- Slavery’s Ghosts and the Haunted Housing Crisis:On Narrative Economy and Circum-Atlantic Memory in Toni Morrison’s A Mercy
The overweening, defining event of the modern world is the mass movement of raced populations, beginning with the largest forced transfer of people in the history of the world: slavery.—Toni Morrison (“Home” 10)
There is no inheritance without a call to responsibility. An inheritance is always the reaffirmation of a debt, but a critical, selective, and filtering reaffirmation, which is why we distinguished several spirits.—Jacques Derrida (68)
The 2008 Housing Crisis1 cannot be fully considered without accounting for circum-Atlantic slavery, and separating the two events from each other via a strict periodization that contains the past as discrete from the present ignores the hauntology of circum-Atlantic memory that continues to exert force on the present.2 In Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (1996), Joseph Roach theorizes circum-Atlantic memory as a process of simultaneous remembering and forgetting in which what has been officially “forgotten” lingers on the margins of what has been remembered, such that the present as it is imagined feels the influence of the suppressed past. With this in mind, I turn to Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy (2008), a book about slavery published during the Crisis, to consider what “call to responsibility” (Derrida 68) comes with the inheritance of “the largest forced transfer of people in the history of the world” (Morrison, “Home” 10). Thinking of these events appositionally by considering Morrison’s novel and the Crisis enables an ethics of responsibility deeply grounded in the intimacy, if not the coconstitutive existence, of the past and the present.
Rather than a story of the creation of a utopic sanctuary where the project of democracy would flourish—the kind of story told, for example, in many elementary school classrooms or Fourth of July backyard barbecues—A Mercy offers homelessness, displacement, disease, unpaid labor, abuse, and squandered mobility—a crisis of housing and home. This crisis appears by way of an enslaved [End Page 116] African girl named Florens and her displacement onto the farm of Jacob Vaark, who relies on the institution of slavery to finance the building of his third house in which he never gets to live. Jacob dies before this house is finished being built, and his wife-become-widow, Rebekka, “refuse[s] to enter the grand house, the one in whose construction she had delighted” (Morrison, Mercy 179). This empty house stands at the novel’s end as material excess, and Florens fantasizes about burning it to the ground after secretly writing her story on its inner walls (189). After reaping the material benefits of slavery, Rebekka uses her power on the estate to bar her laborers from the fruits of their labor, even putting Florens up for sale, illustrating the economics underpinning the narrative: slavery provides capital, but enslaved workers must be sacrificed to produce this capital.
Ultimately, A Mercy’s engagement with excess and power ruptures linear timelines and event containment—especially in the chapter narrated by Florens’s mother, a minha mãe.3 Florens spends her entire narrative trying to come to terms with her sale (9). She is never able to escape her reading of the event as her mother choosing her baby brother over her, not because she is a poor reader but because the institution of slavery prevents her from learning alternative timelines that could rupture her containment of the moment within the frame of her mother’s choice. Scholarship on A Mercy has thoroughly analyzed the interrupted dialogue between Florens and her mother concerning this scene. These compelling arguments, such as those offered by Jean Wyatt and Maxine Montgomery, tend to focus on Florens (as a reader and producer of signs) rather than the reading strategies invoked by Morrison’s novel as a novel. Building on this work by looking at how Florens reads her mother and how such a reading is structured by the text’s narrative economy as it is underpinned by economic relationships can help readers consider what happens when we read a narrative that is tightly contained by definite...