Saidiya Hartman Unravels the Archive

Historians in the News
tags: African American history, archives, Saidiya Hartman, sexual history

Like so many problems in contemporary scholarship, the archive obsesses even as it disappoints. The latter feeling feeds the former: we may never be done imagining new ways to coax the past’s full truth from its partial traces, to buff opaque artifacts until history shines through. Sometimes the archive is an abstraction in need of theorizing, the call you place eagerly, connection spotty and crackling with static, to the unresponsive dead. For the practicing researcher, the archive is more often a particular room of variable grandeur, in which particular boxes are carted out by variably accommodating librarians. You pull particular files and puzzle over variably decipherable script. If you’re lucky, you see something—or see something through it. You get absorbed.

Both obsession and disappointment are magnified for scholars of the subjugated or the dispossessed. For theorists, conceptual problems proliferate: how to listen for the dominated in the archives of the dominant? How, for example, might one recover the experiences of enslaved people—barred from literacy on threat of torture, sale, or death—from the records of owners and traders without amplifying the violence that confined them there? In her 2008 essay, “Venus in Two Acts,” Saidiya Hartman attempts to exhume one black woman called Venus, killed aboard a slave ship, from the paper trail of the Middle Passage. Of the materials that constitute that trail, she writes, “The archive is, in this case, a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body, an inventory of property, a medical treatise on gonorrhea, a few lines about a whore’s life, an asterisk in the grand narrative of history.” The scholar’s route to a different narrative is riddled with obstacles; her sources are alternately too scant and too extensive. The absence of personal testimony isn’t compensated for but rather compounded by reams of documentation: bills of sale, court transcripts, ship manifests, newspaper clippings, and so on. Consulting these archives can feel like staring into a dense void.

Or so I’ve learned from reading Hartman, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. For the past two decades, she has been among our foremost archival thinkers. As a theorist, researcher, and writer, her impact has been enormous, her model formidable and enabling. Hartman’s first two books found new angles of approach to Transatlantic slavery and what she terms its “afterlife”—the “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment” that persist into our present. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997) traced “tragic continuities” between the routine violence of enslavement and racist forms of discipline that emerged after Emancipation. Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007) broke from the protocols of scholarly writing, blending memoir with narrative history to interrogate how the epochal ruptures of the slave trade still strain relations between contemporary Africans and black Americans. Through its account of Hartman’s own trip to Ghana, Lose Your Mother folded the research process into the stories it yields.

Read entire article at The Nation

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