“history is how the secular world attends to the dead”

Lose Your Mother
[CN: Slavery, colonialism, anti-blackness, white supremacy]

There’s a massive database called Voyages, containing an exhaustive catalog of every slave ship which moved across the atlantic, including scans of manifests and ships arrested by the British after slavery was outlawed. At the head of this massive “data-set” are two white English dudes, one of whom is an economic historian.

But what can any of it tell us, really? How can it hope to answer the question of what made black bodies slaveable? The numbers give us a view from the position of the slavers; reify the monstrous ideology that turns humans into commodities, stripping them of their humanity history so that they are not people but merely “Negros.” Saidiya Hartman’s LOSE YOUR MOTHER begins from the recognition that a true connection with this past has been annihilated, as was the goal of the slave trade and the capitalist accumulation it served.

LOSE YOUR MOTHER is something like a slave metanarrative — it articulates impossible desires to engage with the past or at least break free from it.

I was determined to fill in the blank spaces of the historical record and to represent the lives of those deemed unworthy of remembering, but how does one write a story about an encounter with nothing?

Hartman recounts her time spent in Ghana doing field work, visiting the slave dungeons, and tracing the route of the slaves in reverse, going from the coast where merchants loaded human cargo onto ships, into the interior of the country, where villages were raided (but not without putting up a fight).

She writes from the perspective of the third generation of black USens, gazing on deferred dreams of pan-Africanism or some kind of solidarity between blacks in the US who endure the traumas (Hartman calls it the “afterlife”) of slavery thru the prison industry and white theft, and Ghanans who have their own unique struggles in grappling with the slave legacy w/ neocolonialism and enduring poverty.

Which Africa was it that we claimed? There was not one Africa, there never had been. Was Africa merely a cipher for a lost country no one could any longer name? Was it the remedy for our homelessness…

In the sixties it was still possible to believe that the past could be left behind because it appeared as though the future, finally, had arrived; whereas in my age the impress of racism and colonialism seemed nearly indestructible.

Woven in with these ruminations are thoughts of her own family history, her notes from Ghana (there is a funny anecdote where US anxieties of ~Africa~ the war-torn continent that can’t get a break get the better of her one night when the power is cut and army gunfire is heard outside), and her own reconstructions of fragments from history from thorough research. Her description of landing in the southern coastal town of Elmina is some of the most vivid writing ive seen all year:

Except for the castle, no visible signs of slavery remained. All about me, the commerce of everyday life proceeded in its banal course. A jagged row of blue kiosks, home to lottery agents, seamstresses, chop bars, and makeshift stores, looped around the Benya River. The banks of the river swarmed with people: market women installed behind their stands traded Dutch print fabric, Lever Brothers soap, secondhand obruni clothes, iridescent lipsticks, and cut-rate nail polish. Others, less optimistic about the prospects of a sale, stretched out on straw mats, babies curled beside them, hidden behind black bricks of kenkey (fermented cornmeal wrapped in a plantain leaf). Shoppers haggled for better prices, hoping to return home with a few cedis in their pockets. Clerks, unsullied in their oxford shirts and ties, exited chop bars and strolled to their offices. Tourists drenched with perspiration scuttled en masse to the slave dungeon.

In the first half of the book especially, Hartman captures her intellectual movement back and forth between the present and her pushing at the edge of historical knowledge only to be snapped back from its elastic boundary. Her pilgrimage to the colonial castles and their slave dungeons brings no closure, nor does it bring her any closer to inhabiting the past. These sites, dense with ghosts (the only remains being blood, feces, and pus from the white man’s diseases) can’t bring her peace, or give voice to the stories abandoned by the archive. History is “nothing,” a void, yet to be black in the US is to feel its continuing pain; weighed down like the past were an invisible cloak of lead. And at the same time that history hurts, Hartman, who has done the reading, takes seriously the idea that History is not a logical succession but an unknowable traumatizing chaos, to which the only sensible response is terror.

This sort of metahistorical dilemma is evoked in the image of the kosobana, the “come, go back, child,”

The spirit child shuttles back and forth between the worlds of the living and the dead because of the stories not passed on, the ancestors not remembered, the things lost, and the debts not yet paid. The “come, go back, child” braves the wreckage of history and bears the burdens that others refuse.

And while Hartman presses on against this pessimism to try to resurrect the past thru her research, she does not give her readers an easy pinnacle of insight that allows her to “move on” as the frustrated and presumably non-black previous owner of my copy kept insisting in their annotations. But against her disenchantment with a solidarity of the black diaspora, she offers the negative status of her history and the ontological death her people endure in an anti-black world as the common ground that they have.

“Are you free?” The answer is No.

This “no” resonated on both sides of the Atlantic. It was the reminder of what abolition and decolonization had failed to deliver. This “no” was the language we shared, and within it resided a promise of affiliation better than that of brothers and sisters.

i cant do justice to the beautiful complexity that Hartman constructs here, which brings in everything mentioned above as well as the image of the people in New Orleans on the rooftop in the flood, waving the American flag to a passing helicopter — what is citizenship? How honest can we be about how equally it’s distributed? Everybody read this book.

