Open Journal of Social Sciences, 2015, 3, 234-238
Published Online November 2015 in SciRes.
How to cite this paper: Wang, Y. (2015) Morrison’s Black Feminist Discourse in A Mercy. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 3,
Morrison’s Black Feminist Discourse in A
Yuan Wang
School of Foreign Languages, Changchun University of Science and Technology, Changchun, China
Received 16 October 2015; accepted 16 November 2015; published 19 November 2015
Copyright © 2015 by author and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY).
A Mercy is Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s ninth novel. As a writer and black feminist, Morrison
devotes her career to give voice to the silenced, to make the unspeakable things speak and to be
heard . She challenged the conventional values imposed on black women by presenting various
female characters in her novels. Black women suffer from double oppression, both from gender
and race. Through her writings, Morrison endowed black women ways of expressing their pains
and sufferings. By releasing their painful past, they can gain their identity and subjectivity. They
can finally rebuild and shape themselves. This artic l e explores the black feminist discourse in her
novel A Mercy.
Black Feminism, Cultural Orphan, Enslaveme nt
1. Introduction
Toni Morrison, the first black female writer winning Nobel Prize, devoted her career to the history of African
Americans. Her creation infused vitality to post-modern American literature and contributed to a third wave of
African American literature. Though there are numerous research books and thesis on Morrison, they only fo-
cused on a fe w of her no vel s li ke The Bluest Eye and Beloved. As a novelist who never stops her creation, Mo r-
rison showed her various cultural stands on different stages. Her earlier novels explored the miserable life of
African Americans, especially black females, and uncovered the developing history of African Americans. She
insis ted tha t onl y Africa n Ame rican hi stor y is the r eleva nt co ntext i n her no vels. Concer ning t he co nnecti on be-
tween different cultures and the relation between the white and the black, her later novels reflect the confusion
of cultures, which makes her creation accepted by the whole world. Morrison is not only a novelist, but an editor,
literature critics and feminist. This article tries to su mmarize Mo rrison’s black fe minism and e xplor e ho w it ap-
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pears in the novel A Mercy. The theoretical basis is her literature reviews: Unspeakable Things Unspoken: the
Afro-American Presence in American Literature (1989), Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Im-
agination (1992) and What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction (2008).
2. Definition of Morrison’s Black Femin ism
First, to rebuild the history of African American. Post modernism is to deconstruct and question things. Many
critics denounced that the official history reflected the ideology of the ruling class. According to Morrison,
American history recorded by government is the history of white Americans. In her interview with Christina
Davis (1988, 142), Morrison said: “There’s a great deal of obfuscation and distortion and erasure, so that the
presence and the heartbeat of black people has been systematically annihilated in many, many ways a nd the j ob
of recovery is ours.” [1]. In view of the absence of literacy, she can o nl y reb uild thei r hi sto ry thr oug h blac k fo lk
songs, stories, legends and black music. That’s why her novels are full of magic stories, musical redeems and
exotic flavors. Black feminist Barbar a Smith published a book named All the Women Are White, All the Blacks
Are Men (1982) reflected the absence of African-American females in history. Black feminist realized that in
this kind of society they can only rely on themselves to construct their own identity. Just based on this back-
ground, Morrison put forward to rebuild the history of African Americans and elaborated the significance of
constructing female identity. There exist gender and racial inequalities. Morrison aims to explore the origin of
inequality through the creation and interpretation of literature.
Second, the significance of blackness in American literature. In her book Playing in the Dark, Morrison ela-
borated from a historical perspective why African-Americans were marginalized in the United States. To her,
white Americans metaphorically used blackness as a way to show their uniqueness and proj ected oppression on
African Americans for their fear of losing freedom in the New World. In “romancing the shadow”, Morrison
explains from a historical perspective why African Americans are disparaged and relegated to a marginal posi-
tion. Because the immigrants from the Old World are poor and oppressed, the y seek fr eedo m and weal th in the
New World. The fear of repressi on alwa ys haunted the m ev en in the Ne w Wor ld. “In o rder to be free from thi s
fear, they projected it onto the blackness of African Americans, who became the surrogate insecure selves of
previously repressed white people.” Though blackness is always associated with sin, invisibilit y, inferiority, it
does not mean absence. However, it was always disto rted. Africanis m is an indispensabl e element in the defi ni-
tion of Americanness. “The c onte mplatio n of thi s black p re sence is c entr al to an y unde rsta nding o f our na tional
literature and shou ld not be permitted to hover a t the margins of the literar y imagination.” [2]. Therefore, r efl ec-
tion on African-American existence is essential for the understanding of American literature. Blacks should not
be in the margin of literature imagination and rejected by the mainstream. They should move from the margin
and be a part of literature classics.
