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Attending to the Dead

“And history is how the secular world attends to the dead.”
–Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

I’ve finished one of the six books on my winter break reading list: Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. I received this book from A.K.F. to inspire me to finish my comprehensive exams. Since those are done (passed!) I am finally getting around to the books I want to read.

At first I was skeptical. Hartman also wrote Scenes of Subjection which I’d heard was a history of slavery and African-American roots tourism that emphasized rupture, dislocation, and anonymity over resistance, resilience, and return. I knew that Lose Your Mother was more speculative, more of a neo-slave narrative. I’d heard her read a chapter at an African diaspora conference at Duke University. But I don’t agree with the we-are-so-lost-and-have-lost-so-much construction of African diaspora history. So I’d–foolishly–never actually picked her book up.

But Lose Your Mother turned out to be the opposite (which teaches me–again–not to listen to rumors about books and actually read them myself). Oh, it definitely dealt with rupture and dispersal, as any history or narrative of the slave route should. But Hartman also discusses return. In the book, she herself is returning to the continent, and she tells the story with all of the awe, frustration and awkwardness of a Martin Delaney or a Paul Cuffee, who, upon arrival, discovers that the motherland or homeland is not what s/he imagined it to be.

Hartman discusses the pain of discovering this, and being reminded of her difference–as an African-American and as a descendant of slaves, as the history of slavery within Africa is both an avoided and dangerously present issue. But Hartman also critically explores the reasons behind her own disparate perception and her lived experience in Ghana, and finds that the roots of the difference are in the different experiences on the slave route, and how slavery in Africa and the slave trade to the Americas are recognized or downplayed in Ghanian public memory.

Hartman presents a meticulously researched historical narrative of the slave trade, slavery in the United States and the Caribbean, and slavery in Africa, roots tourism in Ghana, and African-American repatriation, amongst many other subjects. She then embeds this history within her contemporary visits to Accra, Elmina slave castle, and the once-upon-a-time slave market at Salaga. What she ends up with is the story of her return to Ghana layered above and below by her family’s history of slavery in the Dutch Caribbean and segregation in the United States, Kwame Nkrumah’s relationship to African American repatriation, African American (unwelcomed) activism and (welcomed) cultural tourism in Ghana, and a legacy of slavery and the slave trade that is indigenous to the Ghanian people but related still to the forces of trade, imperialism, colonialism and exploitation that were Atlantic-wide. It is a story about a story that is impossible to tell in any linear fashion, that darts backwards and forwards depending upon the ghosts Hartman discovers on the balcony of her guesthouse outside Elmina in discussion with other African American expats, in the company of a chief at Salaga who will not break national law and reveal the possible slave descent of any of his subjects, or seeing the resilience and struggle of Accra’s citizens when walking the streets in one of many blackouts.

Each step Hartman takes ripples with the past violence of slavery, race, and colonialism. And it is reminiscent of struggles with economic oppression, disfranchisement, violence, health care, and educationacross the African diaspora today–each issue, each headline, and each cataclysmic event is replete with an unspoken history of slavery, racism, segregation, colonialism, and unfinished civil rights revolutions.

Lose Your Mother is an ambitious and fantastic creation of diasporic personal history. At the end of the day, and despite the finality of its title, the book is about ways Africans and African Americans can find and create a common narrative of the history of slavery despite having different experiences with slavery and slave trading. In Lose Your Mother, Hartman demonstrates how crucial history is to understanding the position and politics of blacks in the diaspora today. What I found really inspiring for me, as a historian, was Hartman’s analysis of black history and politics in the last parts of her book:

“For me, returning to the source didn’t lead to the great courts and to the regalia of kings and queens. The legacy that I chose to claim was articulated in the ongoing struggle to escape, stand down, and defeat slavery in all of its myriad forms. It was the fugitives legacy.”

The way the past is remembered and the way it is presented should be a battlefield because the way we tell our history says everything about how we understand our present and where we go in the future. Barbara Ransby writes that Ella Baker understood that the struggle for civil rights was an on-going struggle. That is to say, the triumphs of the movement did not signal an end to the struggle but were small successes along the way. This is the (slave) fugitive’s legacy. Had Ella Baker been a fraction less dynamic (and Barbara Ransby as well) her story might be unnamed and considered unknowable as well.

[Updated: 6 July 2012]

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  1. lex lex May 27, 2008

    Fugitive comrade! Does this mean you were at the Diasporic Hegemonies conference and I missed the chance to hang out with you? Sad. Won’t happen again. Thanks for this post. I really agree with your reading of Lose Your Mother. When that book came in the mail I spent all day and night reading it.

    I look forward to talking more about how the way you cite (almost) lost historical fugitive women participates in the mothering part of “Lose Your Mother.” I am, as always, really fascinated with what the word mother might mean. For you, for us. Beyond us.

    Also I’d love it if you could teach me how to do that cool “people i quote” function on my blog. Brilliant.

  2. lex lex May 27, 2008

    Oh also…Kenyon Farrow has a great review of Lose Your Mother in issue 28 of Left Turn!

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