Kenyon's Reviews > Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route

Lose Your Mother by Saidiya Hartman
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it was amazing

This review was published originally in Left Turn Magazine.


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

One of the most painful political battles I've ever had was with a white activist. When co-authoring a political document, I was asked to declare myself as "an American." They couldn't understand how and why I refused to accept that label, nor had any sense that there is a school of Black political thought (dating back to the first generation of people of African descent "born" as chattel in the U.S.), that defies the notion that we were then, or are now, anything resembling real citizens. Their insistence on choosing my definition was, in and of itself, emblematic of being a non-citizen: the complete absence of autonomy for self-definition or determination.

Even African-Americans who are more politically conservative and invested in making America "our home", understand that Blacks have to constantly fight to be seen as citizens; voter "purging" in Florida in 2000 and Gulf Coast residents having to assert that they are in fact citizens and not "refugees" are two recent examples of the fluctuating "citizenship" in which African-Americans find ourselves.

Hartman's (a professor of English at Columbia University) outstanding book Lose Your Mother, is a first-person exploration of what it means to be the descendants of the dispossessed—the cast-offs of African society during the period of the Transatlantic Slave Trade to this very day. She chronicles the ambivalence of current African-American ex-patriates in Ghana, the cynicism of the new "slavery tourism" industry, and the sometimes disturbing relationship to slavery and its direct descendants that exists in Ghana today. The book provides valuable insight into hearts and minds of blacks in the Diaspora, who are more than ever trying to bridge the gaps in time that the trans-Atlantic slave trade severed—mostly through tourism and DNA technologies to trace one's "roots".

Hartman impeccably weaves together the history of the African Slave Trade with the precision of an academic, and the personal narrative of her journey with the lyricism of a novelist. The historical research and personal narrative conspire together to paint a portrait of how the varying historical incidences are still bound up in the bodies of black people in the 21st Century.


Lose Your Mother is not an Alex Haley's Roots 2.0. It is not Hartman's attempt to locate her ancestral home or to find that fictional place in time—that many Afrocentrists desperately attempt to recall—"when we were Kings and Queens." To the contrary, Hartman explains that she "traveled to Ghana in search of the expendable and the defeated. I had not come to marvel at the wonders of African civilization or to be made proud by the royal court of the Asante, or to admire the great states that harvested captives and sold them as slaves. I was not wistful for aristocratic origins. Instead I would seek the new commoners, the unwilling and coerced migrants who created a new culture in the hostile world of the Americans and who fashioned themselves again, making possibility out of dispossession."

She's not looking for herself in the faces of Ghanaian aristocracy. Instead, she is in search of the stateless, the marginalized bodies that would most likely be the descendants of the people who's communities were destroyed by the selling of bodies for material goods.

Hartman's pursuit of the naked truth is at times hard to take, even as someone who detests political optimism and cheap cultural-nationalist sentiment. I felt as though, when reading this book, all of the romantic narratives of Africa or a Pan-Africanist politic that I as an African-American cling to, were pillars that she destroyed one by one. I ran from one toppled narrative to the next and she was there, waiting to plunder it. At the end, I was left with nowhere to go.

But nowhere is precisely the place to be. When there are no more mysteries, when the romance is gone, you are forced to then forge something new, something more authentic. Revolutions may be built on dreams, but a dream founded on myth can never sustain them. For Hartman, the dream she finds in Ghana is "an elsewhere, with all its promises and dangers, where the stateless might, at last, thrive."

Lose Your Mother, after smashing the temple of Afrocentric idealism, leaves a clearing in its place (for the stateless Blacks cast into and across the oceans) to re-create ourselves. The question remains—are we brave enough to tread new ground?

—Kenyon Farrow
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 5, 2008 – Finished Reading
September 23, 2011 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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Rita Excellent review and highlight of why this book is not more popular in the Africana Studies' curricula. We relish the myth. People gravitate towards a simple myth than work still undone. Thank you for this thought provoking review. I wrote on this book in 2009 and had an eye out for someone who "gets it."

Patricia I'm only halfway through the book and yes to this review.

Christine This is a wonderful review of a powerful book.

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