Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route by Saidiya V. Hartman

This is a very personal book that reads more like a person journaling professionally than anything historical. I suppose the proper word is travelogue, but since I have never read a travelogue, not even Mark Twain's books about his various tours, I guess I'm not familiar with the style in any way.

Hartman is angry, very angry. That needs to go out front, because if you're not willing to read a book by a person who is angry at the past, this is not the book for you. Part of why she's so angry is that, well, let's face it, how America (and the rest of Euro culture) built its Southern (and part of its Northern) economy was on the backs of slaves. And then, even when slavery was over, we did our level best to make life miserable for the lucky(?) few who survived the trip across the Atlantic. It's not a nice business, and when America notices it has something not nice to deal with, we toss it under the rug--arguably worse than tossing it under a bus. Put simply, we don't talk about race issues very well. Hartman is very aware of this, and that is why she sets out on this journey.

The opening pages tell us about the fact that no one wants to discuss slavery, not even those that you'd think would be front-and-center in relating its brutal history. "The counselors taught us to disdain property, perform the Black Power handshake, and march in strict formation, but they never mentioned the Middle Passage or chattel prisons," Hartman notes. She tries to do that which her grandparents did not--return to Africa, thinking she can find something that was lost--not personal history, she knows better--but a connection.

Instead, she finds herself to be a stranger in a land that lives uneasily with its legacy, unable to seemingly embrace it, destroy it, or utilize it. Just as those who were sold into slavery lost their mothers, there is no way now for Hartman to connect to those on the other side of the Atlantic. Despite the problems of being African American, there is no real way for her to link or connect. After pages and pages of trying to do so while wandering the places where slavery was born, she realizes it's a false task.

"'My friend from the diaspora,' was how Akam addressed me, in contrast to the group whom he called his brothers and sisters from the continent. Diasopra was really just a euphemism for stranger, since for the most part, none of my colleagues, with the exception of Prof and Hannington, gave much thought to the way their history was enmeshed with mine, nor did they entertain the idea that the Africa in my hyphenated African-American identity had anything to do with their Africa. They made it clear: Africa ended at the borders of the continent."

That clearly has to hurt, and it's the story that echoes throughout the book when Hartman describes her meetings with those who live there. Eventually, she comes to see that the connection will not be the shared history--there really isn't one, for those who were not shipped in conditions the FDA would reject beef if they found it that way--but in the shared struggle for being in control of their own lives. African Americans might--I repeat might--be finally getting there, but those in Africa are still "managed" by primarily white post-colonial powers who care more about the four-legged animals on its flatlands than the people starving to death.

Interspersed with Hartman's narrative are those of the slave trade themselves. Unflinching in her description of evil--white and black--is part of what makes these sections so powerful. The worst are the slave ships and holding pens, where people would die standing up, but there is no love lost for the slave uprising that was only among the upper class, for instance. After all, they'd planned to use their lower-class brethren as slaves once they'd overthrown the white masters!

But I would be doing a disservice to Hartman if I let that be the focus. It's too easy for Americans of European descent, even those like me who, to the best of my knowledge, came after the Civil War or did not hold slaves at the time or any ties to slavery, to say, "See? Blacks did it to themselves." That's not the point--as Hartman notes early on, Europeans sold each other into slavery, too, once upon a time. But the demand for African slaves was never quenched until well into the nineteenth century--the idea that they were less than human prevailed, and we still see its effects today when major Presidential candidates talk about "hard working, white Americans" and decry those who dare to say that God might not look too kindly on how whites treat their African American neighbors.

The perception of truly fighting for freedom--not your own country, but your own life--is what Africans and African Americans had to do and continue to have to do today. When it's not done as it's "supposed to be done"--Hartman references a statue with a supplicating black man, praying for freedom as a model for how African Americans are supposed to approach equality--there's just as much trouble now as in the era of Jim Crow. Walking amongst the ruins of the slave trade just remind Hartman all the more of how much further away we are from equality than I, quite honestly, want to admit. (It still doesn't mean I can't argue that things are better than Hartman seems to believe them to be, but that's outside the focus of this review.)

In the end, this is a book about being a stranger and examining what that means via a long glimpse away from home in a land charged with painful experience. I can't say that none of this book was hard for me, because I'd be lying. But I think it's a book worth reading, especially for those who dismiss the idea that race--and the estrangement (to at least some degree) of African Americans and Africans from real, meaningful freedom--still matters.

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