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Category: Writing

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.

Dispossession and the African Diaspora

Thoughts after reading Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds:

First, dispossession is crucial to creating African diasporas.

Dispossession refers to the sense of injustice, the sense that something has been taken: land, goods, labor, religion, art, natural resources, manufacturing, or people. Dispossession is not the same as dispersal, which is necessary to create the conditions of diaspora but alone does not naturally create a diaspora. [For more on elements of diaspora, Kim Butler has a very concise definition in an article entitled, “Defining Diaspora, Refining a Discourse” in a 2001 issue of Diaspora]. Something extra is needed to bring the dispersed population streams into conversation with each other. For the African diaspora, a discourse of dispossession has been central to the construction of a shared identity and politics–even when black populations don’t always agree on what that shared identity and politics means.

For the African diaspora, it is this discourse of dispossession that allows seemingly disparate populations in Canada, New York, Vera Cruz, Port-au-Prince, Bahia and Cartagena to speak to each other. As those conversations have changed over time it is this sense of dispossession that allows new conversations to begin. By following the discourse of dispossession as it waxes and wanes within and between African diaspora populations, scholars can begin to understand how linkages to the African diaspora are created and broken [Tiffany Ruby Patterson and Robin D. G. Kelley].