A Mercy, the new novel by Toni Morrison


Everybody’s going old school these days–and by old school, I mean really, really old.  Toni Morrison’s new novel, A Mercy, is set in 1682 New York*, and is the story of a little enslaved girl, Florens, who is sold to a farmer and works alongside a Native American slave and white servants.  NPR featured an interview yesterday with Morrison, in which she speaks about her desire to “remove race from slavery.”  This makes for a fascinating and rich plot conceit, but she is too quick to suggest that African slavery was essentially the equivalent of European indentured servitude.

In the interview, and in other promotional blurbs for the book, she says:

“The suggestion has always been that they could work off their passage in seven years generally, and then they would be free,” says Morrison. “But in fact, you could be indentured for life and frequently were. The only difference between African slaves and European or British slaves was that the latter could run away and melt into the population. But if you were black, you were noticeable.”

I have never seen any evidence that European or Euro-American people in colonial America were “indentured for life.”  It’s true that indenture could effectively become a life sentence, especially in places like the early Chesapeake Bay colonies, where outliving one’s indenture was not a guarantee.  Morrison has a good point about African people standing out in the colonial North before the eighteenth century.  In the northern colonies in 1682, when her story begins, African and African American people were a small sliver of the population outside of Maryland, Virginia, and the Caribbean colonies, although in places like the Dutch-occupied Hudson River Valley where slaves were used more frequently, the African American population would eventually grow to 15% of the overall population.  Florens would have been more vulnerable to capture had she tried to run away, not just because of her race, but also because of her sex and her age.  Enslaved women and indentured servants in the colonial period ran away in much smaller numbers than their male peers, and I’ve never seen evidence of a small child running away on her own.  Women were much more vulnerable on the road, to predation as well as capture, and enslaved women were also frequently tied down by small children, whom they usually refused to abandon but who made fugitive travel so much more complicated and difficult.

Visibility as an ethnic minority is only a small part of the story, however, especially for little girls like Florens.  As a slave rather than a servant, Florens would never have been free to marry and have that marriage recognized by the state, unlike the white servants she worked with.  She never would have been able to take her master to court or serve as a witness in court, because as a slave, she was an un-person, whereas white servants could testify in court and could even bring criminal complaints and civil suits against their masters (however unlikely in actual practice.) 

Finally, the most important difference between enslaved people and indentured servants:  masters owned slaves’ bodies, whereas they owned only the time and labor of indentured servants.  This makes all of the difference in the world, because even as early as 1682, slavery was a condition passed to children by their mothers, whereas children of indentured servants weren’t consigned to servitude or slavery.  If an indentured servant bore a child while in service, she was usually punished by her term of service being lengthened by a year or two, to compensate her master for the work time lost during pregnancy and recovery from childbirth.  (This is a practice that seems to have been followed in most colonies in colonial British America.)  But, the child herself would not be consigned to slavery–the critical difference, as far as I’m concerned, between slaves like Florens and indentured servants like her co-workers.  Her co-workers could eventually outlive and outgrow their status, and become lawful wives and husbands, and parents of their own children.  Already in 1682, Florens’s fate was sealed absent the intervention of a generous master.  She was a slave, and her children would be enslaved after her, as would her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren.

I’m all for explorations of indentured servitude–indeed, there’s a long-abandoned study in Historiann’s past on this subject from her undergraduate days.  But, suggesting that temporary white servitude, however exploitative, was the same as racially-based, heritable slavery is just not historically accurate.  Furthermore, it can be used to push a Kum-Bye-Yah, all-of-our-ancestors-were-oppressed narrative that is extremely popular with white people in this country.  Check out this blurb, which praises the book for its “redemptive tone:”

[A] pristine landscape, a compassionate white Northern farmer, and a notable absence of racial animosity—felt even more keenly in an election year with a full deck of race cards. In A Mercy, Jacob Vaark’s collection of laborer-charges (a Native American, a black child, an orphan, and two indentured servants) are united by and against a spreading culture of servitude that has little to do with skin color.”

“Skin color” is of course too reductive, but suggesting that it was all just a random accident that only people of African descent were enslaved–well, call me when you get back from Disneyland.  I’m putting A Mercy on my Christmas list, and I’ll hope that Santa Claus a copy drops a copy in my stocking.  You can hear Morrison read excerpts from the book here–so far, it sounds fascinating.  Watch this space for a review this winter.

