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The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.4 (2002) 757-777

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The Time of Slavery

Saidiya Hartman

For to me history was not a large stage filled with commemoration, bands, cheers, ribbons, medals, the sound of fine glass clinking and raised high in the air; in other words, the sounds of victory. For me history was not only the past: it was the past and it was also the present. I did not mind my defeat, I only minded that it had to last so long; I did not see the future, and that is perhaps as it should be.

—Jamaica Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother

Slavery here is a ghost, both the past and the living presence; and the problem of historical representation is how to represent the ghost.

—Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past

A memorial plaque posted near the entryway of the courtyard of Elmina Castle reads, "In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors. May those who died rest in peace. May those who return find their roots. May humanity never again perpetrate such injustice against humanity. We the living vow to uphold this." As the plaque suggests, reckoning with our responsibility to the dead necessitates not only our remembrance but also a promise to forswear the injustice that enabled this crime against humanity to occur. It would appear that our lives [End Page 757] and even those of the dead depend on such acts of remembrance. Yet how best to remember the dead and represent the past is an issue fraught with difficulty, if not outright contention.

The difficulty posed by the plaque's injunction to remember is as much the faith it bespeaks in the redressive capacities of memory, as the confidence it betrays in the founding distinction or break between then and now. For the distinction between the past and the present founders on the interminable grief engendered by slavery and its aftermath. How might we understand mourning, when the event has yet to end? When the injuries not only perdure, but are inflicted anew? Can one mourn what has yet ceased happening? The point here is not to deny the abolition of slavery or to assert the identity or continuity of racism over the course of centuries, but rather to consider the constitutive nature of loss in the making of the African diaspora and the role of grief in transatlantic identification, especially in light of the plaque's behest that those returning find their roots, which is second only to the desire that the dead rest in peace.

I attempt to grapple with these questions by examining the role of tourism as a vehicle of memory, specifically tourist performances at Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle in Ghana and at La Maison de Esclaves on Goree Island, Senegal, and the ways in which the identifications and longings of the tourist, the formulas of roots tourism, and the economic needs of African states shape, affect, and influence our understanding of slavery and in concert produce a collective memory of the past. 1

As the plaque intimates, to remember the dead is to mend ruptured lines of descent and filiation. In this regard, remembrance is entangled with reclaiming the past, propitiating ancestors, and recovering the origins of the descendants of this dispersal. To remember slavery is to imagine the past as the "fabric of our own experience" and seizing hold of it as "the key to our identity." 2 And the belated return of the African-American tourist is fraught with these issues. The fixation on roots reveals the centrality of identity not only to the transactions of tourism, but in staging the encounter with the past. Identification and bereavement are inextricably linked in this instance; since the roots we are encouraged to recover presuppose the rupture of the transatlantic slave trade and the natal alienation and kinlessness of enslavement. Put differently, the issues of loss and our identification with the dead are central to both the work of mourning and the political imagination of the African diaspora. 3 And, for this reason, grief is a central...