Black woman writer, author and scholar Tiya Miles is inspired by and gives credit and mention to fellow Black woman writer Saidiya Hartman in her book, All That She Carried. That is how I first heard about Saidiya Hartman and became intrigued enough to order one of her books, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. In reading it, I felt I had tapped the surface of a rich vein of brilliant thinkers currently at work in our culture: a large population of Black women academic writers who are doing important and world changing work.
Two of them are Tiya Miles and Saidiya Hartman. I immersed myself into Hartman’s book, unable to put it down, swooning over the intelligence and poignancy of the words of the writer and the way forward beginning to emerge from her genius mind.
Lose Your Mother is the memoir-travelogue of Hartman’s time in Ghana exploring the places where Africans were captured, sold, and imprisoned before being boarded onto ships to make their journey across the Atlantic as unfree people. Hartman went to Ghana as a tourist in 1996. She returned for a year as a Fulbright Scholar in 1997 traveling through many of the countries involved with the Atlantic slave trade on a search and discovery mission. As a Black American descended from those who were sold and enslaved, she had questions she wanted answered, issues she wanted to research and a drive to understand more.
“I arrived in Ghana intent upon finding the remnants of those who had vanished. It’s hard to explain what propels a quixotic mission, or why you miss people you don’t even know, or why skepticism doesn’t lessen longing. The simplest answer is that I wanted to bring the past closer. I wanted to understand how the ordeal of slavery began. I wanted to comprehend how a boy came to be worth three yards of cotton cloth and a bottle of rum or a woman equivalent to a basketful of cowries. I wanted to cross the boundary that separated kin from stranger. I wanted to tell the story of the commoners—the people made the fodder of the slave trade and pushed into remote and desolate regions to escape captivity”(17).
Hartman is looking for information on what happened before the ocean crossing, before imprisonment in the dungeons and even before capture and sale. A memory or memories or stories of those who were sold, stolen, captured, sent across the ocean, kept in dungeons, those who thereby “lost their mother,” their ancestors, their homes and homeland.
Hartman is attempting to recover traces of things to recognize as her own, to claim her ancestry, her origin story, her family, her past beyond the event of slavery. But it is chillingly blank. The two experiences: those who were sold and those who sold them unable to meet in any middle that accommodates the needs of both.
“What connection had endured after four centuries of dispossession? The question of before was no less vexed since there was no collective or Pan-African identity that preexisted the disaster of the slave trade. Were desire and imagination enough to bridge the rift of the Atlantic?”(29).
She does end up finding a third storyline: those who fled the slave traders and village invaders in Africa thereby escaping slavery and carrying a story of survival in West Africa. She does find one village willing to tell that story. It is a proud story for them. But it is not the story Hartman is looking for.
In the journey that we accompany Hartman on in Lose Your Mother, we learn, through painstaking detail and from many different perspectives, the history of the Atlantic slave trade, her relationship to this history and its aftermath both in Africa and the United States. As she carries the questions on her heart through West Africa, we follow her into the dungeons where humans were kept once captured and the reality of the boat trips across the ocean. We are with her as she locates villages known to have been centers of slave trading in West Africa, to the locations of the slave markets, as she questions villagers, anyone, who may remember stories, or even families of people who were sold. All this searching exposes her to further pain, and yet, she continues, determined to find something meaningful to try to make some sense of how to move forward.
She questions the myth and idea of return: return to what and to where as well as the pain in the fallacy of return.
“The rebels, the come, go back, child, and I are all returnees, circling back to times past, revisiting the routes that might have led to alternative presents, salvaging the dreams unrealized and defeated, crossing over to parallel lives. The hope is that return could resolve the old dilemmas, make a victory out of defeat, and engender a new order. And the disappointment is that there is no going back to a former condition. Loss remakes you. Return is as much about the world to which you no longer belong as it is about the one in which you have yet to make a home.
I shall return to my native land. Those disbelieving in the promise and refusing to make the pledge have no choice but to avow the loss that inaugurates one’s existence. It is bound to other promises. It is to lose your mother always”(100).
