Ghosts of the Atlantic: An Author’s Response

This post is part of our online roundtable on Sowande’ Mustakeem’s Slavery at Sea.

"Chained To The Hatch," 1864. Photo: NYPL Digital Collections.
“Chained To The Hatch,” 1864. Photo: NYPL Digital Collections.

Slavery haunts the present. Yet, not all are attuned or willing to engage with its history, meanings, or evolving consequences. On Memorial Day in 2016, the same day as the premiere of the millennial remake of Alex Haley’s 1977 mini-series Roots, acclaimed hip hop artist Snoop Dogg posted a video on his Instagram account in response to the revived miniseries. He said, “No disrespect but I can’t watch no more motherf — –’ black movies where n — — getting dogged out. 12 Years a Slave, Roots, Underground, I can’t watch none of that s — . I’m sick of this s — . How the f — they gonna put Roots on on Memorial Day? They gon’ just keep beating that s — into our heads of how they did us, huh? I don’t understand America.”

His views went viral for his rare social commentary, creating shock among some and relief among others who shared his views. As one supportive blogger responded, “enough is enough” with visualizing slavery’s past.

I shared his candid thoughts with two classes of college students this semester. I asked them to ponder two important questions: What are the dangers of not paying attention to slavery projects? Even more, what do we know of slavery’s history so deeply that it need not be remembered any further?

U.S. Brig Perry, American Slave Ship Martha, June 6, 1850. Photo: Schomburg Center.
U.S. Brig Perry, American Slave Ship Martha, June 6, 1850. Photo: NYPL Digital Collections.

In many ways, Snoop Dogg’s monologue reflects the variations and struggles in society concerning whether or not to take more seriously slavery’s complicated history. The moment also offered a glimpse into the evolving battleground of public memory and public silence that Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex and Sickness in the Middle Passage was written within for close to 16 years. Over time, as I have found, the world in all its many facets of human living and open expression to remembering slavery—with sadness, celebration, confusion, empathy, amnesia, and even rage—collectively helped to detail that history, but even more how we make meaning of slavery’s terrorizing past.

Slavery at Sea stands in a long black historiography on the slave trade that began in 1896 with W.E.B. DuBois through his Harvard dissertation. Decades more would pass until many black scholars such as Eric Williams, Walter Rodney, Carter G. Woodson, Darold Wax, and Lorenzo Greene would extend DuBois’s call to expose the contours and human consequences of this massive international slave trade and North America’s participation in and substantial benefit from the trade. As Douglas Egerton aptly reminds us, however, the dominance of the numbers debate post-1969 “unintentionally minimized the horrors and tragedy of the Middle Passage by privileging cold data over human stories.”

The path to publication took considerable time, but not for a lack of primary sources. As I moved throughout New York City, Rhode Island, Liverpool, London, Jamaica, and South Carolina, among a host of other former ports within the terrain of at least 25 archives, I let the sources and their ghosts lead me. I trained my eyes to read 18th-century script more easily; I perused newspapers, diaries, ship logs, merchants’ correspondence, mortality lists, and surgeons’ letters along with a myriad of slavery’s other surviving relics that further informed the network. Most of all, I followed paper trails towards overlooked sources to help show how this history is still deeply untold. The archives I searched for and mined through led me down many roads less traveled—beyond national waters and expected routes.

"The slave deck of the bark Wildfire, brought into Key West on April 30, 1860." Photo: NYPL Digital Collections.
“The slave deck of the bark Wildfire, brought into Key West on April 30, 1860.” Photo: NYPL Digital Collections.

As the reviewers point out, Slavery at Sea is a first of many kinds. It poses new questions that enabled the integration of a larger land and seascape of archival sources useful in a myriad of human stories for so long unheard. By centering gender more deeply than before, it counters the tendency to rely on narratives that solely illustrate the life, resistance, and deaths of slavery primarily through stories of muscled black men that in turn ensure the de-historicizing of black women, black girls, and black boys in slavery’s alchemy of horrors.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade, re-conceptualized in the book as “the human manufacturing process,” comprised a violently “multistaged” disruptive process—warehouse, transport, and delivery—that both made and unmade (broke down) bondpeople, female and male, prior to the next phase of slaving on land.

