One of the questions posed on the first day of class was whether or not reading one Toni Morrison book was akin to reading them all. I am very intrigued by this because, while most authors have definitive and clear themes and styles that they write in, would the fact that Toni Morrison is a more prolific author mean that she in fact has overcome that obstacle? I’ve only ever read Morrison’s Beloved and a small portion of Sula one lazy afternoon, and forgive me, but I’ve no intention of reading all of her works to find the validity of that question. However, my curiosity was fueled even more so after reading (slowly) A Mercy. To put it plainly, Morrison has an incredible command of the English language, her writing is at times poetic, and her characters embodies numerous styles of writing. I was so awed by her language that I reread the first few pages of Beloved in order to see what I had missed out on, because I didn’t have the skill to recognize it in high school. I saw a common theme of strong women, but not so much the poetry. So doing further research I learned that Beloved was published in 1987 while A Mercy was published in 2008. A twenty-one year difference is to a writer, I believe, a lifetime, which explains what I would loathe to call growth, but rather difference in the works. I was also able to find this article which is a book review of Beloved, by Mervyn Rothstein in the New York Times, from 1987, and contains a quote by Morrison that has stuck with me ever since hearing it last year in another class taught by Dr. McCoy ”It was absolutely the right thing to do, but she had no right to do it.” If you’ve not read Beloved, I won’t ruin it for you, but that is a profound statement even without the context.The article also explains Morrison’s inspiration for A Mercy and how she went about researching to write it. Finally, I think that I will be coming back to the question of whether or not to read one of Morrison’s books is to read them all, I haven’t found a suitable answer and hope you all keep it in your minds as well throughout the semester.
I thought I’d use my first blog post to express my hopes and concerns for this course for the upcoming semester. Normally, I would go into a new course thinking about what I will “gain” from it, or how my study of the various assigned texts will be “useful” to myself. But something feels wrong about this method of thinking with this course. Continue reading “How to Read Texts Not Written for You?”
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.
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.
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.
When Dr. McCoy gave the suggestion for us to look into this topic, I immediately knew I was going to do so regardless of whether or not I wrote it as a blog post. For a while now, flesh has been a recurring topic in my writing, and as a Creative Writing major it’s something I am still exploring through fiction and poetry. However, I have not looked at it through the lens of slavery, which I will try here and now to do.
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word flesh comes from the Old English flæsc, meaning “meat, muscular parts of animal bodies; body (as opposed to soul).” Looking at this root, I am drawn to the emphasis on physical body “as opposed to soul,” as though merely an empty casing. Here, I’d like to draw a connection to the setting of this word within Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, in which the word is spoken within a religious colony. Souls would have been of particular concern for the inhabitants of such a place. In regards to slavery, this reading would have a particular significance, as the enslaved persons are being viewed by the slave owners as “commodities” and less than human.
I would then like to draw our attention to the character Jacob who speaks the line “Flesh is not my commodity” in the second chapter. While Jacob regards himself as morally upright and looks down upon the plantation owner D’Ortega’s lavish lifestyle, does his using this term provide us the reading that he may not view the enslaved as full human beings, but rather as bodies lacking a soul? If so, is he then as morally upright as he so thinks?
Semiotics. A subject that I am not very well read in but am trying to learn more about in my spare time. Why do I bring it up? Because I found it useful to think about in our first reading of Morrison’s A Mercy, and it connects to the Davis/Morrison video that Dr. McCoy posted. In the video (which, if I’m being honest, I have only watched the first twenty minutes of) Morrison discusses the “power of reading and of course understanding the meaning of what one reads and what I like to think of as visual literacy.” This “power of reading” and “visual literacy” can be understood as another phrasing, or maybe a more specific type of Semiotics. Continue reading “Semiotics and Visual Literacy”