Spirituality, Transformation, and Destruction: Octavia Butler’s Human Contradiction

Since moving from home, beginning college, and gaining independence, I have become an increasingly spiritual person. For me, this involved both extensive introspection and contemplation of ideas bigger than myself. I see it as an art of transformation and humility, focused on the universal foundation humans share, while striving to rid of materialism and ego. This fueled my many questions regarding the human condition: what was inherent to us, what is our purpose? However, Octavia Butler’s unfiltered examination of what it means to be human addressed repressed and innate flaws. One of the many things that makes Butler’s work so captivating is the “truths” that she speaks on human condition, but this truth is difficult to face. She implies that we are an extremely volatile species, doomed to annihilate itself. Thus, she addresses another key aspect of spirituality─ an acknowledgment of our inherent flaws. Despite speaking truth to my beliefs, “Parables in Iteration: A Closer Look at Octavia Butler” exposed me as part of the problem. They spoke on the importance of action over belief, and the active role we must take to rid ourselves of systems and assumptions that constrain us. My beliefs never became more than an idea, and Butler forced me to confront my subconscious avoidance towards transformation. Humans must use logic and good faith for the preservation of our species, we must face our darkest flaws, before Butler’s warning if destruction becomes an irreversible reality.

The primary constraint upon human transformation are the systems that divide us, systems that even nearly extinct humans insist on upholding. The Oankali claim this is because “a complex combination of genes that work together to make you intelligent as well as hierarchal will stand to handicap you whether you like it or not’” (Butler 39). Initially, I partially agreed with the claim, but also believed there to be much more wrong with humans than two basic characteristics. Predominantly, our seemingly instinctive need to create structures such as sexism, racism, and xenophobia; conflicts founded on immutable and trivial differences, usually used to justify or maintain oppressive power relations. Yet, I realized I had completely missed Butlers point: these systems are a direct result of the human contradiction. They are shaped by fear and superiority; the former is a threat to dominance and power, while the latter assumes it. There is then no wonder why Nikanj is confused by the racist and homophobic comments towards Joseph, “one has decided he’s something called a faggot and the other dislikes the shape of his eyes” (Butler 159). The remnants of these structures only exist in the minds of humans who remember them. Here, Butler makes a crucial point: the systems that dominate our lives are imaginary, invented by humans, and completely psychological.

Therefore, these strictures can be dismantled. Throughout the trilogy, the Humans’ transformation is hindered by their innate fear of the Oankali and their “alienness, [their] difference, [their] literal unearthliness” (Butler 13). Lilith is the first to begin changing perspective, finding it “surprising how quickly the Oankali had become people to her” (Butler 58). Yet, she follows this up with “but then, who else was there?” (58). Butler’s choice to include this afterthought reiterates an important detail: Lilith’s transformation was involuntary─ her captivity and isolation required her to adapt. So, her story proves transformation is possible, but also uncovers some eerie implications. First, change is easier when forced. This brought me back to one of our course epigraphs “…habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent”. In the same way, force produces more consistent results than being reliant upon individuals to accept personal responsibility for their own advancement. This connects to Butler’s second, and most significant, hypothesis; if humans fail to willingly accept the challenge, we may lose the privilege of choice. This is exactly what happened to the Humans in Octavia Butler’s trilogy, as Jdahya explains, “If they had been able to perceive and solve their problem, they might have been able to avoid destruction” (Butler 38).

Yet, there is a fundamental problem with this solution: real change requires collective action. Lilith’s adaptation does not ensure all of humanity will follow her example; Jdahya says “they” but “they” refers to the majority of humans. Therefore, millions of people could acknowledge the contradiction, break free from social structures, and ascend beyond a materialistic ego, but it would not avoid eventual annihilation. Humanity must actively participate in a mass “Awakening” if we are to save ourselves from ourselves. This means a universal concession to our flaws, and a joint plan of action towards mending them. Unfortunately for Lilith, her literal awakening on the ship forced her to confront these flaws by witnessing the near extinction of humanity. But, if we head Octavia Butler’s warning and eliminate power structures, we may be able to change before causing such devastation.

