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. Following the trail of captives from the hinterland to the Atlantic coast, Hartman reckons with the blank slate of her own genealogy and vividly dramatizes the effects of slavery on three centuries of African and African American history.
The slave, Hartman observes, is a stranger, one torn from family, home, and country. To lose your mother is to be severed from your kin, to forget your past, and to inhabit the world as an outsider, an alien. There are no known survivors of Hartman's lineage, no relatives in Ghana whom she came hoping to find. She is a stranger in search of strangers, and this fact leads her into intimate engagements with the people she encounters along the way and draws her deeper into the heartland of slavery. She passes through the holding cells of military forts and castles, the ruins of towns and villages devastated by the trade, and the fortified settlements built to repel predatory armies and kidnappers. In passages of historical portraiture, she shows us an Akan prince who granted the Portuguese permission to build the first permanent trading fort in West Africa, a girl murdered aboard a slave ship, and a community of fugitives seeking a haven from slave raiders. The persons shattered and transformed by the slave trade come alive as Hartman weaves together history, biography, and memoir.
"An original, thought-provoking meditation on the corrosive legacy of slavery from the 16th century to the present and a welcome illustration of the powers of innovative scholarship to help us better understand how history shapes identity. But the book is also—this must be stressed—splendidly written, driven by this writer's prodigious narrative gifts. She combines a novelist's eye for telling detail with the blunt, self-aware voice of those young writers who have revived the American coming-of-age story into something more engaging and empathetic than the tales of redemption or of the exemplary life well lived, patterned on Henry Adams, Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass. Hartman's main focus in Lose Your Mother is shaking up our abstract, and therefore forgettable, appreciation for a tragedy wrought on countless nameless, faceless Africans. She makes us feel the horror of the African slave trade, by playing with our sense of scale, by measuring the immense destruction and displacement through its impact on vivid, imperfect, flesh-and-blood individuals—Hartman herself, the members of her immediate family she pushes away but mulls over, the Ghanaians she meets while doing her field work and the slaves whose lives she imaginatively reconstructs from the detritus of slavery's records."—Elizabeth Schmidt, The New York Times Book Review
"An excellent account of the many misunderstandings between the children of the slaves who went to the New World and the descendants of those they left behind . . . Hartman draws on a wide range of published and archival sources to examine slavery's legacy . . . Above all, she reports movingly on her struggle with her own connection to Africa."—Kwame Anthony Appiah, The New York Review of Books
"As [Hartman] explores these and other places steeped in the history and memory of the African American experience, she expertly interweaves her own personal history . . . Her beautiful and insightful narrative reminds readers of previous calls for freedom in the work of Anna J. Cooper, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright, among others. Saidiya Hartman stands in good company, and propels their work masterfully into the 21st century."—Anne C. Bailey, Ms.
"An enigmatic memoir as much about exorcising demons borne of delusion as it is about a futile search for traces of ancestors nowhere to be found . . . Written in a very engaging fashion, this thought-provoking, post-sentimental, and ultimately heartbreaking neo-narrative is a clarion call for a serious attitude readjustment . . . It is likely to lead to an overhaul in Pan-Africanist thinking."—Kam Williams, News Blaze
"In Lose Your Mother, which documents one woman's attempt to reach back beyond slavery and make the Africa-America connection, Saidiya Hartman melds ugly reality with the lyricism of literature to come up with a new paradigm . . . Hartman is hardly the first black American to go 'back' to Africa seeking a measure of personal and historical salvation. But she charts her heartbreak at not finding it with a meticulous honesty and mix of emotions . . . that feel distinctly 21st century . . . The urgency of her mission is unmistakable."—Erin Aubry Kaplan, Los Angeles Times
"'The country in which you disembark is never the country of which you have dreamed,' writes Saidiya Hartman in eloquent meditation on dislocation and memory . . . Weaving together history and myth, her own personal experiences and those of the other African Americans she meets along the way, Hartman carefully depicts the imbalance of power between the descendents of those who were sent away and of those who remained. Hartman's book provides a powerful exploration of naming and the language of exile, for 'what orphan had not yearned for a mother country or a free territory? What bastard had not desired the family name or, better yet, longed for a new naming of things? Why not dream of a country that might love you in return?'"—Erin Brown, Virginia Quarterly Review
"Hartman's journey of self-discovery punctuates the larger tale of slave raids, forced marches, holding cells, and the horrors of the Middle Passage, stories that are informed by archival and oral histories. The author's language is evocative, sometimes poetic."—E. S. Schmidt, Loyola College in Maryland, Choice
