Saidiya Hartman's Lose Your Mother and
Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship PDF

by Micol Seigel | Indiana University

Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. 270 pages, illustrations. $25.00 cloth, $14.00 paper.

Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking, 2007. 434 pages, illustrations. $27.95 cloth; $16.00 paper.

“For me,” explains Saidiya Hartman in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, “the rupture was the story” (42). For Marcus Rediker, author of The Slave Ship: A Human History, the story lies in a space of rupture as well, midst continents, at sea. These two books locate themselves between and beyond the static units that have structured understandings of race and nation, place and self. Like other recent scholars interested in transnational movement and phenomena, troubling these categories allows their work to revise notions of “Africa,” “America,” “black,” “white,” and more. The pair shows how exciting such projects can be, and also their range, for Hartman and Rediker produce opposite effects in important ways. Rediker may dwell in liminal space but his aim is wholeness: he investigates the lives of slaves and sailors, people whose humanity is more than partially obscured in history, to restore them to fullness and light. He listens compassionately to people struggling to survive the Atlantic passage, recuperating their humanity with carefully contextualized imagination. Hartman rejects wholeness, opening her travel memoir with a classic voyage to Africa but crafting in the end a devastating meditation on the impossibility of return.

Intimate and accessible, full of gorgeous, heart-tugging prose, Lose Your Mother is an autobiographical search for a usable past both in the United States and in Ghana. Hartman visits key sites along the slave routes, straining to hear the voices of her ancestors. Most of the book takes place in Ghana, where her attention is diverted by young entrepreneurs mining the gap between North American wealth and African lack, irreverent local teens focused on Hollywood, Ghanaians’ disdain for slaves rather than guilt over their ancestors’ roles in the trade, and Hartman’s growing sense of her own irreconcilable strangeness in Africa. In the end, the din of those revelations drowns out the possibility of hearing what she came to find. This is her point, and her lesson: even in the dungeon beneath Cape Coast Castle, Hartman learns and teaches, “there were remains but no stories” (116).

It is not that Hartman never tells stories; she does. She paraphrases accounts of early published witnesses such as Ottobah Cugoano or Philip Quaque. She recounts historical events. Though clearly disinclined to make the subaltern speak, she even occasionally succumbs to the desire to give voice to the voiceless. Hartman both reveals and denounces her own desire to represent the underrepresented. She relates the tale of Captain Kimber abusing a captive on board the Recovery, for example, combing repeatedly through the event by reiterating its pieces in each voice recorded in the transcript of Kimber’s murder trial. Ending with the perspective of the captive herself, Hartman indulges in a heartening exercise of identification with a victim whose death may be redeemed by the imagination of transcendence. Hartman berates herself for this indulgence, wary of her motives just as she mistrusts those of the British abolitionists who first publicized the shocking sadism. “If the story ended there,” Hartman writes, “I could feel a small measure of comfort. I could find a salutary lesson in the girl’s suffering and pretend a story was enough to save her from oblivion” (153). The book proceeds in this unstinting juxtaposition of self-disclosure and self-censure as Hartman offers herself as archetype to coax a similar critique from all who yearn for return, restoration, and repair.

Hartman demands understanding and forgiveness for such yearnings, fully recognizing the urgency of a collective reckoning with slavery. Why, then, does Hartman rally people to do now voluntarily what they suffered historically in abduction and dispersal? The title, in the imperative, leaves no doubt that this is what she commands. Lose your mother. Imagine no return. Resist the temptation to fill the story-less gap. This is not a psychoanalytic version of “throw down your bucket where you are” but a genuinely radical intervention. Hartman is at work untangling a gnarled knot: some of the victims of slavery historically and of racism in the present now reside in the belly of the world’s principal superpower. Through no consenting act of their own, therefore, save perhaps capitalist accumulation, they are implicated in the immiseration of Africa today. The solidarities generated by the historical experience of racism, Hartman charges, are wrongly projected onto Africans. When Hartman finds commonality with Africans in her travels, she recognizes that it is a reflection not “of blood or kinship, but of affiliation” (204). Recalling Stuart Hall’s wonderfully powerful concept of articulation but inflected in a markedly familial vein, affiliation offers an active form of identification that can recognize difference, conflict, and change over time, an alternative to the “emptiness and irrelevance of an ‘African identity’ in making sense of the Atlantic slave trade” (208).

The sense of common African racial identity feeds, for example, the slave route tourist industry in Ghana, a “potent means of silencing the past in the very guise of preserving it,” for it conceals the enabling factors of the Atlantic trade: African slavery, exploitation on the bases of class and gender, ethnic and regional conflict, and abuses of state power (164). The framing of memory sanctioned by state-sponsored tourism and supported by African Americans craving the balm of return also helps conceal and therefore perpetuate the continued violence visited upon the African continent today, including the prevalence of dungeons and the practice of slavery itself.

This multivalent critique allows Lose Your Mother to advance a critique not only of racism and the idea of race, but also of global capitalism. Like many contemporary scholars, Hartman insists that slavery was no archaic, precapitalist holdover. Ruminating on the etymology of the word “factory,” she recalls “the indissoluble link between England’s industrial revolution and the birth of human commodities” (111). She sees the trade in human beings as the generative spark of capitalism, producing wealth in the West and devastation in Africa (207-8). This critical thread also emerges in her focus on the class distinctions within Africa that made the Atlantic trade possible. Yet as evident in her equal indictment of other factors responsible for the trade (slavery within Africa, gender violence, ethnic difference, and historical patterns of war between and within states), Hartman’s Marxism is the nuanced, robust approach of a scholar who integrates insights from multiple fields.

