Comments on: A Mercy, the new novel by Toni Morrison http://www.historiann.com/2008/10/28/a-mercy-the-new-novel-by-toni-morrison/ History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present Sat, 20 Sep 2014 07:56:15 +0000 hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 By: Martin Luther King holiday book review: Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy” : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present http://www.historiann.com/2008/10/28/a-mercy-the-new-novel-by-toni-morrison/comment-page-1/#comment-189471 Mon, 19 Jan 2009 16:11:47 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=1661#comment-189471 [...] opposedĀ to the interview she gave to NPR a few months ago, in which she suggested that indentured servitude was equivalent to African chattel slavery, [...]

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By: Historiann http://www.historiann.com/2008/10/28/a-mercy-the-new-novel-by-toni-morrison/comment-page-1/#comment-110506 Mon, 03 Nov 2008 04:21:55 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=1661#comment-110506 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.

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By: Another Damned Medievalist http://www.historiann.com/2008/10/28/a-mercy-the-new-novel-by-toni-morrison/comment-page-1/#comment-110484 Mon, 03 Nov 2008 03:38:20 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=1661#comment-110484 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.

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By: Historiann http://www.historiann.com/2008/10/28/a-mercy-the-new-novel-by-toni-morrison/comment-page-1/#comment-106631 Wed, 29 Oct 2008 02:26:55 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=1661#comment-106631 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.

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By: Historiann http://www.historiann.com/2008/10/28/a-mercy-the-new-novel-by-toni-morrison/comment-page-1/#comment-106623 Wed, 29 Oct 2008 02:17:47 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=1661#comment-106623 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.

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By: Sisyphus http://www.historiann.com/2008/10/28/a-mercy-the-new-novel-by-toni-morrison/comment-page-1/#comment-106620 Wed, 29 Oct 2008 02:14:57 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=1661#comment-106620 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.

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By: Another Damned Medievalist http://www.historiann.com/2008/10/28/a-mercy-the-new-novel-by-toni-morrison/comment-page-1/#comment-106598 Wed, 29 Oct 2008 01:19:31 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=1661#comment-106598 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.

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By: Historiann http://www.historiann.com/2008/10/28/a-mercy-the-new-novel-by-toni-morrison/comment-page-1/#comment-106533 Tue, 28 Oct 2008 23:23:48 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=1661#comment-106533 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.

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By: Indyanna http://www.historiann.com/2008/10/28/a-mercy-the-new-novel-by-toni-morrison/comment-page-1/#comment-106516 Tue, 28 Oct 2008 22:58:31 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=1661#comment-106516 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.

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By: Historiann http://www.historiann.com/2008/10/28/a-mercy-the-new-novel-by-toni-morrison/comment-page-1/#comment-106489 Tue, 28 Oct 2008 22:13:58 +0000 http://www.historiann.com/?p=1661#comment-106489 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.

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