There are things that I can take for granted. I may not be able to recite my family tree by rote, and there is the question that my paternal grandmother may have been Jewish, but I know that my family hails from England, France, Canada, Lithuania, and Italy. It is something that I have taken for granted. Saidiya Hartman’s book is about, in part, having a lack of that, a lack of sense, and a lack of belonging.
It’s too glib to say that we all feel that sense of loneness. In part this is true, but many of us at least have a sense. Many of us can even break down to country and region, perhaps even a city.
Hartman has a continent. That’s it.
But to call this a book about a quest for self or identity is wrong. Hartman’s journey to Ghana, to uncover the story of the common slave – a slave who is not from a family of kings. The idea of a return to Africa is a return to homeland, but as Hartman points out -it isn’t quite that simple. Hartman feels out of place because the history of the slave trade depends upon the lenses – African-American versus African. IF Hartman isn’t American, then she isn’t African either. She is stateless. Her past is a commodity in both ways – as her ancestors were slaves and as their descendent returning.
So, in part, the book is about the different use of language and the different history. About the effects of slavery that we do not fully think about. The question of otherness.
There is much packed into this slim volume and it is the type of book that you mull over for days.