However, this creates a sort of paradox; Butler is calling for collective action to begin our advancement, but this goes directly against our hierarchal impulses. She seems to conclude that we need to change in order to change. I faced an initial confusion and frustration with this notion, but “Parables in Iteration: A Closer Look at Octavia Butler” expanded my definition of change to be much more abstract. A point that stuck with me was the “complicated yes”. They discuss the persistent waves of “truth” Butler confronts her readers with, and she asks: Are you ready to change? But the question is almost rhetorical; she is really asking if you will be complacent in exchange for avoiding the misery that is inherent to drastic transformations. So, the answer is yes but it is not an easy one. She does not sugarcoat the realities of change; it is strenuous, painful, and incessant. But the panel’s preface to this confusing and complicated journey established a crucial understanding: one must change their relationship with change. This epiphany allowed me to recognize my frustrations with Butler’s paradox a product of the assumption that change is linear. In reality, it is a messy, erratic battle with both wins and losses. Despite being with the Oankali for over a century, Lilith and Tino “still feel guilt, feel as though they’ve deserted their people for aliens, as though they still suspect that they are the betrayers the resisters accused them of being” (Butler 562).

On the other hand, Jodahs provides a theory of its own as to why the Humans struggle in their transformation, “No human could see the genetic conflict that made them such a volcanic species─ so certain to destroy themselves. Thus, perhaps no Human completely believed it” (Butler 562). Ergo, Humans are once again inhibited by themselves, unable to comprehend and accept the truth we are not capable of perceiving. His point is supported by the actions of those on the training room floor, the humans would only accept truths they could perceive and confirm. We have a reliance on our senses and “knowledge”, but how can one “see for myself” when they are literally incapable of it (Butler 211)? To some, this is a flat-out denial. However, this should instead be approached in good faith. We should change regardless of the legitimacy of the claims because rejecting it has far more detrimental consequences. The only “proof” of the contradiction humans can perceive is our own extinction, so it would be in good faith to change before anyone can be proven correct.

Despite my self-image being very introspective and spiritual, Octavia Butler has shown that I, along with all humans, are flawed. We will tear each other apart with the psychological torture of structures rooted in our own fear. Alongside this contradiction, humans’ deeply rooted fear of change prevents us from truly awakening to our flaws. Butler shows that complicated questions of life and purpose require more than one mind to solve. Now, my spiritual journey is consumed by efforts towards mass unity and the release of the precious and destructive human ego.

The Danger of Numbers

In Molly’s essay she wrote about how she struggled to gather her thinking to respond to the prompt. She stated, “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.” I found myself stuck in this situation also, but as Emily’s writing inspired Molly’s, Maria’s helped me focus on what I wanted to write about too. Maria wrote about how human lives should not be equated to simple statistics. She said that “each one of these numbers is a full human being with a story to tell.” As I was reading her essay, I realized that this history of treating people as numbers has been disturbing me too. 

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“Hear a tua mãe”

Throughout Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, the absence of Florens’s mother is heavily emphasized. This absence is noticed by multiple characters in the novel, not just Florens. Through Florens’s narration, the perspectives of other characters such as Jacob Vaark, and the presence of other mother/daughter relationships, Morrison draws attention to the absence of Florens’s mother. Florens feels abandoned—she is separated from her mother and her original plantation with seemingly no rhyme or reason. Without her mother’s perspective, neither readers nor Florens have the necessary tool to interpret her mother’s absence. However, readers eventually learn that her mother offered her to Jacob Vaark to prevent Florens from being raped; therefore, Florens has her mother’s love all along. While Florens constantly notices the absence of her mother, she does not have her mother’s perspective; without this perspective, Florens is unable to interpret her mother’s love.

Florens is surrounded by maternal figures, but her own mother remains absent. Seeing other mother/daughter relationships calls attention to this absence, both for Florens and for readers. Jacob chooses to take Florens to his plantation because “Rebekka would welcome a child around the place” (Morrison 30). Jacob knows that Florens cannot replace their late daughter Patrician, but he hopes that “Rebekka would be eager to have her” (Morrison 37). Just as Florens cannot replace Patrician, Rebekka cannot replace Florens’s mother. Therefore, the circumstances under which Jacob brings Florens to his plantation calls attention to the removal of Florens from her mother as well as the absence of Florens’s mother in her life.