Here lies the shared core of these two books. The critique of capitalism is the central axis of The Slave Ship: A Human History, as readers of Marcus Rediker’s analyses of the marginalized and working denizens of the Anglo-Atlantic world have come to expect. In this social history, written (like Hartman’s) for a broad popular and academic public, Rediker narrates the wounding violence visited upon Africans captured for transport and sale. The attempt to render slaves’ voices and experiences audible is a project with which audiences will be acquainted, but there are unexpected insights along the way, and some surprising turns. Examples include the focus on sharks as instruments of terror or the strong final chapter on the slave ship Brooks. Picked up as abolitionist propaganda in the 1780s, the Brooks became the basis for the woodcut of tight-packed bodies that remains seared into collective memory of the slave trade today.

Rediker is interested in solidarity, identification, and commonality. His discussion of slaveholding and trading within Africa is a valuable exploration of the variegated landscapes of kin and kingdom, class differentiation, and changes in the Anglo-African slave trade as its Atlantic extension expanded. Observing, like Hartman, no sense of sameness among “Africans” in this period, Rediker follows new notions of kinship forged by shipmates belowdecks. These products of homogenizing brutality afforded some a means of survival, providing solidarities that would combine with and resist projections by Europeans, finally crystallizing into ideas of race. Like their cast of characters, the borders of race and nation in these works are in motion, under construction.

Rediker is interested in solidarities for their potential in seeding resistance not to slavery alone but to its founding matrix, capitalism. Rediker tethers the history of the slave ship to capitalism inextricably and intensely, converging with Hartman by beginning with a reflection on the etymology of “factory.” Readers familiar with the overlap in meaning in Spanish or Portuguese will be less surprised at these convergences, but in the Anglo-Atlantic tradition Hartman and Rediker share they are less obvious. Noting that “factor” and “merchant” were synonyms in the sixteenth century, Rediker suggests that the ship itself was factory, both in the sense of “a merchant’s trading station” (then) and in more contemporary usage as a harshly disciplined, highly supervised workplace where wage-earners produced “the commodity called ‘slave’” (45). As such the ship was a part of the “well constructed machine” of the plantation, as planters conceived it (44). Calling slave ships and plantations factories and machines, Rediker points out their technological, industrial character, insisting, like Hartman, that slavery and plantation economies were integral pieces of modern capitalism. It is towards solidarities based on shared locations within capitalism, therefore, that Rediker hopes to move.

To do so, Rediker integrates sailors into the accounting of the ravages of the Atlantic trade. Rediker emphasizes the varied forms of coercion forcing sailors into employment on slavers. The advance pay compelled some in desperate economic need; the ticket out of jail convinced those incarcerated for indebtedness. Some were enticed or tricked when drunk; others simply kidnapped. While on board they were subject to violent discipline, the cruel caprice of the captain, and casualties and mortality at rates often higher than the enslaved. Many were abandoned at ports far from home, sick or dying, cheated of their pay, with no means of sustenance or care. In Rediker’s portrait, “free” and slave labor converge in the ways they constrain the laborer, causing harm and often death, although Rediker takes care not to imagine the unfreedoms he details to be identical.

This convergence of coercion underlies the final piece of Rediker’s critique of capitalism, one with profound resonance today: the observation that the slave ship was a prison. With some inmates shackled and confined belowdecks, some in less secure women’s and children’s quarters, and some kept in place by the iron bonds of wage and contract, shipboard prisons linked the jails where Africans waited to make the middle passage and the chains and bars that would contain them in the New World. The slave ship’s “floating dungeon,” as a contemporary called it, extended European prisons as well for many sailors. While the distinctions between prisoner and guard are as sober as those between slave and sailor -- or between slave and prisoner, sailor and guard -- still the comparisons are thought-provoking. What does it mean for our understandings of industry or modernity that their underpinnings are the slave-ship and the prison? As Hartman also demands that we consider, and for our day as well, what if the trading station, the factory, the slave-ship, and the prison are in practice identical?

These two books are unlike in discipline, method, focus, tone, source material, and ultimate conclusions. Yet they share pieces of an argument along the route to a common object of critique. Both chart the historical development of the idea of race as a product of slavery, though Hartman goes further than Rediker in rejecting its utility now. Both indict capitalism as root cause and constant extension of the racializing force of global immiseration that was slavery. As such they illustrate the strength and breadth of work on the black Atlantic as it has developed over the last fifteen years, moved and motivated by a common set of inspirations.


Micol Seigel (Ph.D. NYU American Studies) is Assistant Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies and American Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her work on cultural politics, transnational method, and race in the Americas, particularly the U.S. and Brazil, can be found in the Hispanic American Historical Review, the Radical History Review, TDR, the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, the Revista Brasileira de História, the Black Music Research Journal and in her forthcoming book, Uneven Encounters: Making Race and Nation in Brazil and the United States, to be published by Duke University Press in February 2009. Micol's current research tracks connections among prison systems in the Americas.

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