Beyond the Book: Background information when reading A Mercy

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A Mercy

A Novel

by Toni Morrison

A Mercy
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2008, 176 pages
    Aug 2009, 224 pages

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Amy Reading

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Beyond the Book

American Slavery in the Seventeenth Century
Toni Morrison locates her novel at a moment of transition in American history, the moment when, to use the historian Ira Berlin's terms, a society with slaves became a slaveholding society. British colonialists had owned African slaves ever since the founding of Jamestown, but in the beginning of the seventeenth century, slavery was just one form of labor among many and slave-owners were few.

No laws yet existed to govern this relationship, and African slavery was not yet a legally defined identity. In the mid-Atlantic region, black slaves were treated similarly to white servants and the two groups forged solidarities across racial lines. Neither group was treated well, but slavery was not yet legally protected as a special category of human exploitation in which masters trumped even courts in determining their slaves' lives. Slaves, like servants and indeed like the owners who labored next to them in their ...

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