Third, to make the unspeakable things heard. The black are repressed, not only deprived of freedom, b ut als o
the right o f speak. The y cannot express themselves, e ven if the y s peak, no man will listen. Morrison aims to give
voice to them, especially black women, for racially and sexually they suffer double oppression. Black women’s
voice is silenced by both gender and race. In order to regain their identity, t he y have t o gi v e o ut t he ir vo i ce fi rst .
They are the only person who can fill the vacancy of their history. Her literary career is inspired by “huge si-
lences in liter at ure, thi ngs t ha t have neve r be e n a r ticulat ed , pr inted or imagined and they were the silences about
black girls, b lack women. It was into that are a tha t I ste pp ed and fo und i t to b e eno r mous .” (Toni Morrison Wins
the Nobel) I n her inter view with Dandi Russell Mo rrison expresses her i ntention to write primarily for wo men.
“I write for black women. We are not addressing the men, as some white female writers do. We are not attacking
each other, as both black and white men do. Black women writers look at things in an unforgiving/loving way.
They are writing to repossess, re-na me, re-o wn. ” (Stephanie Li 2010, p. 46) [3]. Black female writers depict
their existence in society, the pursuit of self and the desire of dreams in their works, which are regarded as the
disc ourse of pr oving thei r exi stence, resi sting racial and gender d iscrimination.
Morriso n’s black femi nism i s to shatter the co nve ntio nal values i mposed by white mai nstr ea m society like t he
pieced mirror in her novels and reshaped the pieces through reentering the history. She wants to give voice to
black women, let them speak for themselves, so the main narrator s in her novels are alwa ys women. To her, “it
is crucial to reinscribe the received notion of slavery and history from a black female perspective.” (Mori, 1999,
p. 23) [4].
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3. How It Appears Textually
A Mercy’s setting is traced back to the late of 17th century “when the conflation of race and slavery was in its
infanc y.” I n an inter vie w, Mo rrison said she “wanted to separate race from slavery to see what it was like, what
it might have been like, to be a slave but without being raced; where your status was being enslaved but there
was no applica tion of racial inferiority.” (T oni Morrison, 2008) [5]. Slavery and racism were not bound together
at the beginning.
This article tries to explore the novel from the perspectives of narration, theme and language. Through these
ways Morrison makes the silenced heard and the truth reappeared.
3.1. Narration in A Mercy
The story began by the narrator’s confession to “you”. Later we know the narrator is called Florens, a six-
teen-year-old girl, “you” is Blacksmith, her l o ver , and t he c onfessio n i s i nsc ri be d on wall s. Like he r ot her no vel s,
Morriso n adopted multiple narratives in A Mercy. The odd chapters are narrated by Florens in the fir st person’s
point of view; the even chapters are narrated by characters in the far m in the third person’s point of vie w. The
last chapter is narrated by Florence’s mother. The result is showed first, then the truth is disclosed layer by layer.
The main plot related to the name of the novel is a suspense: why t he bla ck fe male sla ve wante d the stra nger
who came for debt to take away her eight-year-old daughter? Narration on this plot appears three times
throughout this novel. The first is narrated by Florens. “I know it is true because I see it forever and ever. Me
watching, my mo the r li steni n g, her baby boy on her hip. Senhor is not paying the whole amount he owes to Sir.
Sir saying he wi ll take in stead the woma n and the g irl, not the baby boy and the debt is gone. A minha mãe begs
no. Her baby boy is still at her breast. Take the girl, she sa ys, my daughter, she says. Me. Me.” (Toni, Morrison,
2008. p. 7) [6]. This is recalled by Florens when she was about sixteen years old. Here the present tense is used
to sho w the vivid ness a nd clear ness of the event . She tho ught her mot her aband oned her , which tor tured her all
the time.
