Chapter 12 takes up Florens’s mother’s first person narrative, addressing Florens. She describes how she knew that men would soon begin noticing Florens’s developing breasts. Florens’s mother thought that no good could come of a romance even if it were with someone like Figo, who is kind. Florens’s mother remembers how Figo used to play with Florens in the yard. Florens’s mother thinks how her love could not offer Florens any protection, especially with Florens’s precocious affinity for shoes.
The opening of Florens’s mother’s narrative shows immediately that, unlike what Florens believes, her mother cares deeply about her. Like Lina, her mother worries about the influence of romance on young Florens’s life, highlighting the fact that traumatic romantic relationships are a common experience among women.
Florens’s mother tells Florens that the catechism has nothing in it against slavery and its evils. Florens’s mother hoped that the Reverend teaching them to read would help them. The Reverend taught them to read because he believed it was right, despite the fact that it was illegal.
Although the Reverend is kind to Florens’s family, Florens’s mother notes that the catechism is not explicitly anti-slavery, highlighting how religion fails to address the moral problem of human bondage.
Florens’s mother remembers when Jacob came to eat at the D’Ortegas’ house, and how he did not like the food or the company. She remembers how he never looked at her “the way Senhor [D’Ortega] does,” and thinks he is not an animal like D’Ortega.
Florens’s evaluation that Jacob, unlike D’Ortega, is not an “animal” inverts the typical racist slaveholder rationale that slavery is acceptable since slaves are like animals.
Florens’s mother admits that she does not know who Florens’s father was. Florens was conceived when Florens’s mother and several other slave women were gang raped at D’Ortega’s instruction.
Florens’s mother’s rape shows the unimaginable violence of slavery, and how it makes women especially vulnerable.
Florens’s mother thinks about the constant struggles over land and power in Angola, where she came from. She recounts men burning each other’s houses and how she was moved around because of these power struggles. She remembers being locked in a pen with other slaves, sold to white men, and put on a canoe with white men as guards. On the boat, some slaves tried to jump out and were killed by sharks. Then they were transferred to a ship full of rats and human waste, where they were lashed and wished to die.
As Florens’s mother begins to describe her journey from Angola to the colonies as a slave, the horror of the slave trade is revealed in full force. In contrast to D’Ortega’s detached descriptions of slave ships, Florens’s mother’s account gives a first-person, emotional narrative of the inhumanity of slave ships and the violence she endured.
Florens’s mother remembers them talking about Barbados onboard, and wishing she were dead. When they finally arrived in Barbados, Florens’s mother was relieved by the clean air and being able to stand up straight. She was put in a pen and the white men conducted tests on them to see their physical abilities. Florens’s mother then went to work in the cane fields. In Barbados, Florens’s mother was treated for the first time not like a person from her country or her family, but like a “negrita.” She notes how all of her traditions became irrelevant to the white people overseeing her, and only her skin color was important to them.
As Florens’s mother arrives in Barbados, the reader must think of Jacob’s investments there, and how he believed that he could profit from the slave trade while keeping it far away and so remain morally clean. Florens’s mother’s account dashes that belief by forcing the reader to connect Jacob’s investments with the real harm done to people like Florens’s mother. Morrison also identifies the conflation of African identities into one black identity as a kind of cultural violence.
D’Ortega then bought Florens’s mother and shipped her to his tobacco farm, where Florens’s mother was gang raped. The men who did it later apologized to her, and an overseer gave her an orange. The silver lining of the trauma, Florens’s mother notes, is her children.
Florens’s mother’s rape is even more disturbing when the reader considers that it was ordered by D’Ortega, and so the men who raped her may also have been unwilling. Only motherhood consoles her.
When D’Ortega began sexually abusing her, Florens’s mother tried to tell the Reverend, but he did not believe her and only told her to pray. Florens’s mother tried to protect Florens from the same abuse by putting a cloth around her chest, but she catches D’Ortega’s eye anyway. When Jacob came, Florens’s mother thought that it was her only chance to save her daughter. Florens’s mother begged Jacob to take Florens in order to keep her away from D’Ortega.
As Florens develops from a child into an adolescent, Florens’s mother begins worrying that D’Ortega will sexually abuse her daughter like he does her. In the ultimate selfless sacrifice, Florens’s mother gives up her daughter to Jacob, who she believes will not hurt her the way D’Ortega would.
When Jacob says he will take Florens, Florens’s mother thinks it is not a miracle from a god but a “mercy” from a human. Florens’s mother kneels before Jacob to thank him. She prays that Florens will understand why she begged him to take her, ending the book by begging Florens to “hear” her.
Jacob’s act of mercy highlights the completely unjust power dynamics of slavery, in which all a mother can do to protect her children is appeal to white men who will decide to help or hurt only on a whim. This tragic finale gives the novel its title—the “mercy” comes from Jacob’s casual decision—and also shows how the inhuman institution of slavery has insured that Florens’s mother’s ultimate message, despite her desperate wish, was not passed on to Florens, who does not recognize her mother’s sacrifice and continues to believe that she abandoned her out of preference for her brother.