"Lose Your Mother is wider and deeper than Alex Haley's landmark Roots, much less sentimental and incredibly smart. It reads like a cross between Bruce Chatwin and Toni Morrison, top-notch travel-writing and scintillating prose and soul. Hartman makes the Middle Passage more personal than heretofore imaginable both for Africans and African Americans. In so doing Hartman goes a long way toward healing an unhealable hurt. Absolutely searing. This book is destined to be a landmark all its own. Probably the most meaningful book I've read this year."—Randall Kenan, author of A Visitation of Spirits
"Combining the depth and breadth of a scholar of slavery with the imagination and linguistic facility of a novelist, Saidiya Hartman has written a most poignant meditation on the ironies of black identity in a postmodern, multicultural world. Hartman has found a most compelling narrative voice that enables the dreaded Middle Passage and the tomb of slavery to speak to a new generation of readers. This is a memoir about loss, alienation, and estrangement, but also, ultimately, about the power of art to remember. Lose Your Mother is a magnificent achievement."—Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
"Lose Your Mother is a profound utterance of humanity, an innovative and compelling re-narrativization of terror by a scholar of extraordinary subtlety of vision, insight and empathy."—Hazel V. Carby, Charles C. & Dorathea S. Dilley Professor of African American Studies, Yale University
"Hartman moves beyond archives and attempts to hear the voices of ghosts. Lose Your Mother is one of those landmark texts that succeeds at remembering the horrors of the Middle Passage and the historical legacy that experience left on both sides of the Atlantic."—Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
"Lose Your Mother is a radiant book that takes readers through much which feels beyond imaginative confrontation. Saidiya Hartman's words and thinking are unflinching, true, and beautiful, and only she could have written this extraordinary book."—Elizabeth Alexander, Professor of African-American Studies, Yale University
"Somber meditation by a descendant of slaves who journeyed to Africa to understand her past. In 1997, Hartman went to Ghana as a Fulbright Scholar and spent a year researching the slave trade. 'Intent on tracing an itinerary of destruction from the coast to the savanna,' she did much more than simply uncover the past; her book describes a deeply personal journey taken by a woman who insists that the ghosts of slavery still haunt the present. The author visited Elmina, the place where slaves captured in the hinterlands by Africans were sold to European slave traders and warehoused before shipment across the Atlantic to the New World. She traveled north to visit Salaga, home of the largest slave market in Ghana. The text mingles accounts of her explorations of the present-day sites, including Elmina's underground dungeon, with the dark stories of their pasts, conjuring up brutal, bloody images. Hartman also weaves in the story of her own ancestors—or rather, of how little she knows about them, since to be a slave is to 'lose your mother': to lose your identity, your past, your country. The author's research into the slave trade turns up a host of vivid and gruesome details, including a horrific account of the torture and murder of a young woman by a British sea captain who was later tried and acquitted of the crime. She depicts herself throughout as a lonely figure, regarded as an outsider by Ghanaians. Their ancestors were fortunate enough to elude capture, so they did not share the sense of loss that shaped Hartman's and many other African-American lives. A provocative work, tinged with sadness and anger."—Kirkus Reviews
"Highly recommended . . . Hartman is one of the first scholars to examine critically today's African American pilgrimages to Ghana and the complexities of slavery tourism in the region. Having traveled to Ghana to research the slave trade, Hartman became embroiled in the rituals at certain historical sites (e.g., Elmina Castle) associated with Ghana's part in enslavement, as well as the uneasy local politics of tourism . . . Hartman's strength is how she interweaves vivid scenes of the terror of the slave trade with her own internal struggle to confront the pain of slavery in her family's past."—Kathryn V. Stewart, Library Journal
"In this rousing narrative, Berkeley professor Hartman traces first-hand the progress of her ancestors—forced migrants from the Gold Coast—in order to illuminate the history of the Atlantic slave trade . . . Hartman channels her longing into facing tough questions, nagging self-doubt and the horrors of the Middle Passage in a fascinating, beautifully told history of those millions whose own histories were revoked in 'the process by which lives were destroyed and slaves born.' Shifting between past and present, Hartman also considers the 'afterlife of slavery,' revealing Africa—and, through her transitive experience, America—as yet unhealed by de-colonization and abolition, but showing signs of hope. Hartman's mix of history and memoir has the feel of a good novel, told with charm and passion, and should reach out to anyone contemplating the meaning of identity, belonging and homeland."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Reviews from Goodreads
The Path of Strangers
As I disembarked from the bus in Elmina, I heard it. It was sharp and clear, as it rang in the air, and clattered in my ear making me recoil. Obruni. A stranger. A foreigner from across the sea. Three children...