A Mercy, published in 2008, is Morrison’s ninth novel. Reviewers have noted that Morrison’s final four novels, Love, A Mercy, Home, and God Help the Child all feel a little different from what came before. For one thing, they tend to be a little shorter and perhaps a little more narrowly focused. It’s true that Morrison was getting older: born in 1931, she was about 76 years old when A Mercy came out. But that doesn’t mean the scope or ambition is any less: the ambition in A Mercy is to take on a broad swath of American history. So it seems fair to say that the late Morrison is narrower and tighter -- but not smaller in scope. I should also mention that of these final four books, A Mercy was by far the best-reviewed. The New York Times, for instance, put it down for its 10 best of 2008.
As mentioned, A Mercy is set in colonial America, mainly in the Maryland and New York colonies. The dates given us are primarily 1682 and 1690; there are allusions early in the novel to an event called Bacon’s Rebellion that took place in 1676 (more on that below). Many critics have understood the novel as a kind of origin story for the American race formation; I might take it a step further and suggest Morrison is aiming to do an origin story for the myth of ‘Americanism’ -- the idea of the colonies and then the United States as a place of radical independence and autonomy, of wildness & savagery that was tamed by brave settlers, and where a hardy “Protestant work ethic” triumphed over other value-systems, including Spanish and Portuguese greed and corruption or Native American primitivism.
Morrison’s view of this myth is of course upside down from the one that is taught in most American history classes: the idea of “Americanism as synonymous with freedom” is a profound lie; the Native American populations were not “savage” and were not “tamed” (they were, instead, exterminated); and non-slaveholding northern Protestants were only too ready to take advantage, sometimes indirectly of forms of commerce (i.e., slave labor) they claimed to disavow. Some of these statements should remind us of some of the key arguments in Playing in the Dark, with passages like the following
What was distinctive in the New [World] was, first of all, its claim to freedom and, second, the presence of the unfree within the heart of the democratic experiment—the critical absence of democracy, its echo, shadow, and silent force in the political and intellectual activity of some not-Americans. (Morrison, Playing in the Dark, 48)
In Playing in the Dark, Morrison explores the story of William Dunbar, the Scottish settler who created a plantation in the south, a man who was highly educated, well-connected, but who also seemed capable of great brutality in the name of ensuring his authority over the people he had enslaved. In some ways, his story could be compared to Jacob Vaark’s story here, in A Mercy.
A Mercy: Morrison's Most Multicultural Novel
One interesting development is that this is probably Morrison’s most multicultural novel. It has a protagonist who is black (Florens) and enslaved, but it also goes deeply into the voices and experiences of several other characters, a biracial woman (Sorrow) dealing with what appears to be a mental illness of some kind, a native American woman (Lina) whose village was destroyed by smallpox, a white woman (Rebekka) brought from Europe as a ‘mail order bride’, and a white man (Jacob Vaark). There are also a number of white indentured laborers in the book (Willard and Scully), whose path to full emancipation is often murky due to the hazy nature of the legal contracts that bind them to particular families or jobs. For several of the characters mentioned above, it’s not entirely clear whether the word ‘slave’ is accurate to describe their status -- they are certainly unfree. (One reviewer described Lina and Sorrow as ‘bondswomen’ rather than slaves, and that seems like a reasonable.) Indeed, for nearly all of the women in this novel, including the white woman in a privileged position in the household, the word ‘freedom’ is elusive and possibly meaningless: if you’re a woman in 17th century colonial America, you are by default in bondage of one kind or another. The core of the story is the romance between Florens and a free Black man who is hired by Jacob Vaark as a blacksmith, but the stories and voices of these other characters all circulate and impress themselves upon us.
This range of voices marks, to my eye, a departure for Morrison from the worlds she created for us in her first few novels.