The absence of her mother is also emphasized by the introduction of the mother/daughter relationship between Widow Ealing and Daughter Jane. When Florens is with Widow Ealing and Daughter Jane, she notices her mother’s absence more frequently than she does in the rest of the novel. For example, she narrates: “If my mother is not dead she can be teaching me these things” (Morrison 129). This passage shows that Florens notices that she lacks her mother’s presence, while Daughter Jane does not. Moreover, after spending more time with the mother/daughter duo, Florens ponders: “I am a weak calf abandon by the herd, a turtle without shell, a minion with no telltale signs but a darkness I am born with, outside, yes, but inside as well and the inside dark is small, feathered and toothy. Is that what my mother knows? Why she chooses me to live without?” (Morrison 135-136). Florens notices that a piece of her life is missing and that it creates an internal darkness; the missing piece is her mother’s love which she so desperately craves.

Like Florens, Jacob also does not think that Florens has her mother’s love. Jacob thinks that by telling him to take Florens, her mother is “throwing away” Florens (Morrison 39). Since Jacob himself was orphaned at a young age, he projects his own abandonment onto Florens: “ “he continue[s] to feel a disturbing pulse of pity for orphans and strays […]. he [finds] it hard to refuse when called on to rescue an unmoored, unwanted child” (Morrison 38). He further implies Florens’s lack of her mother’s love when Morrison writes that “he [knows] there [is] no good place in the world for waifs and whelps other than the generosity of strangers” (37). Florens is not an orphan, and her mother did not abandon her without reason; however, without Florens’s mother’s perspective, Florens and readers are led to believe Jacob’s perspective—that Florens mother does not love her.

In the final section of the novel, Morrison shows the reader that Florens has her mother’s love all along, even though Florens constantly notices her absence. Through this section, readers learn the true reason that her mother gave her to Jacob: “To be female in [D’Ortega’s] place is to be an open wound that cannot heal” (Morrison 191). Florens’s mother is a survivor of sexual abuse, and fears that Florens will suffer the same fate if she remains on D’Ortega’s plantation. Florens’s mother’s perspective shows that “Breasts provide the pleasure more than simpler things. [Florens’s] are rising too soon and are becoming irritated by the cloth covering [her] little girl chest” (Morrison 190). Her mother sees the men on the plantation lustfully looking at Florens’s growing breasts, yet she notices that Jacob looks at Florens for a different reason; her mother says “[t]here is no protection but there is difference. […]. I said you. Take you, my daughter. Because I saw the tall man see you as a human child” (Morrison 195). Since Jacob does not look at Florens as a sexual object, her mother hopes that she will be safer at Jacob’s plantation than at D’Ortega’s. Without her mother’s perspective, Florens cannot know that her mother was trying to save her, or that her mother refers to her as “my love” (Morrison 190). Therefore, Florens lacks the tool to interpret her mother’s love; she just knows that her mother is absent.

Florens undergoes expulsion when she is removed from her mother, but without her mother’s perspective she cannot understand the reason that she was expulsed. Like many people who undergo expulsion, she was seemingly removed from her home and her mother without any warning or any reason. Confusion works as a force for expulsion since without the proper tools to understand their expulsion, people who have been expulsed cannot change their situation. Florens’s confusion makes her unable to understand her situation; she sees examples of motherly love, yet cannot know if her own mother loves her. Without her mother’s point of view, she has to blindly trust that her mother does love her and that there is a reason behind her expulsion. She longs to understand and to talk to her mother, but her mother is absent. Her desire to talk to her mother can be seen when Florens narrates: “There is no more room in this room. These words cover the floor. From now you will stand to hear me. […]. My arms ache but I have to tell you this. I cannot tell it to anyone but you. […]. Sudden I am remembering. You won’t read my telling” (Morrison 188). This longing emphasizes her mother’s absence in her life, and shows how badly Florens wants her mother’s perspective in order to better understand her situation. Her mother’s perspective is the only tool that can help her understand the reason behind her expulsion—that she has her mother’s love all along.

