In Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, Saidiya Hartman presents a careful meditation on histories of slavery and complicity. The book read to me like an intelligent mind setting itself the task of confronting head-on uncomfortable conjunctions and misalignments, and refusing anything like an easy out. Hartman’s narrative voice seems determined to see through the findings of the journey she has set out on, however confounding, unresolved, and dissatisfying they may end up being.
The book is part recounting of a research stay she undertook in Ghana over the course of just under a year to retrace the slave route along which many human beings were rendered into commodities. She wants to reinscribe their humanness into this story. The book is also part nuanced reflection on her own personal positioning and genealogical imbrication in the histories she is trying to confront. She describes herself as an African American, but wrestles time and again with the ‘African’ in the formulation, as well as its reception and perception by the Africans she encounters in her time on the continent. She calls on renowned thinkers of anticolonial and anti-racism struggles and the aspirational content of their articulations of solidarity for all Black people – but finds them somehow not able to fulfil their potential in the realities and disharmonies she encounters. These loom large in the difficulty she confronts in being viewed, in Ghana, as a foreigner and an outsider, as a rich American privy to privilege and resources many of the local people she encounters envy deeply. In her quest to encounter or fashion some kind of truer history of slavery, she is rebuffed (and sometimes also slightly charmed) in the many ways she is received as a tourist. This is evident, for instance, in her excursions to Elmina Castle on the Ghanaian coast: a fort in which it is possible to visit the actual dungeons in which the humans that were to be made into slaves were kept, chained to the walls without ablutions, sometimes for months, before being forced to board the ships that would take them to lives in the ‘New World’ in which they would be treated as property. (Reading about these dungeons, I couldn’t help but think of parts of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing). The depth of the experiences Hartman hopes to be able to get in touch with at such haunting sites is somehow always disappointed. The things that she is looking for remain elusive.
Another thing she finds herself struggling with enormously is the narrative of slavery she repeatedly encounters as told on the African continent. This narrative oftentimes presents the evils of slavery as solely perpetrated by European invaders. Hartman is at no pains to exonerate Europeans, but she is steadfast in countering this narrative, whenever she hears it, regardless of how awkward this makes many of her meetings, with the role that African peoples played in the slave trade. More than this, she insists on confronting the framing that would produce a stigma around those who are descended from slaves – as she understands herself to be. Here, then, is a fundamental disjunct between her narrative voice’s positioning, and the people living on the African continent she encounters: they view her as a wealthy American and often frame being descended from slaves as something to be brushed under the rug (also so as not to cause shame to the descendent) – Hartman has come to the African continent partly seeking out some kind of kinship that she had hoped and almost believed she might find there, and is determined to look the histories of slavery she encounters squarely in the eye.
Much like the journey the book recounts, this isn’t an easy read. But it’s thought-provoking and compellingly written, and admirable in its refusal to offer any easy solutions or comforting conclusions. It’s a gripping if somewhat melancholy book, offering the combined talents of a meticulous scholar, researcher and thinker, and a gifted and empathetic storyteller.
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