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Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route

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Whenever he was drunk, Mary Ellen would say, "We're losing my husband," as if to assure herself that the belligerent man tottering through the living room wasn't the same man she had married. They cast a harsh light on the limits of our imagination, underscore our shortsightedness, and replicate the disasters of the world we seek to escape. Of course I knew black people had been enslaved and that I was descended from slaves, but slavery was vague and faraway to me, like the embarrassing incidents adults loved to share with you about some incredulous thing you had done as a toddler but of which you had no memory. I don't know if it was the bare bones of Ella's story or the hopefulness and despair that lurked in Poppa's words as he recounted it, as if he were weighing the promise of freedom against the vast stretches of stolen land before him, that made me eager to know more than what Poppa remembered or wanted to share.

The brisk clip of my speech, flattened vowels, and sounds trapped in the dome of my mouth, expiring from lack of air, branded me the foreigner. She was also wearing of feeling like a stranger, homeless within the home, the continued statelessness. I peered from behind the heavy gold curtains and saw soldiers and jeeps and armored tanks moving along the streets of the capital. When the path home disappeared, when misfortune wore a white face, when dark skin guaranteed perpetual servitude, the prison house of race was born.It was not until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that the line between the slave and the free separated Africans and Europeans and hardened into a color line. As I grew to love John and Mary Ellen, I pretended not to see the pain and isolation of their exile, not to notice what living in Ghana had cost them. I was surprised that it had all seemed so familiar: the betrayal of freedom and the sickening despair and aching emptiness experienced after the beauty of the first days of independence had passed. When my headache finally subsided, I decided to walk to the ocean to sort out the jumble of painful facts and awful details that I had worked so diligently to learn.

Hartman, while “crushed” to hear so little of her ancestor’s voice, turns negation into possibility, into all that can be communicated by such reticence: “I recognized that a host of good reasons explained my great-great-grandmother’s reluctance to talk about slavery with a white interviewer in Dixie in the age of Jim Crow. I wasn't able to dislodge the atrocities committed in wars of capture and slave raids: the elderly and infirm slaughtered by the conquering army, infants murdered by bashing their heads against trees, pregnant women disemboweled with a lance, girls raped, and young men buried in anthills and thrown onto pyres and burned alive. In the middle of explaining how black farmers lost it all—to night riders, banks, and the government—Poppa drifted into a story about slavery, because for men like Poppa and my great-great-great-grandfather to be landless was to be a slave. The dream of an age after colonialism, after racism, after capitalism, which had provided the bridge across the Atlantic for the émigrés, fell to pieces.It had never been concrete before, not something as palpable as my great-grandfather in his starched cotton shirt sitting next to me in a brown Ford, or a parched red clay country road, or a horse trader from Tennessee, or the name of a girl, not much younger than me, who had been chattel. Desperate situations and bad luck exacted their toll as well: famished children were sold by their parents so that they might live, the indigent offered themselves as slaves to escape poverty and hunger, nieces and nephews were corralled in barracoons and packed in slavers because of their uncles' unpaid debt. My generation was the first that came here with the dungeon as our prime destination, unlike the scores of black tourists who, motivated by Alex Haley's Roots, had traveled to Ghana and other parts of West Africa to reclaim their African patrimony. No one wanted for the necessities of life, no one lived off the labor of others, and no one bared his head or bent his knee before another. And this interminable condition—"the abstract nakedness of being nothing but human," to borrow the words of Hannah Arendt—was nowhere more apparent than in Ghana.

In 1966, Colonel Kotoka and Lieutenant General Afrifa had deposed Kwame Nkrumah; there were coups again in 1972, 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1983. The very term "slavery" derived from the word "Slav," because Eastern Europeans were the slaves of the medieval world.In Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman traces the history of the Atlantic slave trade by recounting a journey she took along a slave route in Ghana. In our native country, he wrote, "We shall live among our equals and be more comfortable and happy, than we can be in our present situation; and at the same time, may have a prospect of usefulness to our brethren there. They were assigned the foul and degraded labor suited only to those bereft of the dignity and compassion of free men.

Many of the streets of Accra were lined with open sewers, and poor neighborhoods were often without toilet facilities, but this was more intense than usual. Her reflections on history and memory unfold as an intimate encounter with places--a holding cell, a slave market, a walled town built to repel slave raiders--and with people: an Akan prince who granted the Portuguese permission to build the first permanent trading fort in West Africa; an adolescent boy who was kidnapped while playing; a fourteen-year-old girl who was murdered aboard a slave ship. And so too was the yearning for the black promised land and the ten million trees that would repel the enemy's advance and stand in for all of those gone and forgotten. I realized too late that the breach of the Atlantic could not be remedied by a name and that the routes traveled by strangers were as close to a mother country as I would come.

Hartman delineates a clear divide between how African-Americans view their ties to slavery and the African continent, and the perspective of the Ghanaians she meets, who largely see visiting African-Americans as a source of tourism revenue and do not readily discuss slavery, which they see as a source of shame - to those of slave ancestry in particular. I always have felt at a distance from the events of my time, and I have never believed that the balance of power hung upon any act of mine. The structural adjustment programs and debtor country initiatives orchestrated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were the new slavery. This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. Marcus Garvey's vision of an Africa for Africans on the continent and in the diaspora was a theme, which in college I chanted and danced to in the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Steel Pulse, and Third World, but dared not believe.

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