Category Archives: The Middle Passage

A Mercy, by Toni Morrison, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008

This has to be the shortest novel that Toni Morrison has ever published at 167 pages.  After just completing my first read of it, I’m wondering if the shortness of it had to do more with Morrison rushing it to print for contractual reasons.  Let me explain further.  Just short of reaching the middle, the writing read more like very well written and sophisticated character sketches.  I was feeling a sense of being let down.  The feelings of intensity and gripping edge anticipation of the story unfolding or the actions and thoughts of the characters just wasn’t there for me. 

A little past midway of the book I begin to see the characters in physical form, performing monologues on a stage.  The stage props minimum, their voices slow (except for Mistress) and resounding reaching into the heart of the audience.  Could Ms Morrison have experienced some afterglow from Beloved being performed as an opera and this was intended to be a stage performance of which she adpated into novel form?

By the end of the book, I thought what a straight-forward story…that is until the end, the last chapter when the mother (minha mae) of Sorrow speaks.  The preceding chapters minha mae only speaks through the remembrance of her daughter, the one who is called Sorrow.  Bringing the presence of Spirit as a guiding force, the mother speaks in her own voice and ties the knot with the opening chapter.

It was in the end chapter that I came across the line that made the reading the most integrated and encompassing for me:  To be female in this place is to be an open wound that cannot heal.  Haunting, isn’t it?  At least it is for me.  The line that comes after, reads, Even if scars form, the festering is ever below.   

Memory.  No one uses it better as a literary device than Ms Morrison!   That always trying to recall and make sense of our world is where Toni Morrison reaches out to me and keeps me wanting to dig deeper and know what it is I don’t know…what it is she is trying to help me know and ponder further.  If only I could make this happen with my quilts?!

Another aspect of the book I really enjoyed is how she made the american landscape more real to me…the american landscape prior to america becoming America…when it was still territoriesand the dominion of overseas governments and the determined as much by the wilderness of what was untamed.  It was the first time I read a novel that made that historical period come alive as much as it did for me. 

I would recommend reading this book as a companion to the 2 previous books I wrote about in the posts below.

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Filed under african american women, Fiction, history, Immigrants, The Middle Passage

Notes: The Slave Ship: A Human History, Marcus Rediker

The author identifies four “dramas” played out repeatedly over the course of the 18th century aboard slavers…the first between the captains and the tough-scoundrel crew; the second, between the crew and the enslaved; the third, from conflict and cooperation among the diverse ethnic groups of the enslaved; and the fourth, among the abolitionists and the societies of America and Britain. 

His intent is to concentrate on the slave ships as the stage for all these dramas that drove commerce…he looks upon the slave ship as the key that drove Europe’s commercial revolution and economic globalization.  He claims (I’m still in the intro) that his research focuses on the actual deck of the slave ship. 

I can’t recall the title but I wrote about it here…a piece of fiction that opens with an enslaved African woman attacking the captain of the ship to defend herself against what she perceived as a beast…and I remember asking myself if I’ve ever been taken aboard the slave ship from a female view point?  I read Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage some years ago and alsmost suffocated by the voyage he took me on but it was a masculine experience…altough at the time of reading it I was too involved and overwhelmed by being transported into the experience that gender was of little relevance.

Ottobah Cugoano wrote Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil of Slavery, originally published in London, 1787; reprinted by Penguin in 1999.  Cugoana was an African who went through the Middle Passage and wrote about it later.  I’ve not heard of him and would like to check his life and writing out later.

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The Slave Ship: A Human History, by Marcus Rediker, Viking Press, 2007

I’m starting this one tonight.  Its been on my Amazon list for a while now.  This is a library book.

Tuesday Update:  I’m going to attempt to blog along as I read…often times while reading I come across a phrase, new info, etc. that spurs me off into another direction.  I’m going to attempt to use my post as notes to comeback to later.  So some posts might simply be a question or a phrase or even just an image that I may select to explore later. 

For example, in the introduction of this current book, Rediker references an author I’ve never heard.  Normally I would stop reading here and google to see what I can find, which leads to getting lost on line and taking time away from reading the book.   I’ll see how this works out for me.

