“But What about the Captain?”
Slavery had established a measure of man and a
ranking of life and worth that has yet to be undone.
If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black
America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession
with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory,
but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued
by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that
were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of
slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health
and education, premature death, incarceration, and
impoverishment. I, too, am the afterlife of slavery.
Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother, 2007
One of the most memorable events surrounding the 150th anniversary cele-
bration of the abolition of slavery in the Dutch empire, at the end of June
2013, is a reading by Professor Saidiya Hartman at Imagine ic, a lively cen-
ter for cultural heritage in southeast Amsterdam. It is memorable because
of the content of her reading, but also because of how it unfolds. The room
is packed, a mixed audience of black and white women and men. Hartman
(2007) reads from her book Lose Your Mother, a heartbreaking counterhistory
about an enslaved girl aboard a transatlantic slaver, the Recovery, who is se-
verely abused, physically and sexually, by the captain.1 Hartman attempts
to write “at the limit of the unspeakable and the unknown,” miming “the
violence of the archive and attempts to redress it by describing as fully as
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