From the final section of A Mercy, readers can see that Florens has her mother’s love all along. Florens, due to the absence of her mother, does not have her mother’s perspective; therefore, she lacks the necessary tool to interpret her expulsion and her mother’s love. Florens’s mother pleads “In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you” (Morrison 195-196). She wants Florens to understand that she allowed Florens to be expulsed in order to prevent a life full of rape and sexual assault. The novel ends with the powerful phrase “[h]ear a tua mãe” which, when translated, means “hear your mother” (Morrison 196). This line emphasizes how powerful of a tool Florens’s mother’s perspective is. Although Florens and readers notice the absence of Florens’s mother, her perspective is the only tool that can be used to help Florens understand that motherly love is the reason behind her expulsion. If only she could hear her mother, she would be able to understand.

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.

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Expulsion: Who Gets to Make the Choice?

            Expulsion is worth thinking about. The novel A Mercy, by Toni Morrison, encourages much thought about the forces of expulsion, the position of individuals in relation to their available choices, how those choices impact individuals beyond what may be initially thought possible, and how important it is to think through situations that potentially involve the movement of human beings. The novel explores many different characters who are effectively orphaned because of expulsion, but the central focus of the text revolves around Florens and her expulsion from her mother. As we tease out the different reasons for this and Florens’ interpretation of those reasons, we see how these decisions can alter a life greatly, for better or worse.

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Affectionate Bears and Hostile Humans

“Why do you knock me away without certainty of what is true?” 

— Toni Morrison 

In the beginning of Toni Morrison’s novel, A Mercy, I witnessed the first act of expulsion that takes place in the novel when Florens is uprooted from the life she knew with her mother, her minha mãe, and is used to pay off an outstanding debt. At this point, Florens is young and according to Lina, from the state of her teeth is only seven or eight when she is brought to her new home (11). That being said, Floren’s memory of her expulsion is tainted with the memory of her mother begging: “Please, Senhor. Not Me. Take her. Take my daughter” (37). As I continued to follow Florens’s growth, it became clear that this first memory of being given up by her mother seems to amplify the vulnerabilities and fears that begin to develop as her attachment to the blacksmith grows fonder and leads to another form of expulsion later on in the novel. 

While A Mercy does not follow a linear narrative in terms of time structure, I often found myself returning to the text at various points in the novel to discern character intentions and events that were initially confusing. For example, when I returned to the page that Florens talks about being lettered, I stumbled across the profound observation that the blacksmith makes to Florens about the interactions between bears and humans: “They will approach, run to us to love and play which we misread and give back fear and anger” (11, emphasis added). I will admit that when I first engaged with Florens’ retelling of the blacksmith’s observation, I was a bit confused. That being said, I underlined the phrase “which we misread” and continued reading the novel, pushing this image of an affectionate bear and a hostile human at the back of my mind. 

That is until Florens shares the details of her long anticipated reunion with the blacksmith and I am again reminded of the affectionate bear. Upon her immediate arrival, Florens notes: “I lose the fear that I may never again in this world know the sight of your welcoming smile or taste the sugar of your shoulder as you take me in your arms” but once she learns that she must be left behind because of Malaik, Florens shrinks into a younger version of herself. She even points out that 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… Both times are full of danger and I am expel” (174-175). It is evident that Florens is threatened by the young boy and worries that his existence places her at a disadvantage, “As if he is your future. Not me.” It is clear that Florens has become possessive over the blacksmith and seeks to monopolise on both his love and affection, and Malaik’s presence prevents her from doing this. Yet, in this particular scene I am not reminded of the affectionate bear, but rather the frightened girl hiding behind her minha mãe’s skirt before being handed over to a strange man, I am reminded of the first instance I am introduced to Florens’s vulnerability and I am surprised that her fear of abandonment has hardened her and in turn, makes her a threat to young Malaik. 

In our canvas discussion about the blacksmith’s reaction to seeing young Malaik on the floor and Florens’s observation that he is not “there when it [the blood] comes, so how do you know I am the reason? Why do you knock me away without certainty of what is true?” (183), Dr. Beth McCoy asked the following question: “@Molly and Sandy: definite expulsion. Given his *reading* of the situation that even Florens says isn’t wrong, are you prepared to defend the harming of a child (a classic Morrison trap for her readers).” While it is agreed that any act of violence towards a child is unforgivable, it also becomes clear that the blacksmith shares in that same position when he does exactly what Florens’s fears and expels her from his home, choosing the boy over her. Nonetheless, Florens’s response to the blacksmith’s outburst is significant because it depicts how she copes with being expelled from his presence, a place she was so eager to call her home: “Are you meaning I am nothing to you? That I have no consequence in your world?” (185). While these questions are directed at the blacksmith, I can’t help wonder if Florens is also thinking of her mother. 

