Saturday, March 31, 2012

Toni Morrison on the Origins of American Racism

In her 2008 novel A Mercy Toni Morrison imagines a frontier Virginia of the late 1600s, a century before the American Revolution. She has found in this time and place valuable insights into the relationship between slavery and race, a relationship that is taken for granted but that is after all contingent.

Morrison is a keen student of history. Reading her 1992 essay Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, her brief for a background element of blackness as necessary for the construction of whiteness, I was directed by a footnote to discover William Dunbar, a Scottish settler and slave-holder in late 18th century Mississippi, who turned out to have such an interesting life that I've been gathering material for a project ever since. In the genesis of A Mercy she was inspired, she says, by Bacon's Rebellion, an uprising against the governor of Virginia in 1676 for his failure to retaliate against Indian raids on frontier villages. The rebels in fact forced the government to flee the capitol and conducted numerous attacks on Indians before being put down. Morrison noticed the composition of Bacon's rebel force: wealthy and poor, property owners and indentured servants, whites and blacks, all united to a common purpose by the perceived indifference of the English governor and the threat of Indian attacks.

There is evidence that colonial authorities took steps to harden racial divides in the aftermath of the rebellion. When it became established that whites had more impunity than blacks (in many areas a non-white had no legal protection from white violence) the relationship between blackness and slavery was cemented. This served the interests of the slave-owning planters by socially dividing not only black slaves but all blacks from the rest of the working-class population. In the creation of white supremacy Morrison sees a monstrous homogeneity replacing a dense heterogeneity.

In wilderness 1680s Virginia Morrison assembles a meticulously diverse group of people, that is to say women after the decent but vainglorious Jacob Vaark passes away leaving his widow Rebekka, a refugee from English urban poverty, Florens, a slave taken reluctantly by Vaark from a Portuguese merchant in partial payment of a debt, Lina, an Indian orphaned by plague and sold to Vaark "by Presbyterians," and the lowly Sorrow, who some say is the mixed-blood daughter of the captain of the ill-fated ship the wreck of which she is the only survivor...but this is only a bit much when I lay it all out like that. In a review by John Updike he opens with a mention of Faulkner. The way I would put it is that A Mercy is written more in the impressionistic, Modernist style of Morrison's masterpiece Beloved (1987) than any of the intervening novels. The wilderness suits this densely atmospheric style which is also, as Faulkner understood, appropriate for the internal narratives of poorly-formed people.

Florens is in love with a freeman, a blacksmith, that is a black man who works as a smith and a smithee of black men. He rejects Florens as too rough and uncultivated for him. As traumatic and even ruinous his rejection is for Florens, he is soon to experience a greater one, for no black man in the racist future will feel entitled to judge and be judged on the basis of character alone. As Florens experiences him he represents a future that will never arrive - not only her future with him but a future with proud black men unencumbered with racism.

Related books that have been the subjects of posts here include Edward Jones's The Known World and Marlon James' Book of Night Women.

1 comment:

Susan Malter said...

That the colonial leaders would have created divisions and enmity between white a black is as awful as it is believable. According to Procopius who wrote the Secret History of Justinian, Theodora and Justinian created divisions among their people in order to maintain control. They were corrupt, like the colonial leaders, and wanted the rabble to fight against each other and forget their criticism of their leaders.

Thank you for posting this. I have not read Morrison's essays and look forward to doing so.