil. Lina does not hold back on how she views Sorrow; “In Sorrow’s presence, eggs would not allow themselves to be beaten into foam, nor did butter lighten cake batter. Lina was sure the early deaths of Mistress’ sons could be placed at the feet of the natural curse that was Sorrow” (Morrison, pg. 65). Lina doesn’t have the tools and compassion to see past her appearance and her name. However, I am unsure if Lina has no desire to comprehend Sorrow, or I should say Complete, on a deeper level or she physically lacks the tools to be able to do so. Whether she has the tools and chooses not to use them, or doesn’t have the tools accessible to her, she is still engulfed with the same naivety and ignorance as the CEOS during the Housing Crisis. Not only is Complete expelled from her home on the boat due to a storm, but she is expelled from her new home with the Vaark’s due to Lina’s inability to comprehend her and see her more than just another number on the farm.

When deeply analyzing the actions of other beings, we can be quick to say, “oh, that’s just human nature”. Throughout this blog post, I keep asking myself, why? Why is it important to understand the actions of others? Well, for a starter, it is important to understand each others actions because it allows us to understand what they don’t know. For instance, can we truly judge Lina for being so cautious around Complete, if she doesn’t know her whole story? (I’d like to point out, I am purposefully referring to her as Complete and not Sorrow because it is the name she gave herself, and one’s identity shouldn’t be given to them by someone else). I personally don’t think we should be judging Lina per se, but we should be hoping that Complete can have the patience to open Lina’s eyes to a new perspective and world, and hope that Lina can learn to see her as a whole human being, not just what she wants her to see. The same thing can be applied to the housing crisis. Can we truly judge the CEO’S and upper class for being so ignorant during a crisis, if all they’ve ever known was ignorance? Instead of falling into the human nature of judging, we should be hoping that someone can open their eyes to a new perspective, and that these individuals are full human beings, with real hardships, emotions, and blessings. It should be mutual. We should be trying to understand, comprehend and learn from each other, instead of trying to label each other off of what we know and not trying to understand what we don’t know. Instead of focusing on the tools and knowledge that we lack, we should be focusing on ways to better ourselves and understanding each other on a deeper level. If we don’t give each other this opportunity, we will all stay as a number, be forced out of our home. We all have a story to tell, we just need to use the tools we have accessible to us to listen and learn.

After I submitted my post, I continued on with my quarantine routine, which looks a lot like many of yours probably. Homework, tv, self-care, laying in bed, and calling family members. When on the phone with a cousin of mine, we discussed what was going on around our world. Unfortunately, a close friend of hers past away due to COVID-19. Together, we walked through her emotions. Im sure a lot of people are feeling the same away about a lost one due to COVID-19, that their loved ones passing feels disconnected, cold and too soon as you’re unable to mourn the proper way. As I tried my best to comfort and console her, I realized that I found myself talking about numbers. It feels like your loved one is just another statistic, another COVID-19 victim. They are no longer identified as someones friend, mother, father, brother, sibling or spouse, but “someone else to add to the data”. I found myself thinking about the World War Victims and 9/11 victims and how the news lacked the tools to comprehend that each one of these numbers is a full human being with a story to tell. These forces expel them from their home base and identity causing them to be seen as half of their full self. Lets not let ourselves get caught in this trap. Lets not watch the news and here a statistic and think of it as another number. Take the time to really understand the depth of that number, and pray that for every person who gets added to the disconnected list, may their memory be eternal.