The language that Morrison uses in her novel often challenges me, as a reader, to consider exactly what is being said and how it is conveyed. Particularly in the chapter where Florens is expelled from the blacksmith’s home, I am looped back to part of the blacksmith’s phrase, “They will approach, run to us to love and play which we misread and give back fear and anger” (11, emphasis added) or in other words, which we misinterpret. On that note, it seems significant that Morrison gives Florens’s mother the last word of the novel, as an attempt to offer a correction to Florens’s interpretation of her first expulsion: “I said you. Take you, my daughter. Because I saw the tall man see you as a human child, not pieces of eight” (214). Even in her confession, she points out that Florens is regarded as a “human child,” and again I am left thinking of the earlier sign that Morrison gives us in the opening chapter about affectionate bears, hostile humans, and misread interactions.

Forced Trust

In October 2018, I signed my first lease. It consisted of five-ish pages and very small font. It also included terms I didn’t know and things I have yet to comprehend. I also knew already that the landlord had a very bad reputation. Regardless, I signed the lease, understanding it to the best of my ability, and put faith in the landlord that he would not completely screw us over. I didn’t have a better option for where to live during my senior year at Geneseo. I signed this lease as a college-educated, English as my primary language, with parents who read over and co-signed the lease person. Even with all of those attributes, I still had to trust that my landlord created a lease that was at least mostly fair, especially regarding the intricacies that I did not understand. Every day, people are signing documents and making promises that they do not fully understand, and these things that they do not understand can be the reason they find themselves owing more money, being removed from their homes, and/or owning something that is essentially worthless. We hear it all the time: “Why don’t they teach students how to do taxes in school? Why don’t they teach them about credit and loans? Why don’t they teach them about mortgages and leases?” This information is not common knowledge but everyone sees them. Why aren’t they common knowledge? The lack of this knowledge forces us to give other people the upper hand in these high-risk deals.

In A Mercy by Toni Morrison, Florens, a slave, is traveling alone on a quest from Rebekka, her master. She carries around a sealed letter from Rebekka with her in case she is stopped and questioned. Florens trusts Rebekka and knows that the letter will help her. She trusts that what Rebekka wrote is enough. When it comes to paperwork and official documents that we do not understand, we need to place our trust in someone who knows more than we do. We need to trust their knowledge and their overall goodness that we will be okay. Yet, we need to worry about whether they may not be right or whether they may not care about what happens to us at all. As a slave, Florens has no true reason to trust Rebekka or any white person. She was born into slavery where her master sold her to Jacob to fill a debt, separating her from her mother and brother. During their time, Rebekka slowly built a relationship with Florens. Florens does not have absolute trust in Rebekka but trusts her enough to not open the letter and have faith that the letter will keep her safe need be. When she was stopped by law enforcement, Florens had to trust Rebekka’s letter. She had no better option. If the letter had not been enough, in addition to the full body search she had to endure, Florens would have been detained and punished for it.

Similarly, most people are forced to trust their banks for loans and mortgages. They are forced to trust their reality agents for advice on buying/selling. There are people at banks and reality agents who want the best for their customers, but there are also people who do not. It is not uncommon for people to be discriminated against by the people they are forced to trust in these deals. It is not fair, but there are typically no better options if someone wants a place to call home. Even if you own your home, the paperwork involving insurance, deeds, and upkeep of the house are overwhelming. There is a forced trust in these people, especially if you are not fluent in English and confrontational characteristically. If the terms were not clear on the lease or mortgage, or the wording was purposefully deceitful, expulsion is probable. Suddenly, the person you were forced to trust is uprooting you for a reason you did not know was likely. Another likely situation is that the price you believed to be paying is actually much more and you cannot afford it.

