Complicating the Idea of Race

In Political Essays on May 17, 2011 by azybazy

The aim of this post is to highlight the way in which Morrison complicates the ideas of race in A Mercy. In doing so, this post will put forward Morrison’s primary way of complicating the idea of race through the representation of class based segregation and animosity rather that segregation based on race in the novel. This shall be explored through the discussion of the ‘people’s war’, Lina’s perception of the colonizer and the animosity Jacob has towards D’Ortego. Furthermore, the discussion of the racial backgrounds of the slaves in Jacob’s household and the representation of race as a social construct shall also be highlighted to show the way in which Morrison complicates the idea of race in A Mercy.

This paper puts forward the argument that Morrison primarily complicates the idea of race through her focus on the depiction of class based conflicts. She highlights class based animosities on different circumstances in the novel to effectively highlight the fact that the institution of slavery was not racial in the context in which the novel is placed. This paper shall extensively discuss these different circumstances of class based animosity in order to unravel the emergence of the concept of race as a result of financial motives.

Firstly, Morrison complicates the idea of race through the depiction of a ‘people’s war’ (pg.8). In context with the American history, this rebellion she highlights is the Bacon’s Rebellion that took place in 1676. The fact that she mentions ‘half a dozen years ago an army of blacks, natives and whites, mullatoes-freedmen, slaves and indentured-had waged war against local gentry led by members of that very class’ clearly shows that she introduces the institution of slavery with relation to a class as opposed to a race. Possibly, Morrison’s intention in including these lines is to depict a sense of racial harmony and unity that existed during this period. Moreover, it is evident through the following lines that she blames the gentry for the separation they created between this racially united class and for the creation of the concept of race. The lines ‘‘by eliminating manumissions, gatherings, travels and bearing arms for black people only; by granting license to any white to kill any black for any reason; by compensating owners for a slave’s maiming or death, they separated all whites from all others forever. Any social ease … crumbled beneath a hammer wielded in the interests of the gentry’s profits’. Through these lines Morrison effectively complicates the concept of race by highlighting it’s emergence as a result of the gentry’s agenda for seeking financial gain. Hine (2003) mentions that the uprising of the Bacon’s Rebellion convinced the colony’s elite that continuing to rely on white agricultural laborers, who could become free and get guns, was dangerous’. Therefore, the gentry disadvantaged the blacks with the privileges as highlighted above by Morrison in order to separate the whites from the blacks of the poor class. Hence Morrison through the excerpt about the Bacon’s rebellion and its effects on the black community successfully highlights the fact that racial segregation emerged as a result of financial motives of the ruling gentry of that period. This invariably complicates the idea of race it presents this concept as an effect of the contempt the gentry had towards the racial unity among the poor class.

Secondly, Morrison complicates the idea of race by portraying the perception of Lina about the colonizers. The fact that Lina mentions ‘impoverished gentry, that is, since they owned nothing, certainly not the land they slept on, preferring to live as entitled paupers’ about her early childhood and her experiences is significant. This is because a close reading of the above statement suggests that the blame is assigned to the’ gentry’, which is a group identified by their financial income. Secondly, the mission of this ‘gentry’ was to acquire land, which is again a motive related to a financial gain rather than cultural domination. Thirdly, the fact that Lina terms them as ‘entitled paupers’ also clearly denote the fact that the individual who experiences these atrocities perceive the colonizers as ‘paupers’ rather than with their skin color or any of their other distinct characteristic. This is certainly interesting as it clearly shows that the element of race did not play a role in the hardships she faced due to the fact that she does not mention anything in relation to it. As a result, the description of Lina’s early childhood experience also complicates the idea of race which furthermore highlights its insignificant nature in this context.