The excerpt comes from the middle chapter, which on its own could be a powerful essay. With her wonderful descriptions, Hartman meditates on food and cannibalism and its elaboration on anti-blackness and slavery. Beyond this section a connection is made of blackness to shit, and turning shit back into capital as the founding genius of the white supremacist order.

LOSE YOUR MOTHER by Saidiya Hartman

The interior of the dungeon exposed an open wound of earth, and the roughly hewn walls perspired, making the chamber dank. The cells were hollowed out the rocky deposit of a hillside, which had been a sacred shrine devoted to the local pantheon of gods. Nana Taabiri watched over all the creatures on earth and in the sea. When the fort was built, the shrine was displaced and the gods exiled. Two decades ago, the shrine returned to the castle and the gods to the rocks they had once inhabited. The shrine now occupied a wall a the far end of the dungeon. The candles placed on the altar gave off a faint light that was swallowed by the blackness of the hold. Whether the gods were indifferent or attentive to the captives imprisoned in the garrison was of little consequence as far as I could tell. The old man who attended the shrine disagreed with me. He insisted that the gods tended to the slaves and guided them from the places across the water back home. Life is more than matter, he said, there is spirit too. When he convinced African Americans and others from the diaspora of this (the priest did not offer these services to Ghanaian visitors, most of whom, being Christians, eschewed traditional religion and associated it with evil), he received a small donation and then poured libations for the dead.

The arched ceiling of the vault and the tubular shape of the connecting cells resembled a large intestine. Walking from one end of the dungeon to the other, I did feel as though the castle were ingesting me, as though I were inching my way along the entrails of power. The belly of the beast no longer seemed a figure of speech but rather a precise description of this place. What was it about eating that so aptly captured the dynamics of power? The gluttony of the ruling classes was proverbial. As they said in Ghana, Only the big man has a full belly. The rich are sated, but the commoner wants. Seeing is not eating. The poor man lives in the world but does not own it. When the slave eats mutton, it irritates his stomach. The fine things in life are reserved for the powerful. If one refuses to eat, another’s stomach will be filled.. One man takes advantage of another’s misfortunes. Ingestion provides a vivid picture of the relation between the haves and the have-nots, the rulers and the ruled, the parasite and the host.

“Everything which is eaten is the food of power,” according to Elias Canetti. None knew this better than the slaves. They consistently described their captors as cannibals. Flesh eaters and roasters of men personified the dynamics of plunder and dispossession, unlike the euphemism of trade, which made the route appear bloodless and consensual. None of the enslaved had ever agreed to any bargain that landed them here. Anthropophagy, the practice of eating the flesh of other human beings, aptly described the devouring of life by the machinery of the slave trade.

The mouth was an organ of power. African nations at war vowed to “eat the other,” that is, they would seize all their enemies, “sell them as slaves, and enjoy themselves with the goods received in exchange.” But men cooked in boiling cauldrons circulated from the coast to the interior. Upon seeing the slave ship and its European crew, Olaudah Equiano believed he had entered a world of bad spirits: “I no longer doubted of my fate, and quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted. When I recovered a little, I found some black people about me… I asked them if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair?” The first time Ottobah Cugoano encountered the white men of the coast, he too was convinced they intended to devour him. “I saw several white people, which made me very afraid they would eat me.” Back in the city of Agimaque, he had listened to tales about the bounsam, the devil, who resided near the sea and feasted on human flesh.

Slaves were “often under great apprehension at the sight of the sea,” according to the slave captain John Newton, because “they imagine they are brought to be eat [sic].” An officer in the Africa Corps, testifying before the English Board of Trade, described the great anxiety of the captives upon being delivered to the European traders of the coast. “The [African] masters of Europeans hold out as general doctrine to their slaves, that Europeans will kill and eat them…by which means the slaves are kept in order, and in great fear of being sold to Europeans. This doctrine…has a very powerful effect on the minds of these people.”

The fear of white ogres incited mutiny and self-destruction. On the slaving voyage of the Albion Frigate, the captain recorded in his journal: “some slaves fancy they are being carried away to be eaten, which makes them desperate,and others are so on account of their captivity, so that if care not be taken, they will mutiny and destroy the ship’s crew in hopes to get away.” Sengbe Pieh, the leader of the slave revolt aboard the Amistad, said he and forty-eight other slaves rebelled after being told by a slave of the ship’s captain that they were going to be dismembered and eaten. On other occasions, slaves jumped overboard to escape this gruesome fate or asphyxiated themselves by swallowing their tongues.

A terrible end awaited them, of that they were certain. Paul Isert, a surgeon stationed at a Danish slave fort neighboring Cape Coast, remarked that the slaves don’t believe the future could possibly “hold anything good in store for them, when the Europeans use such violent measures to secure them.” Reports of the savagery of white men had spread to the most remote corners of the hinterland: “In their own country they have themselves heard such dreadful tales of how the slaves are treated in Columbia [America] that one is appalled when one hears them. I was once asked by a slave, in complete earnest, if the shoes I was wearing had been made of Black skin, since he had observed that they were the same colour as his skin.”

Cannibalism provided an allegory for usurping and consuming life. If the wage laborer, according to Marx, was “someone who has brought his own hide to the market and now has nothing to expect but a tanning,” then the slave was the prey hunted and the flesh eaten by the vampire of merchant capital. The slaves did not doubt it.


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