Some people have the privilege of not having to stress too much about these intricacies and whether they can trust the knowledgeable person. Some people can only hope that the person they have to trust will not be working against them. During this time of COVID-19 and increasingly high rates of unemployment, people once again have to trust things they do not fully understand, while also hoping and trusting that we will support each other during these times. We are so lucky to have the internet and so many resources to help us understand and adapt. It is amazing how many people I have seen, using their resources, help support others during this time, whether it is making PPE, donating money, or providing guides for people who need financial or health support. Yet, there are a large amount of unhelpful, incorrect, or irrelevant resources out these. Luckily, checking sources for legitimacy is something still taught at schools. Regardless, not everyone checks these resources’ credibility which creates a new issue of people who act knowledgeable about these complicated works who are actually just spreading falsities. In A Mercy, Florens was forced to trust Rebekka and Rebekka’s letter supported what she told Florens. Currently, people are forced to trust those more knowledgeable than them regarding housing specificities, but they are not always supported by these people.


As children, we notice many things, but don’t have the tools to interpret them. Children have no choice but to trust their parents or caretakers. They are at the mercy of the adults in their lives.

Florens doesn’t understand why her mother urges Jacob Vaark to take her from Señor D’Ortega. She just knows that it happened. When Sorrow survives a shipwreck, leaving the rest of her family missing or dead, she can piece together what happened, but not how or why it did. When asked how she got to land, Sorrow responds “‘Mermaids. I mean whales.’” She is suffering from such severe amnesia that she has trouble recalling her own name. The woman who finds her comments, “‘such a dismal sight you are. Yet strong’” and becomes the first person to call her Sorrow. Jacob validates this when Sorrow—land sick and confused—pukes on his jacket, calling her “Sorrow, Indeed”. Unaware of her previous circumstances, the woman and Jacob both dub her “Sorrow”, giving no thought to the negative connotations of this word.

Lina believes Sorrow is the embodiment of her given name and outcasts her. Lina cautions Rebekka, “‘some people do evil purposefully. Others can’t control the evil they make’”. She then continues to speculate “‘Your son John Jacob. He died after Sorrow came”’, insinuating that Sorrow is the source of the misery in their lives. Lina doesn’t understand why Sorrow can’t complete a chore correctly and doesn’t find her trustworthy. However, she spends more time entertaining her suspicions than trying to understand why Sorrow is the way she is. Lina only knows that she isn’t particularly reliable, and her name is Sorrow. These two things combined fuel Lina’s suspicions that spread like wildfire.

Lina’s intuition isn’t based on anything credible, yet she allows it to influence her decisions. The narrator explains “for a little while Lina seemed to be persuaded that the boys’ deaths were not Sorrow’s fault, but when the horse broke Patrician’s crown, she changed her mind”. When Sorrow gives birth to her first baby, Lina fears it will bring more misery. Not wanting to take the chance of having another unintentionally evil creature like Sorrow around, Lina drowns it and tells Sorrow it was premature. Sorrow, not having the tools to know otherwise, remains silent, “although Sorrow thought she saw her own newborn yawn”. Sorrow’s newborn is expelled from life on Earth before it has a chance to see it’s mother’s face.

Lina is the person who tells Sorrow she’s pregnant. Earlier in the novel, the narrator explains that Sorrow feels lower abdominal pains and doesn’t know what’s causing them. Sorrow doesn’t seem to be aware she has had sex, or even what sex is. When Lina drowns her newborn, Sorrow’s understanding of the world undergoes a paradigm shift. She no longer relies on Lina for help because she “never forgets the baby breathing water every day, every night, down all the streams of the world”.

Before this turning point, Sorrow allows Lina to have a parental role in her life. Much like a young child who has no other option but to trust their parents, Sorrow looks to Lina for guidance. But Lina is not her parent, nor her ally. Lina is only willing to give this maternal love to Florens. After the damage is done, Sorrow takes this new knowledge and maneuvers the house with indifference.

The infant’s death isn’t the result of one singular event. Rather, it is the result of a series of misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Lina believes Sorrow is the physical manifestation of her given name.