By giving voice to a range of tales of the truly forgotten within Middle Passage Studies, Slavery at Sea leaves room to engage the war-like functions of rape, the murder of enslaved children, the fate of refuse slaves, seaborne abortions, miscarriages, and moreover the layered meanings of gendered bodies to enforce greater attention to the terms and categories of those funneled through slave markets on both sides of the Atlantic. Contemporary readings of black bodies often project expectations of perfect, fertile, beautiful, resistive, disease-free, and most of all strong, able black bodies. Yet my book proves the impossibility of the import of healthy slaves given the deplorable conditions, cheap investment, and sustained immersion in toxic spaces and among ailing and dying bodies during the transoceanic transport.

"Traversée," ca. 1830-1839. Photo: NYPL Digital Collections.
“Traversée,” ca. 1830-1839. Photo: NYPL Digital Collections.

Knowing the ever-present threat of terrorism within bondage, Marisa Fuentes is right to ask: what do we do with the violence of the archives? Foremost, I am mindful of the decline of foot traffic to archives, libraries, and publicly-funded repositories that enable seeing historic violence through primary sources (of which libraries need more); therefore, seeing the centuries of damages becomes necessary. Entrepreneurial decisions driven by wealth set into motion the policing of black bodies and the medicalizing of blackness that slavery at sea produced. Therefore, in order to move beyond the dichotomy of the long-imagined American plantation south and the over-theorizing of the unknown and unfamiliar, we have to begin to understand the details and phases of the horrendous dismantling of lives that began overseas. But even more for everyday learners, we have to be clear about what the violence is, in, out, and/or of the archives in question.

Pushing back against bloodless narratives that privilege numbers over lives, Slavery at Sea continues to ask readers, whether 2 or 200 people, what did they experience and thus endure? Seeing the totalizing of the process, Joshua Rothman notes, “among the more powerful elements of Slavery at Sea is how Mustakeem details the ways the shocks of the trade applied to the body and the mind alike in a kind of demented feedback loop.” I chose the most terrifying stories to enable seeing the traumas both produced and carried while at the same time attempting to make undeniably visible the terror, the disfigured, the maimed, the decapitated, and the casually overthrown. Doing so, the book “exposes humanity at its absolute lowest in a multi-centuried chapter in global history.” Queries into violence enable these understandings. Therefore, Vanessa Holden underscores how the book “implicitly engages the ways that violence and its physical consequences remains a language that both the reader and the researcher can read and understand.”

This book intentionally honors slavery’s dead, but within a far wider spectrum than imagined. It centers black people forced into a vortex fueled by exports and imports of black bodies while casting significant light on the many white men hired as laborers and ship crew members tasked with facilitating the preservation and dispersal of captive black bodies. The book also foregrounds the fragility of black life through slave ship surgeons who advertised their professional skills to join slaving voyages, conceivably to combat often untreatable diseases common among boarded captives. “If death is the archive, medical accounts are the evidence,” Jessica Millward writes, pointing to the portal death, black bodies, and especially the medical uses of racialized power over boarded captives in deepening the histories of slavery.

The path to publication led me even closer to myself. Reading descriptors such as “masterful study,” “keenly attentive,” “pioneering,” and “fresh and important” point to the hard work involved while also affirming my commitment to the rigor of research and upgrading the writing. The book may have illuminated the multitudes of unknowns within slavery at sea, but it also revealed me to myself as a writer, historian, and innovator through a two-week silent meditation, and most of all through the embrace of music and the production of sound to create a rare book complement with an academic book soundtrack. The book and the process moreover nudged me towards greater trust in the path, in myself as a scholar, and in my own creative decisions on how best to leave an imprint for the future in seeing, feeling, and remembering slavery’s agonizing past.

I am extremely grateful to Black Perspectives and the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) for hosting this roundtable. It is a true honor for Slavery at Sea to gain close engagement from the dynamism of a range of scholars who I have long respected and continue to learn from, through, and with over many years. I deeply thank Douglas Egerton, Marisa Fuentes, Vanessa Holden, Jessica Marie Johnson, Jessica Millward, and Joshua Rothman, who each offer a profound depth of analysis for future readers to consider Middle Passage Studies and the many ghosts of the Atlantic.


Sowande' Mustakeem

Sowande’ Mustakeem is an associate professor in the Department of History and the African and African American Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis. Mustakeem has published a number of influential articles and book chapters on topics including black women’s history, gender, violence, the social history of medicine and the studies of the black Atlantic/African diaspora. Follow her on Twitter @somustakeem.

Comments on “Ghosts of the Atlantic: An Author’s Response

  • This roundtable scholarly series on “Slavery at Sea” is magnificent. It is erudite, eloquent, and of award-winning stature. Continued success to this fine publication.

    Al-Tony Gilmore. Ph.D.
    Historian Emeritus
    National Education Association

    Reply

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