Find out more about Ottobah Cugoano.

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Filed under history, Library book, The Middle Passage

Lose Your Mother, cont….

This was a difficult book to read.  Every page held grief and sorrow mixed with the historical content.  If it was the sorrow of the author’s, it was mine, or a combined and collected sorrow, I cannot say for sure; more than likely it was all of the above. 

Throughout most of the book I wondered where the author was leading me…surely she would not open up this wound and just leave it to fester after I ended the last chapter, would she? could she?  Upon starting the 2nd to the last chapter I was silently pleading with her not to leave me there.  I just could not be abandoned in the hull of a slave ship emotionally when I expect so much of myself in the physical world.

The sole academic intent of the book was the examination and exploration of slave routes in Ghana.  It is mixed with the author’s exposure of her own vulnerabilties which I found endearing as it did not place “academia” outside of what transpires in our personal lives.  I found it very brave and courageous for her to lay herself out as much as she did.  At times in tears, anger, indifference…I believe much research from academic scholars would benefit from such open raw honesty. 

Hartman is searching for some solid structure and solid recognition of the descendants of  slaves on the African shores/rituals/psyche…something as identifiable as the slave forts that remain along the coast of Ghana.  During some encounters she comes across as out right accusatory of her host country as continuing to benefit from the proliferation of slavery as a tourist attraction.  Even though I would jump at the opportunity to visit the slave castles and the “door of no return”, she has expanded the discourse in my own head as to how and why I want to do so.   Even though she does not discover some solid historical piece to fill the emptiness and ambivalence that each African American has to reconcile…being descendants of enslaved people in a country founded on such promise…that warring of two souls that DuBois is so famous for speaking on in his book The Souls of Black Folk, Hartman does discover something even more valuable…something that speaks to the future of all common folk yearning to be free and grounded.  Hartman did  come in like a skilled surgeon in the last pages of the last chapter and did not leave my wound open oozing puss and for that I’m most grateful.

Something I’m considering doing as a result of this book is burying all my cowrie shell jewelry…a symbollic act that states I will not be buying anymore cowrie shell jewelry for adoration until I can process this all in my own time and mind.  I’ve known about the cowrie shells as currency for a few decades now, but she is the first scholar I’ve known to share how it translated to the slave trade itself.  176,000 cowries could purchase a healthy male sold in the 19th century.  176,000 cowries. 176,000 dead sea creatures.

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Filed under history, sociology, The Middle Passage

Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), by Saidiya Hartman

Here are links related to the author:  interview with Tavis Smiley; another review; and another review; an essay from the book.

Decades ago when I graduated with my undergraduate, I was only 12 hours from having a double major in Pan-African Studies.  It was my goal at the time to obtain a doctorate degree in Pan-African Studies or African America Studies.  I wanted to become (among many things) a scholar on the Middle Passage.  Being short-sighted on the pushes and pulls of life, my life didn’t unfold as I had planned.  However, books that address this industry of attempting to commodify human beings, particularly African people, for purposes of profit are always on my radar.  Lose Your Mother has been on my Amazon wish list for a nearly 2 years.  I picked it up from my library last week.

Hartman fuses her scholarly research on documenting one of the slave routes with her personal reconciliation and discovery for what it means to be an African America woman.  I’m a third of the way through the book and its like working through fresh grief…her’s and mine.  There are times I’ve found myself wanting to minimize her grief and comfort her broken heart at the realizations of the current impact (dispossession, alienation and anger) of an old wound that scabs over and sometimes festers (ain’t that right Langston Hughes?!) like a sore and then runs. 

The other train of thought is wondering what her views are on the current movement of “hope” we working on now.  I’m certain that 40-50 years from now a young scholar will write as perceptively as she on how this generation’s romanticism or naievete or short-sightedness or whatever-ness fail short of healing the pains of alienation, dispossession, and malaise among common folks. 

Lose Your Mother is a strong companion to Middle Passages by James T. Campbell.  Will write more later.

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Filed under Author Links, history, Library book, sociology, The Middle Passage