This may have ended differently if Sorrow wasn’t suffering from amnesia after the accident. What if the woman who found her after the shipwreck had decided to call her something else? Perhaps, mystery, mermaid, or even strange. Would Lina have had the same suspicions then? Maybe if Sorrow’s father taught her how to clean and do other tasks that were considered “women’s work”, then Lina wouldn’t have underestimated her maternal instincts.

Everyone who Sorrow relies on for help after the crash set the tragic death of her newborn into motion. In society, those who are most vulnerable often have to put trust in unfamiliar systems. These systems, such as healthcare and housing, are often confusing and difficult to maneuver. They come with terms and conditions that are made to be murky. The most vulnerable people in our society often have to rely on these systems that may limit them in ways that are not immediately obvious.

I receive the Excelsior Scholarship that is available to residents of New York State. Throughout my time in college, I’ve had to navigate my studies differently in order to keep this grant money. This scholarship requires its beneficiaries to stay in New York State for the amount of time they receive the scholarship after completing their degree. Students must also maintain a certain GPA, and take a certain number of credits related to their majors each semester in order to continue receiving aid. If they don’t follow these guidelines, they will have to repay the scholarship money in an interest accruing loan.

When I first agreed to take the scholarship, I wasn’t fully aware of how it would impact my college experience and my time after college. I took the money because I needed it and wasn’t fully aware of how it would shape my time in and after college.

We’ve all had to put our confidence in government institutions at some point in our lives, whether that be with public education, healthcare or housing. Our elections are a government system that many have confidence in. We trust that our government works for the people, because we the people are the ones who operate it. However, so long as biases and prejudices exist within our society, many demographics of people will always be overlooked. Much similar to how Lina is suspicious of Sorrow because she doesn’t understand Sorrow, bureaucratic workers may bring their own biases to their jobs. What does this mean for those who are most vulnerable? It means that some of them will never be given a full chance at life. As long as ignorant prejudice exists, some of our most vulnerable will find themselves pushed under by the very hand that claims to guide them.

Taking a minute to learn about and understand one another, can put our practices of suspicion and scorn for one another to rest. If we can understand each other, and familiarize ourselves with why we are the way we are, then we can eliminate some of the toxic prejudices that perpetuate systems of oppression.

The Expulsion of Ignorance

Throughout the works we’ve read in this course, there have been many people expelled from their homes for a variety of reasons. However, an underlying force behind the majority of these expulsions can be tied to a lack of knowledge held from a person or group of people and this lack of awareness can affect how we interpret what we do have. Ignorance, willful or otherwise, is a major force in expulsion and one that A Mercy perpetuates through the relationship between the characters and the relationship between the readers and the characters as well. 

           A Mercy is written through a series of narratives from different characters, each chapter telling a story while giving the readers an insight on a situation or person from another perspective. There are several relationships between the characters that have led to expulsion and the root cause being ignorance. One of these relationships is the guardian like relationship between Lina and Florens. “When Lina tried to enlighten her, saying, ‘You are one leaf on his tree,’ Florens shook her head, closed her eyes and replied, ‘No. I am his tree’” (71). From Lina’s point of view, there is a trust in her life experience and her precautions against the Blacksmith seem reasonable coming from a caring guardian. Florens looks to Lina in times of need yet refuses to believe anything that goes against how she feels about the Blacksmith. Florens lacks the tools of experience and maturity that are needed to show restraint against infatuated impulses and cannot see her love for the Blacksmith as possibly destructive. Florens is still naive in many ways and places her freedom in a person, the Blacksmith becomes her world: “There is only you. Nothing outside of you” (44). However, this tunnel vision that Florens has that doesn’t allow her to see beyond the Blacksmith ends up hurting her in the end when she gets jealous of the child. Florens’s presumed abandonment by her mother has almost given her the wrong tools of interpretation. Her childhood doesn’t allow her to see past his love for the child rather than love for a woman and becomes, like a child, jealous of the attention shown to Malaik. This causes her to respond roughly to Malaik and the Blacksmith reprimands Florens for lack of awareness saying, “Your head is empty and your body is wild” (166). The Blacksmith then expels Florens and throughout this course, we’ve seen this type of expulsion from lack of knowledge many times. The Big Short was structured similarly with different chapters containing an aspect of the story through a different person’s eyes. Although they are real people and not character, we see how harmful ignorance can be in The Big Short as no one making the important decisions seem to know not only what they are doing but what the consequences will be as well. Both intentional and unintentional ignorance ends up expelling hundreds of thousands of people from their homes. In King Lear, we built our argument on this lack of awareness on trust. For example, Edgar’s trust for Edmund leads to his expulsion, but he trusts Edmund because he is unaware of Edmund’s true motives. Edgar knows of his illegitimate brother’s status and how this will affect Edmund’s future, but Edgar is unable to see Edmund’s greed or jealousy and is, therefore, able to trust him. In A Mercy, however, Morrison continues to demonstrate how a lack of knowledge and the tools to understand what knowledge is given through the relationship when builds between the characters and the readers.