Then this plot is narrated by Sir Jacob. He recalled his experience of collecting debt in a slave-o wner ’s ho use.
The slave owner can’t pay for his debt because he lost a group of slaves on a recent s hipwreck. He suggested to
repay the debt with slaves. Thought Jacob is a businessman, he disgusted slavery and refused to see slaves as
commodities. When he saw Florens, her mother and her younger brother, he felt the lady must be liked by the
slave owner and he will not allow Jacob to take her away. As a revenge, he chose this women to solve the debt.
Certainly, it was refused by the slave owner. To their astonishment, the woman came forward and begged
“Please, Senhor. Not me. Take her. Take my daughter.” (p. 26). It is incre dible for a mother to a sk a stranger to
take her daughter away. Jacob accepted the litter girl for two reasons, one is he hoped his wife Rebekka can get
some relief for she was in the same age with their daughter who was kicked by a mare and lost her life; another
reason is he himself is also an orphan, so he cannot refuse to “rescue an unmoored, unwante d child.(p. 33).
In the last chapter, the mother’s voice appeared. She told the reason why she asked a stranger to take her
daughter away. In her eyes, the conduct is not a cruel behavior but a mercy. She recalled her bitter experience.
She was shipped from Africa, sold and raped. She confided to her daughter: “I d on’ t know wh o is yo ur fa t her . It
was too dark to see any of them. They came at night and took we three including Bess to a curing shed… There
is no protectio n. To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal. Even if scars form, t he fes-
tering is ever below.” (p. 163). She worried her daughter will repeat her fate if she continues to stay there. She
wanted Jacob to take her daughter away because she felt Jacob was not like the landlord, “there was no animal
in his heart.” (p. 163). T hough there is no protection from her far a way fr om h ome, she believes things will be
different. Mother does not abandon Florens, she gives up her daughter because of love and protection. “It was
not a miracle. Bestowed by God. It was a mercy. Offered by a human” (pp. 166-167).
The same story was narrated by three different persons from different perspectives. Collaging them together,
the reader final ly fi nds the t r ut h a nd ga in s i n si ght. T hi s al s o me an s A fric an A mer ic a ns, especially female, had to
stick the pieced memory together to restore their history facing the absence.
3.2. Theme of A Mercy
As to the theme of this novel, Morrison aimed to explore the real origin of enslavement. At 17th century’s
America, slavery and racism were not bound together. There is white orphan, Indian woman, free black and
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white indentures in this novel. By putting them together in a farm, Morrison explored the living conditions of
different people, and revealed the essence of slavery.
Four women living in the farm have various fates, but to some extent they are all enslaved and deprived of
freedom. They cannot choose their destiny and social positon. Just like what Lina said: “We never shape the
world she says. The world shapes us.” (p. 71). Lina was the first woman bought b y Jacob to the farm. She was
not a black woman, but an Indian native. Smallpox extinguished her tribe with she and several survivors left.
She wor ked in the home of white o wners and na med Lina , whic h means “a sl iver of hope .” (p. 47). She had no
origin and tried her best to serve her owner in order not to be alone and homeless. She strengthened herself by
religion and pieced belie f.
Rebekka was the mailed bride of Jacob from Britain. Her parents married her to Jacob just because they do
not need to support her anymore. Rebekka didn’t expect too much to marry a stranger far away her home. On
her ship to America, she tho u ght “her p r os pe ct s were se r va nt, prostitute, wife, and although horrib le storie s were
told about each of those careers, the last one seemed safe st.” (pp. 77-78). But her marriage was beyond her ex-
pectation, Jacob was kind to her and called her “my northern star”. They are just like two trees. “They leaned on
each other root and crown.” (p. 87). But thei r fo ur c hil dr e n di ed o ne b y o ne, and followed by the death of Jacob.
