'Lose Your Mother' Author Finds Heritage in Africa

As part of NPR's Crossing the Divide series, author Saidiya Hartman talks about one of the oldest and deepest divides in America: slavery. In Hartman's new book, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, she returns to Ghana to do research, but instead finds personal transformation.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Today as part of NPR's series Crossing the Divide, we look at one of the oldest and deepest divides in America. It's social and economic legacy affects millions of people everyday. I'm talking about slavery.

Saidiya Hartman is an author and expert on the African-slave trade. She, like so many African-Americans, has descended from slaves and no longer and longed to learn about her family. Ten years ago, Hartman spent a year in Ghana where thousands of people were enslaved and taken to the new world. Once Hartman got to the small West African country, she found herself on a more spiritual journey than she ever expected. Hartman documents the trip in her new book, "'Lose Your Mother:' A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route." She recently spoke with Farai Chideya.

FARAI CHIDEYA: So "Lose Your Mother," that's such a haunting title. What does it mean to you?

Ms. SAIDIYA HARTMAN (Author, "'Lose Your Mother:' A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route"): It's about the loss that produced the people on the Diaspora. To lose your mother is about losing your identity, your language, your country, and that's the way they speak of it in West Africa. So, it's about those losses that haunt us, those ancestors who we know but can't name. We feel their presence but they're without names for us.

CHIDEYA: W.E.B. DuBois went to Ghana to live, and ultimately died there, and still his house is there - so there is this American context. But as a black woman from America, did you feel like you fit in or you didn't fit in? Were you welcome or unwelcome? How did people perceive you?

Ms. HARTMAN: When I first arrived, I was shocked that people perceived me as a stranger. I didn't have any naïve notion that, oh, I would just fit in and people would welcome me back. But to constantly have people call you an American, or a foreigner, or a white person, was you know, was shocking. What's interesting about, I think this for many West African cities that in the sounds of the cities, there's so much African-American music. So, often I would be out in a restaurant at night, and I would just be listening to Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin, you know, wafting through the air.

So there was this strange sense of being at home, and kind of like in my parent's home, almost, because it was usually older music that was playing.

CHIDEYA: Who initiated the slave trade in Ghana?

Ms. HARTMAN: Ghana is different from other places in West Africa in that the trade there started with the Portuguese actually selling slaves to African merchants, and African merchants buying them. But there had been a trade in slaves before the Europeans arrived, and the Portuguese entered that trade initially as middlemen. Once you have an emergence of the kind of the plantation Americas, then there's a demand for labor. And Ghana shifts from being an importer of slaves to an exporter of slaves.

CHIDEYA: Take me to the physical. Your cover photo is a picture - stonewalls, dirt floor - where is it and what are we looking at?

Ms. HARTMAN: The photo is a - of a passage and a slave in a fort. And basically, Ghana is different on the West African coast because it does have all of these, you know, buildings; basically these castles, which were military fortifications which were built in the 15th century. So you have these enormous structures looming on the coast. And in some of the castles that were designed specifically to imprison captives - in the dungeon, you have this massive rooms where as many as 1,500 captives were contained for a period of a week or a few months.

CHIDEYA: I want you to do something for me. I want you to take a deep breath and close your eyes and imagine that you are back in one of these fortifications. And tell us in your mind's eye, where you are.

Ms. HARTMAN: I would be in a dark, damp room. The smells would be foul. I might hear the voices of other captives moaning or crying. I might hear others praying and pleading to their gods. I might hear the sound of the Atlantic beyond the walls of the prison.

CHIDEYA: What did you learn about your family and about yourself?

Ms. HARTMAN: I think I never felt as much of an American as I did when I was in Ghana. The weight of my particular history - I felt that very, very personally. I think that as a result of going to Ghana, I learn much more about my father's family in Curacao. I think that its significance in the slave trade, and the history of slavery on the island, was something that I knew nothing about because my father's family, unlike my mother's family, never spoke of slavery.

And as a consequence, you know, talking with my aunts and my father about it -and we took a family trip to Curacao after I came back from Ghana. And we visited, you know, slave sites there that my dad or my aunt had never visited before.

CHIDEYA: You talk about taking a trip to the north of Ghana and entering, and I'm quoting you here, "a dark zone of private grief." Why was it private?

Ms. HARTMAN: When I took that journey to the north, I was a part of a group of scholars - all of whom were African, with the exception of myself - doing research on slavery. And they have a very different relationship to slavery than I did. For me, slavery is very personal. I mean the book opens with me telling the story of my great-great-grandmother, and my great-great-great-grandmother, and really me being kind of, you know, learning this history from my great grandfather.

For my colleagues, slavery was kind of - it was an academic interest for them. And I made various trips to slave sites when I was in Ghana. And I contrast that trip to the north - people were on the bus, laughing, joking - and there was a round of jokes about slaves that were being made.

And on the one hand it was, you know, the jokes were really funny, and on the other hand it was incredibly bizarre.

CHIDEYA: Do you feel - and I'm thinking here of a story where an American that you meet, an American ex-patriot, tells you not to lie about Africa when you go home. Do you ever feel that you're destroying the myth of the motherland or something like that?

Ms. HARTMAN: I don't feel like I'm destroying it. I feel like I'm definitely disenchanting that myth. And I guess I'm disenchanting the myth to say: but there's the possibility of a connection that's even better that awaits us in the aftermath of that disenchantment. So that we don't need a kind of a myth of a glorious perfect Mother Africa, and that there are commonalities and there are certain sort of experiences that can connect us. And that that's actually better than a myth and much more promising for our future.

CHIDEYA: Well, Professor Hartman, thank you so much.

Ms. HARTMAN: Thank you.

COX: That was Farai Chideya speaking with Saidiya Hartman, author of "'Lose Your Mother:' A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route." You can hear Hartman reading from her book on the NEWS & NOTES page at NPR.org.

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