           The readers gain knowledge and tools they are fortunate to see from the different perspectives of the characters, but some of these tools of interpretation to understand what is being read is only given near the end of the novel. The readers are led to interpret the knowledge gained from chapters of Lina’s perspective that Sorrow is a bad person. It isn’t until further along in the novel that Morrison gives the readers Sorrow’s perspective and in seeing both sides, the readers learn the truth. This lack of Sorrow’s truth, however, allows Lina to successfully expel her until then. The most prominent example from the novel, however, of lack of knowledge between the reader and character’s relationship resulting in expulsion is that between Florens and her mother. Both the readers and Florens, through Florens’s perspective, interpret the knowledge the readers are given as abandonment. This abandonment is the driving force behind Florens’s negative feelings that lead to her expulsion from the Blacksmith. She frequently sees her mother in her mind, appearing as if to want to talk to her: “A minha mãe leans at the door holding her little boy’s hand…As always she is trying to tell me something” (161). At first, the readers may interpret this as Florens missing her mother and the imagery of seeing her with her son only increases the feeling of betrayal. Unfortunately, only the readers are given the knowledge that allows for the correct interpretation of what happened. The last chapter is dedicated to Florens’s mother and the truth behind her giving up Florens. The readers are then given the tools, the truth, and when Florens sees her mother trying to tell her something, the readers know that she is trying to tell her the truth: “In the dust where my heart will remain each night and every day until you understand what I know and long to tell you” (195). Florens doesn’t and may never have the tools to interpret her mother’s abandonment of her as a mercy.

           Ignorance is never truly bliss; it is a limitation on the achievement of happiness. People are often tempted to be content with their current situation in life, and I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong in that. It is, however, important to not limit ourselves in learning so that we may not be willingly ignorant. It’s easy to believe the first thing said on the news or the first post on a social media account, but it’s an active decision whether or not to educate ourselves further on the authenticity of these things or to accept them point-blank. If people remain in a bubble concerning the surrounding environment then they end up expelling themselves from that environment, shelter like Florens from the truth. I hope that people continue to strive for knowledge concerning themselves and the world around them. I truly believe what Florens’s mother says is true, “there is magic in learning” (191).

Take me home…Moral roads…

All humans have a moral compass, but when guided away from it, moral hazards occur, which can wrongly affect other people. For example, the moral hazards among the biggest Wall Street firms like Merrill Lynch, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, Lehman Brothers, etc., assisted in expelling Americans from their homes during the 2008 housing crisis. While not the only force that led to Americans losing their homes in 2008, the moral misgivings of Wall Street firms perpetuated the process. The definition of moral hazards is important to understand before delving deeper into how it pertains to Wall Street firms during the house market crash. Investopedia defines moral hazard as “the risk that a party has not entered into a contract in good faith or has provided misleading information about its assets, liabilities, or credit capacity”. Investopedia also addresses the fact that moral hazards could lead a party to take unusual risks in a desperate attempt to earn a profit. In an unusual move, several Wall Street firms took the risk of buying mortgage bonds in an attempt to earn profit, while not possessing the tools to fully understand the validity of the loans. In fact, the bankers, analysts, investors, etc. weren’t 100% sure how to interpret these bonds, contributing to the cloud of confusion surrounding the 2008 housing crisis and making it a generally difficult affair to understand. This expulsion as a result of moral hazard is also seen in Toni Morrison’s historical fiction novel A Mercy, the parallels of which will be discussed further in this essay. 

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