From Pre-Racial to Post-Racial? Reading and Reviewing A Mercy in the Age of Obama

By Cantiello, Jessica Wells | MELUS, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

From Pre-Racial to Post-Racial? Reading and Reviewing A Mercy in the Age of Obama


Cantiello, Jessica Wells, MELUS


Published in America on November 11, 2008, one week alter Barack Obama's election, Toni Morrison's A Mercy has become coupled with that event through reviews, interviews, and public "conversations" that Morrison gave in a number of major cities. This phenomenon is somewhat unsurprising, given Morrison's role as a public intellectual and in light of her unprecedented endorsement of Barack Obama in January of 2008. Indeed, at least some of the buzz was premeditated: the publisher pushed forward the release of the text to coincide with the election (Morrison, "Mercy"). Obama and then-current politics are ubiquitous presences in the reviews of A Mercy. While some aspects of the book work well for this type of reading, the tendency to emphasize certain comparisons, particularly the semantic relationship between Morrison's use of pre-racial to describe the novel's late-seventeenth-century racial landscape and the media's use of post-racial to describe Obama's America, simplifies and at times misreads the complexity of the racial relationships Morrison explores in the text. The reviewers' confusion crystallizes around the character of Sorrow, a confusion that Morrison insists upon but reviewers try to explain away. Paradoxically, although many reviewers want to use A Mercy to make arguments about the fluidity of race in contemporary America, taken together, the reviews insist on an antiquated racial binary, while the text itself posits a more fluid conception of race. Reactions to the text, which describes the beginnings of the processes by which race would be invented and constructed in the United States, expose the permanence of that construction in the present day. (1)

By and large, the reviewers of A Mercy do not separate the text from its moment of publication. While reviewers such as Lenora Todaro and Jennifer Reese describe the text as a "creation myth," many others see it as a look back at the past that is meant to tell us something about the future, noting that at this historical moment, the future of America was inexorably tied to Obama. In short, the argument goes, it is a good book, but it is made even better by the context in which it is published, an ethos exemplified by commentators who characterize the text as "a timely reminder," "a thought-provoking bookend to the era we are entering" (Morrison, "Windows"), and "a spellbinding story of early America [that] is uniquely resonant at this moment in history" (Carey). (2) Even the negative reviews of the book invoke its relationship to the present. One faults Morrison for creating a historical tableau with too much contemporary resonance: "In short, A Mercy resembles its creator's own art, which is far less of a portrait of what 17th-century America was or could have been, given its unintentionally comic stereotypes and historical inaccuracies, than it is a guide to its author's litany of [contemporary] political, social, sexual, and moral grievances" (Miller 64). (3)

Particularly in the international press, reviewers read the text as a rumination on the American psyche, a historical examination of what "went wrong," and a reminder that the United States has a legacy of racism that still needs to be addressed (Carey). Tim Adams, reviewing the book for The Observer before the election results were in, points to the division of the United States along racial lines: "That this book will be published in the week before her nation may choose a President who for the first time could eclipse that divide, who could make 'them' 'us,' lends it a fundamental resonance." Canada's Globe and Mail reviewer characterizes A Mercy as "a devastating examination of the conditions that have led to the nation that is the United States, for all its recent optimism with Barack Obama as president-elect. The chains of the past are difficult to break" (Van Herk). The Irish Times points out that "it is impossible not to read A Mercy in the context of the present political dilemma lacing the US," an assertion that is borne out by references in most of the reviews, and asserts that "present day, pre-election America continues to lick its wounds" (Battersby). …

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