Lose Your Mother: A Journey Across the Atlantic Slave Route, by Saidiya Hartman
From the New York Times, on 11 February 2007, "Erasing Slavery," by Elizabeth Schmidt: Saidiya Hartman’s story of retracing the routes of the Atlantic slave trade in Ghana is an original, thought-provoking meditation on the corrosive legacy of slavery from the 16th century to the present and a welcome illustration of the powers of innovative scholarship to help us better understand how history shapes identity. But the book is also — this must be stressed — splendidly written, driven by this writer’s prodigious narrative gifts. She combines a novelist’s eye for telling detail (“My appearance confirmed it: I was the proverbial outsider. Who else sported vinyl in the tropics?”) with the blunt, self-aware voice (“On the really bad days, I felt like a monster in a cage with a sign warning: ‘Danger, snarling Negro. Keep away’ ”) of those young writers who have revived the American coming-of-age story into something more engaging and empathetic than the tales of redemption or of the exemplary life well lived, patterned on Henry Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass.
Hartman’s main focus in “Lose Your Mother” is shaking up our abstract, and therefore forgettable, appreciation for a tragedy wrought on countless nameless, faceless Africans. She makes us feel the horror of the African slave trade, by playing with our sense of scale, by measuring the immense destruction and displacement through its impact on vivid, imperfect, flesh-and-blood individuals — Hartman herself, the members of her immediate family she pushes away but mulls over, the Ghanaians she meets while doing her field work and the slaves whose lives she imaginatively reconstructs from the detritus of slavery’s records.
Her own journey begins in the stacks of the Yale library, where as a graduate student she came across a reference to her maternal great-great-grandmother in a volume of slave testimony from Alabama. Her excitement at finding a sign of her family’s past was undercut by her great-great- grandmother’s brief reply when asked what she remembered of being a slave: “Not a thing.” Hartman, while “crushed” to hear so little of her ancestor’s voice, turns negation into possibility, into all that can be communicated by such reticence: “I recognized that a host of good reasons explained my great-great-grandmother’s reluctance to talk about slavery with a white interviewer in Dixie in the age of Jim Crow.” Years later, after Hartman had begun work on this book, she returned to those interviews and could find no trace of the reference. She scoured the library for misshelved volumes, reread five surrounding volumes, reviewed her early notes but never found that paragraph imprinted in her memory, “the words filling less than half a page, the address on Clark Street, the remarks about her appearance, all of which where typed up by a machine in need of new ribbon.”
Hartman’s desire to know about slavery is thwarted at every turn: by grandparents who refuse to talk about the subject, by parents and a brother who urge her to stop brooding about the past and get on with her life, by the Ghanaians she encounters who either avoid the topic of slavery entirely or make it into a generic tourist attraction, and above all, by the huge gaps she encounters in her archival work, as the vanishing act of her great-great-grandmother’s testimony illustrates. Hartman’s response to what she calls the “non-history” of the slave fuels her drive “to fill in the blank spaces of the historical record and to represent the lives of those deemed unworthy of remembering.”
Hartman, the author of “Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America,” selects Ghana because it provides a vivid backdrop against which to understand how people with families, towns, religions and rich cultural lives lost all traces of identity. Ghana had “more dungeons, prisons and slave pens than any other country in West Africa,” she notes. “Nine slave routes traversed Ghana. In following the trail of captives from the hinterland to the Atlantic coast, I intend to retrace the process by which lives were destroyed and slaves born.” But Hartman, who “dreamed of living in Ghana” since college, is also interested in the country’s more recent centrality in the Pan-African movement since its independence in 1957, when the first president, Kwame Nkrumah, opened up the country to members of the African diaspora, creating a Ghana whose slogan was “Africa for Africans at home and abroad.”
In contemporary post-Nkrumah Ghana, Hartman confronts her own sense of pure Generation X despondency: “I had come to Ghana too late and with too few talents. I couldn’t electrify the country or construct a dam or build houses or clear a road or run a television station or design an urban water system or tend to the sick or improve the sanitation system or revitalize the economy or cancel the debt. No one had invited me. I was just ... about as indispensable as a heater in the tropics.”
No one will talk to her directly about slavery. It’s old news for those progress-minded people focusing on Ghana’s many current social and economic woes, and it’s too painful for others who want to avoid the collective guilt of remembering the ways Africans in the former Gold Coast facilitated the slave trade. As the Ghanaian poet Kofi Anyidoho says, “We knew we were giving away our people, we were giving them away for things.”
By the end of her stay in Africa, Hartman faces the fact that she hasn’t found “the signpost that pointed the way to those on the opposite shore of the Atlantic.” She has had to rely primarily on her imagination in reconstructing the lives of particular slaves. But just as she gleaned something in her great-great-grandmother’s refusal to engage, she hears something beyond “the story I had been trying to find” in a small, walled town in the interior, one of the few places where the slave raids had been resisted: “In Gwolu, it finally dawned on me that those who stayed behind,” the survivors of the slave trade, “told different stories than the children of the captives dragged across the sea.” (source: The New York Times, Elizabeth Schmidt)
Journeying along a slave route in Ghana, following the trail of captives from the hinterland to the Atlantic coast, Saidiya Hartman retraces the history of the Atlantic slave trade from the fifteenth to the twentieth century and reckons with the blank slate of her own genealogy. There were no survivors of Hartman's lineage, nor far-flung relatives in Ghana of whom she had come in search. She traveled to Ghana in search of strangers. The most universal definition of the slave is a stranger torn from kin and country. To lose your mother is to suffer the loss of kin, to forget your past, and to inhabit the world as a stranger.