The book, Lose Your Mother, wants to focus on unasked questions and unanswered longings. The book wants to address slavery and its repercussions in a vastly larger way. The book wants to understand return in a different way, the book wants to speak differently, to understand more and to ask new questions and forge new pathways forward, the ones covered by the overgrowth.
“The slave is always the stranger who resides in one place and belongs in another. The slave is always the one missing from home. Being an outsider permits the slave’s uprooting and her ‘reduction from a person to a thing that can be owned’…The transience of the slave’s existence still leaves its traces in how black people imagine home as well as how we speak of it. We may have forgotten our country, but we haven’t forgotten our dispossession. It’s why we never tire of dreaming of a place that we can call home, a place better than here, wherever here might be”(87).
Hartman’s writing style invites the reader into an intimacy entrancing enough to make one want to stick around even as the information becomes more and more difficult to read. She leads the reader on her quest in such a way that they begin to have their own questions arise along side hers based on their own personal biography.
My relationship to the material is different from hers since my ancestors are not from West Africa. My sense of culpability as a white American are carried with me into the reading of this book and yet, there is room for me to ask my own questions and get my own answers even as she gets hers. We travel together through her personal biography, the history of the African slave trade, the reality of its descendants and both want to know more about what came before. Questions about before lead Hartman and her reader into unknown terrain. It is only Hartman’s bravery that allows us to enter there.
It is only Hartman’s courage that allows us to emerge with the one true question on our hearts: what now? What is the way forward when you have lost your mother or been complicit in another’s losing of their mother?
First: we must fully explore the past. Second: we must disabuse ourselves of fantasies that keep us from moving forward. We must know what can in fact be salvaged and what must in fact be laid down and walked away from. We must be able to look the full truth of history in the eyes and then sort what is worth keeping. We must find some remnant of what we may call hope and follow that in to the place of old/new stories. To hear the old/new stories, barely audible which yet ask to be heard. They live in what is not said. The silences. The long pauses. The awkward gestures and overtures. It is the haunting that must be addressed. The ghosts who must be listened to.
Hartman’s work tells us that the true work is in filling in the spaces between the lines in history books, the gaps on the library shelves, the biographies untold. That is the way forward. We must choose quiet now. We must listen with ears that can hear for all that is unsaid. For as Hartman asserts, it is not solely the event of slavery that still hounds and hurts Black Americans but the fact that they are still unfree. According to Hartman, one does not necessarily cause the other. The fact that they were unfree then does not necessarily lead to the fact that they are still unfree today. But the fact that they are still unfree today gives the past more power and resonance in the present.
It didn’t have to turn out this way. But we didn’t fix what actually needed fixing.
It is not because of the experience of slavery that Black Americans are still unfree but because the causes and forces that created the Atlantic slave trade are still at work in our culture today. Therefore enslavement for financial gain of the powers-that-be and humans as commodity and “how a boy came to be worth three yards of cotton cloth and a bottle of rum or a woman equivalent to a basketful of cowries” is still the reality of Black Americans.
“I too, live in the time of slavery, by which I mean I am living in the future created by it. It is the ongoing crisis of citizenship. Questions first posed in 1773 about the disparity between”the sublime ideal of freedom” and the “facts of blackness” are uncannily relevant today. …History doesn’t unfold with one era bound to and determining the next in an unbroken chain of causality. It is “without providence or final cause” writes Foucault. “There is only ‘the iron hand of necessity shaking the dice-box of chance’…the past is neither inert nor given. The stories we tell about what happened then, the correspondences we discern between today and times past, and the ethical and political stakes of these stories redound in the present. If slavery feels proximate rather than remote and freedom seems increasingly elusive, this has everything to do with your own dark times. If the ghost of slavery still haunts our present, it is because we are still looking for an exit from the prison”(133).
What’s next? What now? How to move forward? Start with Saidiya Hartman and consider yourself in good hands.
Saidiya Hartman is a Nasty Woman Writer.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2021
Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
Featured photo credit: Jai Lennard