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Toni Morison's Discussion on A Mercy

An Experience of a Lifetime

By Cathleen Schandelmeier-Bartels
On November 9, 2010

Thunderous applause and a  standing  ovation greeted Toni Morrison as she stepped onto the stage at Symphony Center to discuss her book, A Mercy. Morrison—humbly dressed, with her grey and black braids pulled into a large ponytail extending mid-way down her back—sat on a red chair and sipped water. A sign advertising her book A Mercy, which was named the "One Book: One Chicago" selection for Fall 2010, was on her left, along with the picture of a black bird facing her, as if held captive.

This was no ordinary book talk.  

Morrison was introduced by Mary Dempsey, head of the Chicago Public Library, as "an icon of American letters"—a title that she has certainly earned. From her first book, The Bluest Eye, to her latest, A Mercy, Morrison has many well-deserved honors because of her unique ability to write historically accurate, richly poetic and deeply moving representations of the black experience in America. She also earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, and went on to become the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Morrison praised the Chicago Public Library for their extensive research on the background of A Mercy; instead of covering the history of the novel, she wanted audience members to read the in-depth analysis given in the program for the event. Although she had forgotten the name of the rebellion in Virginia that is covered in the book, Morrison found the name (the Bacon Rebellion) in the program. According to Morrison, "Chicago should be complimented constantly for ‘One Book: One Chicago.' She went on to discuss the consequences of racism as being self-loathing, misidentification, and much more than "just atmosphere."  

Morrison said that the idea for her first book, The Bluest Eye, sprang from a conversation she had with a childhood friend when they were about nine or ten years old. While they were talking about the existence of God, her friend said she did not believe in him; when Morrison asked why, her friend replied, "Because I've been praying for blue eyes for two years and I still don't have them."

She then took a step back and considered the beauty of her friend: she was perfectly proportioned, with flawless brown skin and big, brown eyes.  She thought that if her friend had blue eyes, she would be grotesque. This experience led Morrison into a lifetime inquiry into the idea of race.  

"No one is born racist," said Morrison. It is a culturally accepted and institutionalized set of beliefs. Her goal for A Mercy was to explore whether America really started out like that, so she decided to write about the period of time before the Salem witch trials in 1690.

Morrison discussed how slavery and race are not inseparable by noting that Greece was built by slave labor, and that Russia needed serfs at one time to survive.  She said most of the people who came to America early on risked their lives to be here because they were being shot, drawn and quartered for religious reasons. They were left looking at their own entrails and being thrown in the river over religion because religion is bloody.

Bacon's Rebellion was interesting to Morrison because it was unique in that it was a rebellion of landed gentry, indentured servants, slaves and yeoman, all of whom decided to get rid of the governor. After Bacon's Rebellion, new laws were enacted in Virginia that said "no black person can own a weapon." The laws also said that any white person could maim or kill a black person without any reason, and not receive punishment.

This was allowed because there needed to be a distribution of some type of power to people who had nothing, and this gave them status.

"The function of racism is dysfunction," said Morrison. "Our job as human beings who have cultivated language is to become better human beings. It is what corn, cabbage, collard greens and rabbits do! With each generation, everything tries to be a better thing of its own species, and so should we!"

Then, in a soft bedtime story voice, she read the beginning and end of A Mercy to those fortunate enough to be in the Symphony Center. Grown adults were holding their breath while listening to this master storyteller with rapt attention.

Once the story was through, to Morrison's delight, Dempsey gave her the framed catalogue card of A Mercy from the Chicago Public Library. Morrison left as she arrived, with everyone on their feet, showering Morrison with applause for the experience of a lifetime.

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