Letters: Toni Morrison

Listeners responded to Monday's interview with author Toni Morrison about her new novel, A Mercy. Morrison talked about her realization while writing the book that many white Americans have ancestors who were slaves. Not all listeners were surprised by that revelation.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now to your comments.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And we got many of them in response to my interview yesterday with the Nobel-winning author Toni Morrison. We talked about her new novel called "A Mercy." Many of the books characters are essentially slaves, but not black slaves.

SIEGEL: Morrison said she was surprised to read about the history of indentured servitude in a book called "White Cargo."

Professor TONI MORRISON (Author, "A Mercy"): There is a sentence in that book that says many white people in the United States are descendants of slaves.

NORRIS: Sure enough, Richard Gissele(ph) of Fairborn, Georgia, told us he was one of them.

SIEGEL: He writes this. "About a year ago, I found out that one of my six great-grandfathers who came over from England in the early 18th century was an indentured servant. Although it was jarring at the time, that revelation was nothing compared to how disturbing it was to hear that the term was in many cases just another name for slave. Well, now we know that we have more in common with a lot of Americans that we ever dreamed."

NORRIS: Caitlin Rabbit(ph) also wrote us a personal story, but she was not surprised to hear about the history of indentured servants. She writes, "My own ancestors were on one side, a motley mostly Irish mix. On the other side, my relatives were Russian immigrants who arrived, albeit circuitously, from a country populated by a few nobility and a whole lot more serfs. Indentured servants were such a major component of colonial America that I've always assumed at least some of my ancestors fit into this category."

SIEGEL: Well, thanks for your emails. You can send them to us by going to npr.org. Click on "Contact Us" at the top of the page.

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Toni Morrison Finds 'A Mercy' In Servitude

When the time came to bestow a title on her newest novel, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison struggled to find just the right word, something that would perfectly describe the book's denouement.

She fiddled around with the word "mercy," but that didn't feel quite right; the book isn't about large-scale compassion or pity or grace, says Morrison.

Then, with the help of her editor, the author put an article in front: A Mercy. With one small word, the title no longer suggested "the large world of people doing nice things or ... religious versions of God's mercy, but a human gesture — just mercy — and that worked for me."

A Mercy is a lyrical novel set in 17th century America. One of the central characters is a black slave girl whose mother gives her up to a stranger in the hope that she will have a better life. But the book also features white and Native American characters who are working in servitude.

Morrison says she wrote the novel in an effort to "remove race from slavery." She notes that in researching the book, she read White Cargo by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, and was surprised to learn that many white Americans are descended from slaves.

"Every civilization in the world relied on [slavery]," says Morrison. "The notion was that there was a difference between black slaves and white slaves, but there wasn't."

White slaves, called indentured servants, were people who traded their freedom for their passage to America.

"The suggestion has always been that they could work off their passage in seven years generally, and then they would be free," says Morrison. "But in fact, you could be indentured for life and frequently were. The only difference between African slaves and European or British slaves was that the latter could run away and melt into the population. But if you were black, you were noticeable."

In the past, Morrison said that she didn't want to write about slavery — that it was too big of a topic. "To enter into that arena just seemed to me like entering into the Atlantic Ocean on a tiny little raft," she says.

But then she wrote Beloved (which later won the Pulitzer Prize), and she realized that the key to writing about slavery was to focus on single characters rather than 300 years of history.

"I realized that I could do it if I had a single narrative about people," says Morrison. "If I simply entered the minds and the bloodstream and the perception of individuals, then it was manageable."

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