Lose Your Mother

Rubab Hossain, Gabriel Quintas


Lose your mother is a travelogue published in 2006 that chronicles the journeys Saidiya Hartman through Africa along the slave trade route. The author of Lose Your Mother, Saidiya Hartman, is a professor at Columbia University specializing in African American History and Literature, and a 3rd generation descendant of slaves.

In the book, Hartman documents her travels through Ghana and how she seeks to find meaning from her lost genealogy in Africa. While alternating between stories from the past and also experiences from the author’s present, Hartman is able to not only expertly incorporate instances of Slavery’s violent past into her narrative, but also relay to the reader how these instances connect back to her and other members of the African Diaspora in today’s exceedingly racialized society.

From the “slave tourism industry” to more intimate themes, the author provides a deep look into her reflections about culture, belonging and the afterlives of slavery. Hartman studies how slaves were forced into forgetting their culture as a method of control, and how this helped sever the link between African Americans and Africans. This allows to the author to explore the notion of being a stranger detached from a homeland. The book’s title is named after this: not belonging to a homeland, culture, or kin. Many of the stories the author tells help demystify a lot of preconceived notions about slavery. By tapping into anecdotes from locals, historical evidence, and her own reflections, Hartman is able to immerse the reader in her voyage.



In order to understand the underlying themes behind Lose Your Mother, it is crucial to understand the origins of the African diaspora. The term African Diaspora refers to the communities and peoples that were displaced from their homelands in the African continent, to various regions, predominantly in the Americas due to slavery.

West Africans transported to the coast to be sold into slavery. Wikimedia Commons

During the Atlantic Slave Trade era, between the 16th and 19th centuries, over 140 million people were displaced as a result of enslavement and colonialism. Approximately 56 million African descendants now live in Brazil, and 46 million in the United States, the two countries that had the largest number of slaves.


Map of Atlantic Slave Trade Movements. slavevoyages.org

 The “Slave Coast”, as it is often referred to, spanned the Northwestern portion of the Atlantic African coast. Dotted with ports and naval bases owned by colonial powers such as Portugal, England and Spain, these ports served as the point of entry into the slave market. Often times, infighting between tribes and ethnicities led to different groups of Africans capturing and selling other groups of Africans as slaves to European powers, which was a highly profitable albeit brutal economic activity that dominated the Atlantic coast for centuries. It is in this region that Lose Your Mother takes place, in the heart of the Slaver Coast in Ghana.

The etymology of the word “Diaspora” also relates directly to the event. Its literal meaning is “scattering”. And since so many different ethnicities, cultures and religions were funneled through the slave trade, they were dispersed throughout the continent.  Lose Your Mother explores the African Diaspora in a more intimate, personal way, while the many of texts on the topic tend to focus solely on the historical narrative. While it is natural to think that there would still be a strong relationship between Africans and African-Americans in terms of a shared heritage, the author argues otherwise. By implementing methods of control that essentially censored African American customs in the Americas, slave owners ended up breaking that link between both peoples. As Hartman described it, “Never did the captive choose to forget; she was always tricked or bewitched or coerced into forgetting. Amnesia, like an accident or a stroke of bad fortune, was never an act of volition.”  While this was an intended method of control, as put by the author: “The absent minded posed no menace.”, it had the secondary consequence of creating the disconnect between peoples across the Atlantic.

This also relates to the phenomenon of the “Slave Tourism” industry: How do you create a monument that remembers slavery, but does not commoditize it? Many academics, such as Osei-Tutu, a professor at the Cape Coast University, shed light on the issue of tourism on places where brutality and violence took place, and rightfully so. Slave castles are not places that should be consumed as tourism, but rather as icons of a dark past that has shaped modern society.

The book also has a very important role in modern society. Nowadays, there is an active discussion surrounding slavery, and most importantly, its remembrance. The debate about Slave Tourism, for example, is much like the debate throughout 2017 surrounding whether or not statues of previous slave owners should be taken down from various public spaces. Additionally, the book shows us the importance of remembering Slavery’s past by evidencing the dangers of forgetting about such things. Slave-owners forced slaves to forget about their roots as a method of control, and this shows us how crucial and relevant the discussion on this topic is. It is not by suppressing, but rather by discussing about it, that society can come to learn from this dark past.


In lose your mother, Saidiya Hartman explores her identity as a black woman in America. Her explorations lead her to Africa to retrace the history of her ancestors on the Atlantic Slave Route.

She chronicles the ambivalence of current African-American expatriates 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 transatlantic slave trade severed. The gap that these people are trying to bridge is that of the cut in ancestry and history that was created by slavery.

Kin vs. Strangers

Hartman’s voyage unveils a phenomenon that is often overlooked in modern society. In an idealistic world, Hartman could go back to Africa and be received with open arms, as if she was “a long-lost daughter coming home”. This is far from what happens in reality. The author unveils the distrust and divide that has built up between African Americans and Africans, despite sharing a common heritage. As previously discussed, methods of censorship played a large part in this. By creating a large enough cultural divide between those peoples, integration becomes an unrealistic objective. Additionally, the personal lens that this narrative explores is quite revealing. The book explores the idea of having no homeland or kin to belong to. This discussion is very much vital nowadays and is crucial to determine the heritage of the children of the Diaspora.