We also see the multi-national nature of even the white population of early colonial America. Much of the American educational system, with its emphasis on the landing of the Mayflower and the American Revolution, essentially suggests that the only white settlers here in the 17th and 18th centuries were English-speaking. But there were many Germans, Swedes, and Dutch people here as well, and for generations they spoke their own languages and had their own settlements. There were also French, Portuguese, and Spanish settlers in the mix (as we see in the novel).
The Pre-History of the American Race Formation
Many reviewers pointed out that this is a novel set at the beginnings of Anglo-America -- the period of time where the English colonies were beginning to become fully established, when the transatlantic slave trade was beginning to speed up (especially connected to the exploding European and colonial demand for sugar and rum -- derived from Caribbean sugar cane), and when the conflict with indigenous tribes was beginning to become more pointed.
“Race” didn’t work in the late 17th century exactly the way it does now. It certainly was a term used to describe difference, including differences in physical traits. And anti-Blackness was already visible in some texts (anti-Blackness is highly active in Shakespeare’s Othello, for example). But whiteness and Blackness were not the most established categories of identity at the time. The average Anglican English, Dutch, or German person at the time would have been much more preoccupied with religious difference than with skin complexion, especially when they were first encountering indigenous people in the Americas. (They saw them first and foremost as ‘heathens’, not as racialized others in the sense we now understand the term.) They also understood Catholics in particular as depraved cultural others (see the way Jacob Vaark reacts to D’Ortega and his family: as “Papish” or “Romish” -- to Anglicans and other northern European Protestants in the early modern people, these were highly pejorative insults).
Bacon's Rebellion and the American Race Formation
All of that said, some of the key features of the American race formation -- and its particular orientation to anti-Blackness -- were very much emergent at this moment. The key historical reference point along these lines comes early in the novel, with the invocation of Bacon’s Rebellion (1674). Along those lines, here is an important early where Morrison introduces this event early in the novel (p. 11):
Half a dozen years ago an army of blacks, natives, whites, mulattoes—freedmen, slaves and indentured—had waged war against local gentry led by members of that very class. When that “people’s war” [Bacon’s Rebellion] lost its hopes to the hangman, the work it had done—which included the slaughter of opposing tribes and running the Carolinas off their land—spawned a thicket of new laws authorizing chaos in defense of order. By eliminating manumission, gatherings, travel 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 and protected all whites from all others forever. Any social ease between gentry and laborers, forged before and during that rebellion, crumbled beneath a hammer wielded in the interests of the gentry’s profits. In Jacob Vaark’s view, these were lawless laws encouraging cruelty in exchange for common cause, if not common virtue. (11-12)
The causes and consequences of Bacon’s Rebellion are complex, and its representation in Morrison's novel is clearly partial and fragmentary (it’s notable that Morrison’s Jacob doesn’t mention Nathaniel Bacon by name, nor does he mention the governor of Virginia at the time, William Berkeley). But the basic parameters of what Morrison describes here line up with what is known about it in the historical record. In a nutshell, Nathaniel Bacon initiated this uprising by enlisting one local indigenous community in Virginia to attack a rival. After the attack succeeded, he turned on his erstwhile Native allies, slaughtering them as well. Then, declared a rebel by the governor, he declared war on the Virginia colony (the capital was then Jamestown). He enlisted enslaved Africans as well as white indentured laborers to join with him in common cause.
After Bacon's defeat, Virginia created a series of new racialized laws, including the ones mentioned above (one other important one that was enacted was Black enslavement as an inherited status. So the child of an enslaved Black person was owned by the same person who owned the child’s parents. This seems unsurprising now, but it was only put into Virginian law in 1705, partly in response to Bacon’s Rebellion.The intention of Virginia lawmakers after Bacon's Rebellion was to divide two bonded classes from one another to prevent a repeat of that rebellion in order for the landed gentry to protect their business interests. Though it clearly starts as oriented to protecting Capital, these racialized laws and the practices they encourage (i.e., the transatlantic slave trade), develop a certain momentum and their own center of gravity. It’s really at this moment that one might say that the modern American race-formation really comes into focus.