*I’m assuming that Florens is brought to New York (the English name for the conquered Dutch colony of New Netherland), because her owner Jacob Vaark purchases her in Maryland but brings her north, and his name is Dutch.  The promotional materials I’ve found on-line are frustratingly non-specific–I suppose that “the north” is as specific as most Americans think they need to be, to specify that Vaark keeps slaves but does not live in a slave society.

UPDATED:  Aaaaand, the NPR listening audience learns exactly the WRONG lesson.  (Click the link to hear the letters that people wrote to the program after hearing the Morrison interview.)

UPDATED, 10/29/08:  I asked my American women’s history (to 1800) students if they thought Morrison was right about the equivalence of indentured servitude and slavery, and about the notion that the categories of enslaved, bound, and free people weren’t yet clear in 1682.  Almost to a woman, they answered “no” to both questions.  We’ve just finished reading Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women:  Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), so they had plenty of information to work from in answering those questions.  Well done, class!

0 thoughts on “A Mercy, the new novel by Toni Morrison

  1. Oh sheesh. Now I have to argue not only against Hilary Beckles but Toni Morrison? There is no way you can win on that one. But I’m totally with you on the difference between indentured servitude and slavery. The line in the Caribbean is that few indentured servants outlived their servitude, but that’s a whole different thing. All you have to do is READ THE LAWS. They are different.

    End of rant.


  2. KC, that’s true, but just because people hadn’t yet developed modern notions of what causes racial difference doesn’t mean that white servitude and black slavery were equivalent, and that’s what I’m calling out. 1682 was by no means a time when the implications of racial slavery were unclear or ambiguous.

    Joyce Chaplin’s _Subject Matter_, 2001, demonstrates pretty convincingly that by the late seventeenth century, English people had developed theories of racial difference that were located in the body, even if they hadn’t yet concluded that racial differences were heritable and permanent, rather than changeable according to the climate or cultural practices.


  3. I was also quite a bit surprised by Morrison’s interview. It’s definitely an area which needs exploration and publicity, and it sounds like a really fascinating novel — but she said a few surprising things as you’ve pointed out.


  4. Could it be possible that, as the blurb puts it, the depiction of people “united by and against a spreading culture of servitude that has little to do with skin color” might be taken to have contemporary relevance or resonance, rather than historical? That is, the novel might be about the past on only one level? And that the past in the novel is useful to us for reflection, rather than accuracy of depiction? It is a novel, after all, not a history. I have this phrase lingering in my mind, “usable pasts,” (can’t recall whose phrase it is) which reminds us that tales of the past (by both historians [one ‘n’] and novelists) always do cultural work in the present, though the natures of their cultural work surely differ.


  5. Any area around the mouth of the North/(Hudson) River would have qualified as a “slave society” as used in the current literature–as opposed to a society “with slavery”–although an area as close to that as the Delaware Valley above Philadelphia would have been more problematic. I suppose it depends to some degree on the attribution of Vaark as Dutch. There would have been former New Netherlanders scattered around between Maryland and Connecticut. But a Dutch settler separated from the hearth would probably still be practicing human bondage as it had developed in the core.

    The “only difference between…” suggested by Morrison is preposterous. But historians also write novels. (And a lot of my students call all schoolbooks “novels,” which may be taking the literary turn a step too far!).


  6. Tom, Morrison’s novel is undoubtedly more “about” today than 1682, but I think the real world of 1682 offers plenty of room for literary imaginations like hers to move around in. Of course, I’m withholding judgment until I actually read the book (!), but I really dislike comparisons between indentured servitude and slavery that make them equivalent. It’s her claims about history in the interview I object to–I’m actually very excited to read A Mercy because it’s written from the point of view of an enslaved little girl, and I’m writing a book right now that is trying to get at the point of view of a little girl captive of the Wabanaki.

    Suggesting that slavery and servitude were equivalent is, in Indyanna’s words, “preposterous.” (It would be an interesting concept for a counterfactual history or novel.) Thanks for your corrective thoughts about slave socieities versus societies with slavery, Indyanna–maybe Vaark lives near the Greene Countrey Towne instead?


