In Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, Saidiya Hartman spends a year in Ghana seeking understanding of herself as the descendant of slaves. Not knowing from where in Africa her ancestors came, she chooses Ghana because it was a center for the slave trade with several key ports. She expects to bond with the people among whom she is going to live, as she thinks their lives have a common heritage. She instead finds she is always considered a stranger, just the kind of person who might be sold into slavery.
When the Portuguese first came to Ghana, just before Columbus sailed to America, they brought slaves "harvested" along the western coast of Africa to Ghana to trade for gold and other items. Slavery had long been a component of African life, as tribes captured and traded members of other tribes. Only later would the ports to ship slaves be built in the country. Hartman's descriptions of the history of the trade, the reducing of lives to commodities, is shocking, even though we have heard much of it time and time again. Every man, woman, and child is measured against quantities of tobacco, sugar, coffee, copper pots, or brass bracelets.
In Lose Your Mother, Hartman longs to be embraced by the Ghanaians as a sister, but she finds that they are suspicious of her. A few welcome rich Americans for the money they bring, but many cannot understand why they come, for to be the child of a slave is to their thinking shameful. There is also an underlying sense of guilt for having ancestors who traded slaves.
Hartman is a great writer. Her thought-provoking chapters are essays on various aspects of the slave trading past and the depressed present in Africa. Lose Your Mother is on the surface a travel memoir, but deeper down, it is a sometimes angry meditation on slavery and its legacy. It should be in more libraries than it is.
Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. ISBN 0374270821.