At the very beginning of Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, our protagonist, an enslaved girl named Florens, poses the questions, “Who is responsible?” and “Can you read?” From her journey as an enslaved person who is a keen observer, we know that Florens isn’t only talking about reading words but also about reading symbols and making connections. One of the most significant symbols we see is Florens’s attempt to interpret the dog head she sees emerging from the steam of a boiling kettle, though she cannot understand its meaning. This example introduces course concepts like pressure, and lack of pareidolia, and gives us Florens telling the Blacksmith that not all signs are so easy to read, and many take more time to understand. She describes trying to read all the signs, but feels like she is missing much. This is because in every situation where she is observant, she never has the tools of power and education to fully grasp what is going on and what will happen as a result. Her lack of having the tools to interpret and predict certain things often leads her to face multiple occurrences of expulsion.
It is hard to fully place blame on those who find themselves expelled when they aren’t given the proper tools to mitigate their outcome. We see this concept present in all of the books we’ve read so far. In King Lear, Lear lacks the tools to interpret which of his daughters truly and genuinely loved him, until it was too late, and he makes the wrong decision that ultimately leads to his expulsion and even his death. In The Big Short, it is easy for Wall Street bankers to place blame on the homeowners by saying it is their fault for neglecting to fully read the agreements they were signing, however, not everyone has access to and resources to achieve financial literacy. Due to their lack of knowledge, they were easily preyed upon by Wall Street lenders who knew better and decided to take advantage of them. Similarly, in Turner House, the Turner family lacked the tools to be able to save their family home from foreclosure or even to find out what forces had jeopardized their family home. This is something we see a lot throughout A Mercy while Florens, an enslaved child, is struggling to grasp concepts and utilize her knowledge as an enslaved individual.
These findings help us as readers create a unique interpretation of the 2008 housing crisis. In The Big Short and The Turner House specifically, Florens’ situation brings to light a common theme about weaponized ignorance. In each of these books, Wall Street entities purposefully withheld information from those whom they wanted to take advantage of. The Turner family did not understand why the value of their family home had suddenly plummeted, and just about everyone besides our main cast of characters in The Big Short failed to understand any of the workings that contributed to the crash, even if the aforementioned in both books could recognize the significance of their situations.
Throughout A Mercy, Florens’s enslavement presents a barrier, not only to the vague symbolism she reads but also to real-life scenarios. Within the novel, Florens thinks to herself, “They are certain their years of debt are over but the master says no. He sends them away, north, to another place, a tannery, for more years. I don’t understand why they are sad. Everyone has to work.” (pg 46). This shows how Florens isn’t fully knowledgeable of the concepts of slavery and indentured servitude versus freedom, despite, or perhaps because of her status as an enslaved person. Another good example of this concept can be found on page 81, where Florens confesses her failure to understand “free and not free” and even experiences trepidation when faced with the “looseness” that Florens identifies as the feeling of freedom. The pattern of expulsion Florens notices also contributes to Florens’ unintentional ignorance, the routine upheavals in her life stunting her ability to comprehend the full meaning of various images and experiences she encounters. Florens outlines this pattern on page 160, “This happens twice before. The first time it is me peering around my mother’s dress hoping for her hand that is only for her little boy. The second time it is a pointing screaming little girl hiding behind her mother and clinging to her skirts. Both times are full of danger and I am expel.” Though this child-like reading of social cues can be attributed to the lack of parental presence she experienced growing up, it inadvertently led to failure to prevent these repeated expulsions moving into adulthood.
The ability to read not only literature but behavioral scenarios within a society is so important, especially when the society in which one inhabits is inherently against those of lower status. For Florens, this meant the inability to understand enslavement and the concept of freedom outside of it. She didn’t have time to educate herself on these things as she was busy focusing on her ability to survive. The blacksmith, on the other hand, was able to spend time in his freedom learning the ways of free will and individuality. Individuality happens when people feel safe and secure. Florens felt neither of these things, between the constant expulsion and the lack of paternal care she had growing up. The only life she knew was filled with danger and unknown futures, so why would she work to make something for herself in a time of such uncertainty? This leads to the bigger picture of education as a powerful tool. Education isn’t only about learning how to read and write, but it also involves being knowledgeable and aware. There’s a reason why people say knowledge is power; Florens always could notice things and patterns, but she often lacked the education and knowledge to put the pieces of the puzzle together. This shines a light on the bigger picture of people being purposefully kept uneducated and unaware of the potential they hold, because if their true abilities are kept hidden and they lack resources to take advantage of these, then they don’t know what they are missing out on. This is why the blacksmith was disgusted at how Florens was carrying herself over him; he wanted her to be her own person and start living for herself and not other people. Unfortunately, this mindset plagued enslaved persons during slavery and it was essential to keep enslaved persons uneducated because it also kept them powerless. Today, this notion has maneuvered out of slavery and transformed its way into other parts of everyday life. As a result, minorities and people of the lower class often lack the education and tools needed to fully prosper which often leads to them being taken advantage of. We see the parallels between enslaved life for Florens in 1690, and how minorities and lower-class people today find themselves experiencing a similar kind of “enslavement” because they are prevented from having the tools to read and interpret things.