How Saidiya Hartman Retells the History of Black LifeHistorians in the News
tags: historiography, literature, Atlantic Slave Trade, African Diaspora, Black Studies
Hartman is well versed in academic discourse; she sometimes describes her work as an effort to “topple the hierarchy of discourse” and to “jeopardize the status of the event.” But she can also write with striking intimacy, evoking the feelings and the conditions of Black life. In her second book, a kind of anti-memoir called “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route,” she described a pervasive sense of dispossession:
Two people meeting on the avenue will ask, ‘Is this where you stay?’ Not, ‘Is this your house?’ ‘I stayed here all my life’ is the reply. Staying is living in a country without exercising any claims on its resources. It is the perilous condition of existing in a world in which you have no investments. It is having never resided in a place that you can say is yours.
The book grew out of a trip that Hartman took to Ghana, inspired by her great-great-grandmother Polly, who had been a slave in Alabama. As a girl, Hartman had been frustrated with the gaps in Polly’s story: what she looked like, how her life had been. She wanted to investigate the rupture between Africa and the United States—the oceanic graveyard that transformed free people into slaves and, she believes, shaped the identity of the Black diaspora. “The routes traveled by strangers were as close to a mother country as I would come,” she writes. In Ghana, she retraced the paths of captives, from ancestral villages to holding cells. But, instead of the words of enslaved Africans, she found only silence. Hartman wandered Accra and the Gold Coast for a year, disappointed that the Ghanaians she met saw her as an outsider, and upset that they refused to talk about African culpability in the slave trade.
The historical archive was little help. Hartman pored over records that often amounted to commercial transactions of enslaved bodies: slaver manifests, trade ledgers, food inventories, captains’ logs, bills of sale. “In every line item, I saw a grave,” she writes. “To read the archive is to enter a mortuary; it permits one final viewing and allows for a last glimpse of persons about to disappear into the slave hold.”
The detailed narratives that did exist had been left by people like Thomas Thistlewood, a British plantation overseer in Jamaica. In his diaries, he described punishing a slave: “Gave him a moderate whipping, pickled him well, made Hector shit in his mouth, immediately put a gag in it whilst his mouth was full & made him wear it 4 or 5 hours.” How could Hartman describe an enslaved life using such a passage, whose “annihilating force” revealed a great deal about Thistlewood but nothing about the slave?
Through those years, Hartman told me, “I was wrestling with what it means to have the colonial archive, the archive of the Western bourgeoisie, dictate what it is we can know about these lives.” Even later, more earnest attempts at historical memory were misleading; the Works Progress Administration’s slave narratives, which often had white Southerners ask formerly enslaved people about their lives, made honest responses unthinkable. Hartman had been trying to overcome the silences about Black life, but she found herself reproducing them. As she once wrote, “The loss of stories sharpens the hunger for them.”
For Hartman, reckoning with history means returning again and again to old events and ideas. The writer Maggie Nelson told me that “Scenes of Subjection” is one of her favorite books, because it “uses historical record and trenchant argument to upend truisms.” Nelson praised Hartman’s ability to reframe events: “As a writer, she’s continuing to shift the kaleidoscope and keep offering something different, like ‘Now how about this? How about this?’ ”