I’m only 100 pages into this stunning book but I am totally and completely captivated by it.
I have been studying the history of slavery for a while now and one of the things that is a MAJOR challenge for the field is how to deal with both the brutality of the system and the legacy that the system created. Everyone knows the system was brutal so how do you write about that without capitalizing on it or sensationalizing it? And it’s very tricky, especially as a historian, to write about the legacy of slavery without being charged with being teleological (starting from the present and seeing how the past explains it instead of trying to understand the past on its own terms) or moralistic.
In the end, I’m not as concerned about the moralistic part because I never doubt for a second ever that the history I do, the work I create, the stories I am drawn to are because of how I view the world through my own lens of morality. Objectivity is never my aim or my goal.
But the other things — sensationalizing violence and being teleological — are concerns of mine. And they are things that people in the field focus on and talk about and obsess over, as they should.
Yet, I often find myself reading articles and books by fabulous historians of slavery or the slave trade that feel sterile, rarely include individual actors, and are so rooted in their time that they suggest nothing about what comes after the end of slavery. And I think that this causes us to be able to draw big giant lines between SLAVERY and NO SLAVERY, as if when the former dispersed, morphed, disappeared, the latter came into effect and there is little that connects them (especially when we talk institutionally about capitalism or science – we can easily forget that the modern version wouldn’t exist if not the for terrible racist beginnings that underpin the system even today).
The one space where this is NOT true is in the study of racism, civil rights, and racial justice. There we can see the direct connections between slavery and emancipation. But now that we exist in a supposed post-civil rights era and having elected our first president with not-white skin or a clear European ancestry, we have people arguing that slavery is an old issue, one that matters little, its effects, if there are any, are simply the tiniest of tiny ripples from the 19th century.
In thinking about all of these things as I write my own dissertation on slavery (one that rarely includes mention of violence, at least so far), I am more and more aware of how much work it takes to ignore the legacy of slavery beyond the time period I work on, to cast aside feelings of moral imperative, and to leave out stories of violence or death that grab your heart and hold on tight.
That is why reading Saidiya Hartman‘s breathtaking Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route is refreshing. It’s also heart wrenching and hard. I love every sentence of it and yet I can only take it in small doses, lest I get worn down by the sheer magnitude and the reality of her words.
The book is about Hartman’s search for her own identity, as her ancestors were slaves and thus her family tree only stretches a few generations back. She went to Ghana, not looking for family, but looking for acceptance, a place where she belonged. Surely Ghana would be a place that a black woman would be welcomed and accepted. Surely there race was not a factor and being black was not a burden. Yet, Ghana, like most (all?) of Africa is post-colonial and it has its own issues of racism, poverty, and pain. Hartman was not accepted, she was treated as an outsider, and she came to understand that the legacy that slavery has left in Ghana is as tragic and terrible as the one left to black people in the US (as she herself writes, “Black life was even more expendable in Africa than in the United States; only the particulars varied.”). She is trying to understand what it means to be the physical legacy of a system that enslaved and killed millions of people for a profit:
I am a reminder that twelve million crossed the Atlantic Ocean and the past is not yet over. I am the progeny of the captives. I am the vestige of the dead. And history is how the secular world attends to the dead. (p. 18)
Her journey is enlightening and it is intense. And it is worth your time.
I feel like I will probably be coming back to this text again on this blog when I reach the end, but today I just want to share two passages to drive home not only the amazing content of this work but also Hartman’s beautiful prose style.
First, her explanation of how capitalism was built on the bodies of the enslaved, the living and the dead (pg. 31):
For every slave who had arrived in the Americas, at least one and perhaps as many as five persons died in wars of capture, on the trek to the coast, imprisoned in barracoons, lingering in teh belly of a ship, or crossing the Atlantic. Death also awaited them in pesthouses, cane fields, and the quarters. Historians still debate whether twelve million or sixty million had been sentenced to death to meet the demands of the transatlantic commerce in black bodies.
Impossible to fathom was that all this death had been incidental to the acquisition of profit and to the rise of capitalism. Today we might describe it as collateral damage. The unavoidable losses created in pursuit of the greater objective. Death wasn’t a goal of its own but just a by-product of commerce, which has had the lasting effect of making negligible all the millions of lives lost. Incidental death occurs when life has no normative value, when no humans are involved, when the population is, in effect, seen as already dead. Unlike the concentration camp, the gulag, and the killing field, which had as their intended end the extermination of a population, the Atlantic trade created millions of corpses, but as a corollary to the making of commodities. To my eyes this lack of intention didn’t diminish the crime of slavery but from the vantage of judges, juries, and insurers exonerated the culpable agents. In effect, it made it easier for a trader to countenance yet another dead black body or for a captain to dump a shipload of captives into the sea in order to collect the insurance, since it wasn’t possible to kill cargo or to murder a thing already denied life. Death was simply a part of the workings of the trade.
Finally, Hartman talking about Elmina, the Ghana coastal city where so many people boarded boats to America, the place where they began the often deadly journey of the Middle Passage (pg. 54):
I scanned the town, hungry for a detail or trace of the hundreds of thousands of persons deported from the Gold Coast. I tried to imagine how many sacked villages and abandoned dwellings and destroyed families and orphaned children made up this number. But I was unable to translate a string of zeros into human figures or to hear the clamor of slaves assembled on the beach or to catch a whiff of their fear as they stood before the ocean. I tried to calculate how long it would have taken to embrace each one and whisper good-bye. If each farewell took as long as a minute, it would have added up to seven hundred and seventy-seven days, a little over two years, which didn’t seem like enough time. Besides, there had been no one to see them off and say I love you and we will never forget you. These words were of no use now.