  7. i’m sure you know of this, but just fyi:

    i often think about this in the antebellum period, vis-a-vis the tension between britain and america about american slavery and british systems of economic exploitation/abuse.

    it seems that while NOW we have very clear ideas of what counts as “slavery,” for a long time what purchase that word had was very much up for debate. We now recognize transatlantic racial slavery as a uniquely horrifying thing, right up there with the holocaust on the “worst thing ever” list. It is inviolable as a category. I think that this is a politically efficacious move, and I don’t disagree with it. But the fact remains that “slavery” was in part a concept that was defined via its abolition, and that up until the mid 1850s (and i’m sure beyond, though it’s beyond my own research to prove that) what counted as “slavery” was very much open for debate. if you look at the “fugitive slave law,” for instance, the word “slave” does not appear in the document that I can see–and I think that matters, if we’re going to use the word slavery ourselves.

    It is obvious to us now that, for instance, exploited british wagelaborours had shitty lives but probably had it better off than american slaves, at least from a historical perspective. But british laborours claimed to be experiencing slavery; they claimed that they could not imagine their lives being worse than that of American slaves, and were appalled at british philanthropists worried about american abolition but not economic justice at home. (mayhew’s interviews are interesting, here). I’m not saying they were right, and with the benefit of history we can see some important ways that they were wrong. But they claimed access to the word slavery–it meant something to them–and I think that that’s important if we want to consider the concept of slavery as a historical rather than platonic concept which we can retroactively apply “correctly.”

    indeed, on npr within the last couple of days, I heard an activist who works to fight global sex trafficking talk about her desire to reclaim the word “slavery”as opposed to “trafficking”–and how she is continually frustrated by the assumption people make in limiting their definition of what counts as slavery.

    this seems to be a very antagonistic post, and really I don’t mean it to be, since in general I agree with your claims. but I do think there are complications worth pondering.


  8. Thanks for stopping by to comment, Sarah–your post is not argumentative at all! You make really good points about the nineteenth century, but I don’t think it’s teleological to look at the laws and experiences of enslaved people in 1682 and recognize that they lived in fundamentally different condition than indentured servants. In cases where the servant and slave labor force was small–almost all farms and plantations in 1682 were small–servants, slaves, and free people lived and worked very intimately with one another. They also shared very similar material conditions (primitive for everyone, almost.) It’s this intimacy among enslaved, free, and indentured people that I think Morrison will describe for us in new and interesting ways. But, that intimacy didn’t mean that people didn’t recognize and understand the different conditions they lived in.

    You make good points too about the weasily way that the U.S. government tries to avoid using the word “slave” in its legislation. (The 3/5 clause in the Constitution is the same–it’s all about slavery but refuses to name the term.) In the colonial period, laws discuss “Negros” and identify people as “Negro” without reference to condition–for a while, historians believed that that meant that slavery wasn’t yet defined, but the tide has turned and few people think that there would have been much ambiguity about the status of an African American girl who was purchased like Florens. But ultimately, I’m less concerned about whether or not a girl like Florens would have called herself a “slave” or a “servant” than I am about recognizing the fact that unlike white indentured servants, she would never outgrow her condition, and her children would inherit that condition from her. The laws applying to “Negro” persons are clear by 1682.


  9. Vaark could have been a remnant Netherlander in the “Three Lower Counties” on Delaware, another part of the Penn family proprietorship, which was less than a year old in 1682 but which eventually became the separate colony and then state of Delaware. A mixed lot of Scandinavian, Dutch, and non-Quaker English peoples, with some drift east from Maryland on the Chesapeake (this would hardly have qualified as “north” from Maryland, I guess). That area might have rivaled Bergen County, NJ, or other Lower Hudson areas, as a hearth of embedded slavery. But this is a novel, of course, and my imagination is reflectively acting as if the question could be empirically verified. A bit silly on my part.

    I recently found a primary source account of German “redemptioner” servants arriving in the port of New Orleans in early 1818. I’d always taken this to be a peculiarly Pennsylvanian phenomenon of servitude, and confined to the colonial period, but maybe that’s not so. Anyone out there have any insight into this phenomenon? “Redemptioners” had a fixed amount of time to find persons to “redeem” their passage costs, and who thus would become servants to people who they knew, often friends or kin. If they couldn’t find purchasers they were sold at large like other indentees.


  10. I always thought Redemptioners were a PA thing, too. They must have been part of a wave of immigration from Germany to Louisiana then, given the fact that Redemptioners in 18th C PA were usually “redeemed” by connections or kin. That’s an interesting find, Indyanna–thanks for bringing it to our attention.


