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?
I counted them. There were about five men total in McCoy’s class of about thirty students. I found out later I had miscounted. It wasn’t really a problem. I grew up with three bossy sisters and I make friendships easily with females. However, I still felt slightly out of place, as if I had picked the wrong class. I then realized that there were even less people in the class with African heritage. In a class about Toni Morrison, a black author who writes about minority struggles and inequality, this class still had an overwhelming majority of white students.
As a white male, to say that I felt a connection with centuries of oppression would be insulting at best. I grew up surrounded by white people and watching films with “smurfettes” and token black best friends. I accepted these films as if they displayed accurate representations of our world’s demographic. Currently, I am studying to be a educator and I will be responsible to train the minds that will become the voices of our world’s discourse. It will be my job to help make the world better for each individual, starting with my own future classroom. But how can we do more than just say people in the minority belong? How can I mute my inner voice of privilege that would dare consider myself underrepresented? I am hoping to explore practical questions of oppression and representation more and more as I try to become more aware of those around me and less focused on myself.
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”
Hi all! I recently came across this Buzzfeed article of Morrison’s quotes. They are truly beautiful and if you haven’t started to read “A Mercy” yet, I think this is a nice taste of her writings and speeches.
Here’re photos of some of the first-day questions generated after hearing the first chapter of A Mercy. As I mentioned in class, I think the Morrison/Davis NYPL interview will provide some material for some answers, and maybe the swirl can yield some blog posts!
As the blogging assignment asks you to position your posts explicitly in response to someone/something else, I figured I’d give you something from the get-go to think about and bounce off of: a rich, wide-ranging 2010 video conversation between Angela Davis and Toni Morrison.
So much in here of use throughout the semester! (Read a transcript here)