The death of her husband left her rootless, no things to lean, to rely on. Without husband, Rebekka cannot live
alone, she re turned t o reli gion to gain re lief. S he was cr uel to he r serva nts beca use she thought her husb and re-
jec te d her . “Re fu sin g to ent er the gr and house, the o ne in who se construct io n s he ha d d eli ghte d, seemed to him a
puni shment not o nly of he rsel f but o f ever yone, her dead husband in particular.” (p. 153). She su ffered spiritual
slavery and hurt people surrounded her.
3.3. Language in A Mercy
Florens, ano the r s lave d fe mal e in t he nove l, al ways wanted to p lease other s. S he wa s also slaved i n spirit. At the
age of sixteen, she fell in love with the blacksmith, who was a free black and hired by Jacob to build his new
house. She loved him so much that she took him as “my shaper and my world as well. It is done. No need to
choose.” (p. 71). She was willing to be his slave. “It is as though I am loose to do what I choose, the stag, the
wall of flowers. I am a little scare of this looseness. Is that how free feels? I don’t like it. I don’t want to be free
of yo u beca use I a m li ve onl y with you.” (p. 70). Her love was doomed to a failure because of the inequality in
spirits. After Jacob was dead, Florens was sent to look for blacksmith to rescue Rebekka. With great effort, she
finally found the blacksmith. He went back to cure Rebekka, left Florens and the little boy he adopted. This
scene made her recall something appeared in her dream. “A minha mãe leans at the door holding her little boy’s
hand, my shoes i n her pocket. As always she is trying to tell me something.(p. 137). She was afraid of being
abandoned again by blacksmith, but it did happened after he returned and found she hurt the little boy because
he destroyed her shoes. However, the real reason is she didn’t own herself.
Because you are a slave.
What is your meaning? I am a slave because Sir trades for me.
No. You have become one.
Your head is empty and your body is wild.
I am adoring you.
And a slave to that too.
You a lone own me .
Own your self, woman, and leave us be. Y ou could have killed this child. (p. 141)
Desperately, Florens returned to Jacob’s house. Near the end of the novel, we found most part of the story
was Florens’ narration. She engraved her words on the wall of a secret room in Jaco b’s new house with a s nail.
These words were her explanation to blacksmith after their quarrel, which c a n hel p t he r ea d er s to und er st a nd t he
begin ni ng of the nove l. “D on ’t b e afra id. M y telli ng ca n’t h urt you in spi te o f what I have d one a nd I promise to
lie quietly in the darkweeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once morebut I will never again
unfol d my li mbs to ris e up an d b are tee th. I e xpla in. You c an t hi nk wha t I tell you a co nfe ssio n, if you li ke.” (p.
1). To her, writing or en graving was a kind of relief because no one to confide and she also knew no one listened
to her. “You won’t read my telling. You read the world but not the letters of talk. You don’t know how to.” (p.
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160). Though no one listened and no one understood, she had to make her voice. This is the way for black
women to find freedom and true selves.
4. Conclusion
By her no vels, Mor rison aimed to reconstruct the missing history of African-Americans. Facing the absence and
distortion of the native history, as a black femi nis t , Morrison showed her principles of feminism in her works.
Oppressed racially and sexually, black women are marginalized and silenced. In her novels, Morrison finds
ways to let them show their feelings. No matter Florence’s carving on the walls, Lina’s recall of her family or
Sor row’ s talk ing t o her ima gi ned t win. M or riso n end o wed b lack wome n wa ys of e xp ress ing t heir pai ns a nd su f-
ferings. B y releasing t heir p ainful past, they ca n gain thei r i d e ntit y a nd s ub j ec tivi t y. T he y c a n fi nally re b uild a nd
shape the mselves.
[1] Davis, C. (1988) Interview with Toni Mor ri son. Presence Africaine, 145, 141-150.
[2] Morrison, T. (1992) Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Harvard University Press, Cam-
[3] Li , S. (2010) Toni Morr i s on: A Bi ography. G reenwood Press, S anta Barbara.
[4] Mori, A. (1999) Toni Morrison and Womanist Discourse. Peter Lang Publishing, New York.
[5] Morrison, T. (2008) Discuses A Mercy with Lynn Neary. National Public Radio Book Tour, Bay City.
[6] Morrison, T. (2008) A Mercy. Random House, New York.