  11. I think you’re dealing with something really problematic, though, in that there are two variables, race and legal status. One of the things that I deal with all the time is that race-based slavery is a pretty modern thing. In my world, it’s just another legal category. You conquer people, you enslave them. Eventually, you conquer people, and they convert to Christianity (or Islam), and you really aren’t supposed to keep them as slaves. (This is one of the things that always wigs me out about slavery in the US, where in the little I am familiar with, it seems that conversion was both seen as a good thing in terms of the souls of the poor savage slaves and as yet another attempt at pacification?). But anyway, in my areas, slaves can be freed, free people can be enslaved over debts, and being a slave doesn’t necessarily mean not earning money or owning some property or having important offices or duties.

    But anyway, back to the variables — for the comparison to work, I think you’d have to compare how indenture worked for people of different races. Anything else is just not going to make any real sense.


  12. Oooh, yum … new Morrison! Although I haven’t even read her previous one yet, dammit!

    One of my favorite recent novels, Edward Jones’s _The Known World_ (2004), which is just a gorgeous and strange piece of writing, works through these ideas about how people could imagine slave and free — he has a black slave who has been freed by his master who then buys black slaves of his own — and this is pretty clearly because in the area they live in slave owning vs. enslaved is the major dividing line and people can’t recognize someone who doesn’t fit this paradigm. So the former slave almost has to become a slave master in order to keep his own freedom. It’s way more complicated than this, and skin color comes into it too, but, really, it’s an awesome book to read.


  13. ADM, American slavery worked very, very differently. As you say, race-based slavery is a very modern thing, and it was worked out in the laboratory of the colonial Americas. Indenture didn’t work differently for people of different races. Indentured servants were overwhelmingly people of European or of European descent. People who were enslaved for life were ALWAYS of African descent. (One exception: there is increasingly a literature on Indian slaves in colonial British America, and while a few of them appear to have become free, the vast majority appear to have been enslaved like Africans: sold out of their country of origin, for example, like the women and children captives taken by the English in the Pequot War. But, compared to places like Mexico and the Southwest Borderlands, Indian slavery was a rarity.)

    Ira Berlin has written about some of the first generation of Africans in the Americas as “Atlantic Creoles,” a few of whom were able to exploit the not-yet-competely-defined status of slavery up to perhaps 1650 or so. A few of these Africans appear to have served terms in servitude rather than slavery, terms that ended somehow and permitted them to live free in America. But this was a tiny, tiny, tiny minority of Africans, and their indenture-like service appears to have been a very short lived phenomenon. By 1682, the process of enslavement had become naturalized: children inherited their status from their mothers.

    People whose bodies were owned outright, and whose children were owned by their masters, were never of European descent. I have never, ever seen evidence of any European or Euro-American having been subjected to that fate. But, you’re right: race and legal status aren’t coterminous in all places and times, and not even in colonial British America (in most places) until the mid-17th C or so.


  14. Sisyphus, thanks for the tip on the book. It’s a wonderful literary conceit, and I think it’s proof of how people really want desperately to believe that American slavery could have been defined otherwise. I can guess the person that it’s based on, Anthony Johnson, who became a slaveowning African man on the eastern shore of Virginia in the mid-17th century. 17th century America is a tiny place, but that guy comes up a LOT–every time an author wants to write about the “alternative possibilities” for how slavery might have developed recounts the same story, based on the same one guy. (Check the footnotes of the next book you read that tries that trick.) Funny, isn’t it, how historians haven’t been able to come up with any more examples?

    The fascination with Anthony Johnson began around the time historians became (rightly) concerned that they were treated the development of racially-based chattel slavery as inevitable, and that they were perhaps naturalizing that process inappropriately. They became fascinated with the cases of a few “Atlantic creoles” and the members of the Johnson family as a means to consider alternatives, which was a good thing. But, I think historians became too enamored of a few, lucky exceptions, and have only recently returned to analyze intensively the experiences of the vast majority of African involuntary migrants to the Americas. Most of the books by scholars of my generation focus not on slavery as an institution, but on enslavement as a process, an ongoing process enacted upon and through the bodies of individuals.


  15. Historiann — I must have been really tired — that was pretty much the point I was trying to make. There isn’t a valid comparison (It was probably the Berlin stuff I was thinking about that made me think some of the very early Africans were brought in under indenture), because you have two different variables that are mutually exclusive.


  16. ADM–thanks for both of your comments. I *wish* it were more complex than it was in the Americas. But, clearly Africans were pegged for a different experience than anyone else in the New World. And, those medieval hangovers, like baptism bringing on emancipation, are closed so early on when it comes to enslaved Africans.


  17. Pingback: Martin Luther King holiday book review: Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy” : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

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