In this post, I will be exploring how Saidiya Hartman expresses nostalgia in her book, Lose Your Mother, with a focus on the first chapter, “Afrotopia.” In writing about nostalgia, I refer specifically to the ideas of Svetlana Boym. In her introduction to The Future of Nostalgia, Boym writes a thought-provoking passage on nostalgia, belonging, and identity:
Nostalgia…is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed…Nostalgia is paradoxical in the sense that longing can make us more empathetic toward fellow humans, yet the moment we try to repair longing with belonging, the apprehension of loss with a rediscovery of identity, we often part ways and put an end to mutual understanding. Algia—longing—is what we share, yet nostos—the return home—is what divides us…The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home and the imaginary one. (xv-xvi)
Reading this excerpt on nostalgia immediately brought Hartman to mind. Nostalgia serves as an explanation for Hartman’s problematic representation of Ghanaians in Lose Your Mother.
Throughout the past few months I have been writing about trauma, both intergenerational and lateral, and the many ways in which shared trauma can bond members of oppressed groups. Before encountering Lose Your Mother, I was aware of Hartman’s reputation as a lauded scholar of black American history and literature, and I eagerly anticipated reading her meditations on history, memory and the effects of slavery on the African diaspora through generations. I assumed that Hartman’s background would allow her to write with a level of knowledge, understanding, and empathy often lacking in scholarship pertaining to Africa.
Quite contrary to my expectations, Hartman’s depiction of Ghana and Ghanaians was very disappointing. It appeared that for Hartman, the powerful effects of nostalgia overcame any type of identification through shared trauma with African people. I believe the crushing feeling of being regarded as obruni (a stranger) in Ghana after years of longing and idealization disrupted Hartman’s ability to understand Ghanaians as people and Ghana as a nation. Of Accra and its inhabitants she writes,
…The landscape of anticolonialism was everywhere indicated by roundabouts named after freedom fighters and slain martyrs and boulevards endowed with the totemic power of ideals like liberation, independence, and autonomy. The city propped up thwarted and grand schemes of an Africa for Africans at home and abroad. I had been living in Accra for a month before I realized that few ever called the streets by these grand names. They were hollow ideals to most people… In getting around this city, few were mindful of the signs of slavery or independence. (Hartman 24)
This passage, one amongst others, shows that Hartman has little understanding of who Ghanaians are, what they think, or what they value. It is unjust—dehumanizing even—to assume that people do not value their liberty, independence, and autonomy because they go about their daily lives in ostensibly unreflective ways. After all, I would argue that almost everyone in the world goes about their daily lives in ostensibly unreflective ways, Americans included. In her nostalgic desire for “the Eden of Ghana” (Hartman 37), Hartman may have forgotten that Ghanaians are as complicated and ordinary as any other people; they are not and never were static symbols of postcolonial struggle.
Throughout “Afrotopia,” Hartman prefers to have outsiders speak for Ghanaians rather than let Ghanaians speak for themselves. The native Ghanaians Hartman encounters have almost no direct speech pertaining to Ghanaian politics and culture. Those Ghanaians Hartman does mention, such as the housekeeper Stella and the cab drivers in Accra, appear to share her low opinion of the country. Hartman expends much more effort in exploring the perspectives of her friends Mary Ellen and John Ray, a black American couple in Ghana who seem wholly incapable of accepting that they are, in fact, immigrants. Mary Ellen disparages the country for its inefficiency and corruption while John Ray cautions Hartman that Ghanaians target black Americans for scams and that Accra is full of “mercenaries, thieves, refugees, prostitutes, broke soldiers, corrupt policemen and the desperate hard-pressed…” (Hartman 27). Every observation they make of Ghana and its people is coloured with pessimism. Hartman is able to identify with Mary Ellen and John Ray because she understands “the pain and isolation of their exile” (43), as they do not feel accepted as true Africans. While Hartman’s nostalgia helps to foster a strong bond with Mary Ellen and John Ray, it also divides her from Ghanaians and prevents her from appreciating their full humanity.
That Hartman’s depiction of Ghanaians has not affected the overwhelmingly positive reception of her book is a testament to her American privilege. While I do not typically rely on hypotheticals to bolster my arguments, I feel that a hypothetical has its place here: Suppose an African scholar were to travel to the United States in order to conduct research for a book about the African diaspora and the legacy of slavery. Now imagine this scholar has little understanding of American politics and history, especially as they relate to race and social inequality. Suppose also that she were to take up residence in the overwhelmingly black and impoverished areas of Chicago, Illinois, and Baltimore, Maryland. If this African academic were then to write about how black Americans—even with all the advantages of inhabiting the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world—have fallen incredibly short of the glorious promise of Civil Rights and the Black Power movement while languishing in crime and poverty, she would rightfully be lambasted for her surface analysis and offensive implications. I see no reason why Saidiya Hartman is deserving of different treatment for her depiction of Ghana and Ghanaians in Lose Your Mother.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001. Print.
Hartman, Saidiya. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2008. Print.