Forgetting vs. Remembering

It is no insightful statement to say that African American history is fraught with hardship and tragedy. It is because of this abundance of tragedy that we can find some of the greatest stories of human determination for the pursuit of a fulfilling life among African Diasporic literature. Traditionally, historians, when documenting slavery history, tend to focus on this inspiring side of the story. Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother is an exposition of the opposite side of that coin; she explores and documents all the most brutal and gruesome aspects of slavery and relates as to how the damage caused by this 300-year-old institution still manifests itself among the modern day African Diaspora. Hartman argues through her book that the general “will to forget” the wounds inflicted in the past is preventing the healing of the progeny of slaves today. By exploring specific anecdotes and unveiling stories about slavery, Hartman masterfully recaptures the brutality of this past. As the author puts it:

“I am the relic of an experience most preferred not to remember, as if the sheer will to forget could settle or decide the matter of history.”

The tourism industry, and exploitation for economic advancement

Given that Hartman’s’ purpose for writing this book was to explore the hardships and suffering of dispossessed slaves, it makes sense that she chose to travel to Ghana, since Ghana was not only once in a central to the slave trade, but also because the government of Ghana has shown empathy with the African Diaspora and has openly apologized for its role in slavery. However, it turns out that the peoples of Ghana are even more reluctant to talk about slavery and the damages it caused than the people of the United States. In searching for a people with whom she can find solidarity and explore the afterlives of slavery, Hartman finds people adverse to even mentioning slavery out of shame.

By Elmina Castle Tourism (March 2017). A modern day picture of Elmina Castle, a prominent landmark central to the Slave Trade. Taken from the front page of a tourism company to Africa. (http://elminacastle.info/)

In stark juxtaposition with the inhibition of the Ghanaian people to bring up slavery in everyday discourse is the government’s readiness to exploit the emotions of Diasporic Blacks to create a tourism industry in Ghana that is based entirely on the remnants of slavery. This creates grounds for an interesting debate on the Slave Tourism industry.


Critical Conversation

This book can almost be thought of as an exposition into the shortcomings of Pan Africanism. Pan Africanist ideals can be seen manifesting in American culture from as early as Marcus Garvey. But without a doubt, its not hard to imagine that the underlying sentiments that fueled Garvey-ism were felt by even the first slaves; the sentiment of longing to return home.

What Lose Your Mother does is explore and show that this idea of “returning home” is impossible because the notion of ‘home’  no longer exists for the disposesed and their descendants. The divide that was created by the transatlantic slave trade is too great, and that African Americans returning to Africa are arguably even more foreign there than in the United States.

The Afterlives of Slavery

The primary argument of this book that relates with modernity is the relevance of the afterlives of slavery both in the US, Africa, and other places. She argues about the existence of detrimental effects that slavery has on the modern descendants of slaves. She makes the case for reparations, and why the progeny of slaves might be entitled to some form of compensation.

Saidiya Hartman claims explicitly in her book that she herself is “agnostic” about reparations. The more interesting insight that Saidiya Hartman draws out is the danger of African Americans seeking out reparations. She claims that the act of pleading before an indifferent government drains black people of their dignity.

She likens the idea of reparations with Josiah Wedgwood’s famous anti-slavery medallion of the chained slave on bended knee, begging in supplication, “Am I not a man and a brother?”.

By Josiah Wedgwood: “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” Design of the medallion created as part of anti-slavery campaign by Wedgwood, 1787. Wikimedia Commons



“It seems to me that there is something innately servile about making an appeal to a deaf ear or praying for relief to an indifferent and hostile court or expecting remedy from a government unwilling even to acknowledge that slavery was a crime against humanity.”



Although Hartman may not specifically be for the idea of reparations, she takes issue with the fact that the language the government uses implies that the afterlives of slavery is a perceived slight on the part of African Americans.

“In the eyes of the court, no enduring harm has been passed across generations. And, even if it had been, we had slumbered on our rights for too long. Too much time had passed between the injury and the claim for redress. But for us the opposite was true. The time passed had only intensified the injury.”

In short, Lose Your Mother is that rare work that manages to blend complex historic themes and accompanying insights, with a gripping narrative. Saidiya Hartman provides convincing arguments for the idea of Afterlives of Slavery; although many would consider slavery to have died nearly 250 years ago as a result of the abolitionist movement, Hartman shows that consequences of slavery are still very much alive even today.

Works Cited

[1] “The Diaspora Prepared to Invest in Africa.” African Development Bank,  www.afdb.org/en/news-and-events/the-diaspora-prepared-to-invest-in-africa-11881/.

[2] Nehl, Markus. Transnational Black Dialogues: Re-Imagining Slavery in the Twenty-First Century, ProQuest Ebook Central, 2016

[3] Osei-Tutu, Brempong (2006). “Contested Monuments: African-Americans and the commoditization of Ghana’s slave castles”. African Re-Genesis: Confronting Social Issues in the Diaspora. London: UCL Press: 09–19.

[4] Quinn, Melissa, and Pablo Martinez Monsivais. “Trump: Are Statues of Slave Owners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson Coming down next?” Washington Examiner, 15 Aug. 2017

[5] Neptune, Harvey. “Loving Through Loss: Reading Saidiya Hartman’s History of Black Hurt.” Anthurium: A Caribbean Studies Journal, vol. 6, no. 1, 2008.

Further Reading

Hartman, Saidiya V. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. Slavery is a Language. Obsidian/ProQuest Central; Fall 2007

Brown, Enora  Lose your mother: a journey along the Atlantic slave Route; Routledge, 2009.

Chambers, D.B., Ethnicity in the Diaspora: The Slave-Trade and the Creation of African ‘Nations’ in the Americas, Slavery and Abolition. Routledge, 2001.

Schmidt, Elizabeth. “Erasing Slavery.” Review of Lose Your Mother. The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2007/02/11/books/review/Schmidt.t.html

Essien, Kwame. “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route.” Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 3, no. 2, Sept. 2009, pp. 217–219.


Lose Your Mother
Saidiya Hartman
Transatlantic Slave Trade
Afterlives of Slavery
Slavery Tourism Industry