Thirdly, the immense focus on Jacob Vaark’s class based animosity against D’Ortega through out the novel also contributes to the complication about the idea of race as it emphasizes the division between the whites. Jacob’s lines ‘Why such a show on a sleepy afternoon for a single guest well below their station? Intentional he decided; a stage performance to humiliate him into a groveling acceptance of D’Ortega’s wishes’ clearly show the animosity Jacob has towards the gentry. His hatred towards this class is also shown when Florens’s mother states ‘When the tall man with yellow hair came to dine, I saw he hated the food and I saw things in his eyes that he did not trust Senhor, Senhora or their sons’. The analysis of this statement also proves the fact that Morrison not only uses the statement of Jacob to validate his class based animosity, but also the statement of another character in order to firmly state her case of making the reader aware about the existence  of a class based animosity than a racial one.

Interestingly, Jacob’s statement ‘Thus tamping envy as taught in the poorhouse, Jacob entertained himself by conjuring up flaws in the couple’s marriage’ is very significant. This is because it shows that class based prejudices were evoked rather than racial prejudices in the ‘poor house’. Consequently, this is yet another clear indication to the existence of class based hostility. Moreover, the lines ‘‘For the first time he had not tricked, not flattered, not manipulated, but gone head to head with rich gentry’ clearly shows the division that exists between these two men as a result of their class.

Significantly, it is also evident that these two men posses different values and codes of conduct. The fact that Jacob says ‘Flesh is not my commodity’ explicitly shows his contempt towards the institution of slavery. Therefore, Morrison through this novel educates the reader that it is not possible to make an assumption or generalize about the characteristics of the whites who existed in the early seventeenth century as they did not share same values and perception. Furthermore, the lines ‘‘One day –soon, maybe-to everyone’s relief the Stuarts would lose the throne, and a Protestant rule. Then he thought, a case against D’Ortega would succeed and he would not be forced to settle for a child as a percentage of what was due to him’ shows the discrimination that took place on the basis of class. The fact that Morrison highlights the way in which the institution of law provides privileges to the gentry dramatically shows the class based division that existed during this period further. Hence it could be perceived that Jacob ‘ disembarked, found a village and negotiated native trails, on horseback, mindful of their fields and maze, careful through their hunting grounds, politely asking permission to enter a small village’ due to his understanding of the immense preparation a farmer goes through in order to maintain his crops. Furthermore, the fact that he asks permission before entering the village also maybe due to the fact that he is more inclined to respect the Native Americans as their share similar social stations. As a result these instances and possible interpretations highlighted above complicates the idea of race as the novel focuses on the class based prejudices and highlights this as the core injustice that take place during this period.

Moreover, Morrison complicates the idea of race by highlighting slaves from different racial background within the household of Jacob Vaarks. Lina is a Native American, Florens is a black, William and Scully are ‘both Europes’ and since Sorrow has ‘red hair’, she is possibly a European. The shared identity of these slaves is their class and their social circumstance which clearly denote that the institution of slavery at that time was not racial.

Furthermore, the blacksmith’s lines in relation to the conversation he has with Florens right after she accidently harms the boy in house is noteworthy. The fact that he says Florens became a slave ‘because her head is empty’ and that she is ‘a slave by choice’ clearly shows Morrison’s attempt to highlight the concept of race as a social construct. Through these lines she complicates the idea of race by highlighting it as a concept that was created and it is only the internalization of that concept that makes individuals perceive themselves as different to others of different racial backgrounds. Although Morrison does not state in the novel that this concept was initiated by the gentry, it is evident through the consequences of the Bacon’s Rebellion that it was. Hence through the enlightenment of this fact Morrison clearly makes her argument about the fact that race is a concept that was socially constructed by the gentry in order to effectively gain their financial aims.

In conclusion, it is apparent that Morrison complicates ideas of race in A Mercy effectively by presenting the notion of race emerging as a result of the selfish motive of the colony’s intention to increase their financial gain. Therefore, this research paper outlines the discussion of the Bacon’s Rebellion, Lina’s perception of the colonizers, Jacob Vaark’s attitude towards the non-whites and the blacksmith’s perception of race in order to complicate the idea of race from the general notion of it being related to the institution of slavery. In that sense this novel plays a significant role in explicitly highlighting the ideas of race as a social construct created for purposes of selfish motives. Hence Morrison presents race as a concept that did not play a significant role in the 1680’s of American history in comparison to class.


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