Waste, Material Memory, and Diasporic Possibility in the Slave Fort

When Saidiya Hartman visits the slave fort for the first time, she confronts the sight and smell of waste and dirt in the dungeon cells. She travels to Ghana to experience a diasporic connection with her ancestors, but there is no sign of the enslaved within the grimy walls of the fort. Considering the emptiness of this archive, the slave fort is a site of heritage tourism that fails in its purpose of commemorating the dead.

As I was first reading Hartman’s memoir Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, I was struck by the material landscape of the slave fort described by Hartman – the layers of waste and bodily remains etched onto the floor, the algae present in the dungeon as a result of these material remains, and the space of the museum and the various present and absent artifacts. I turn to these material landscape features to reconceive the memory of slavery the museum provides and offer possible forms of diasporic connection. I wonder then – can inanimate forms such as waste and dirt reanimate the enslaved as subject, forming an alternative archive and connecting with African American returnees’ desire for the diasporic elsewhere?

Stuart Hall coined the term “diasporic elsewhere” to describe his relationship with jazz while studying at Oxford as an English graduate student. Hall says in an interview that jazz represented for him a “special sort of contemporary or avant-garde consciousness that was happening elsewhere.”[1] Nadia Ellis elaborates that the symbolic force of this diasporic consciousness is related to the call from afar that the diasporic citizen keeps trying to answer. Hartman experiences a similar diasporic pull toward the space of the slave fort where she might find memories of her ancestors. However, the fort does not contain any personal belongings of the enslaved, but merely represents the site of death and suffering in which the captive resided.

Photo by Mac-Jordan Degadjor on Flickr.
[Image description: A dark, white room inside Elmina fort. A large window in the right of the image has vertical bars across it].

The figure of the slave fort reigns supreme as a form of heritage tourism that is widely popular with African diasporic tourists but has a complicated connection to the Ghanaian nation-state. Ghanaian and African diasporic people experience different attachments to this history of slavery, leading to disputes over the space between these two categories of meaning.[2] While African diasporic tourists examine the forts through the lens of the past in a search for identity and spiritual homecoming, most Ghanaian locals view the forts through a utilitarian desire to promote development. Both parties try to create a fiction of collective memory to promote a common African heritage. For instance, the Ghanaian tour guides that accompany the African diasporic tourists are responsible for narrating histories and anecdotes that took place in the slave fort. The slave fort becomes a performative contact zone between visitors from different nations, as the tourist occupies the role of both spectator and actor, while the Ghanaian guide needs to recreate a history they learned to forget in order to attract tourists. Although the African diasporic tourist is seeking material memories of slavery, the Ghanaian guide is divorced from this diasporic desire and therefore not as invested in the slave fort as a site of memory.

Hartman’s visit to Elmina Castle reflects the gap between the diasporic dream and its material reality. As Hartman enters the slave fort, she expects to encounter material remnants of the enslaved, but all she finds is emptiness. Hartman notes that the museum houses a glass display case with items for which the enslaved had been traded such as “checkered cotton cloth, brass and iron bracelets, china, glass beads, red stones, umbrellas, guns, whiskey, mirrors, and chamber pots.”[3] The list of items ranging from household goods to more luxury items itemizes people as capital. Yet, despite these markers of economic exchange, the enslaved themselves are missing in the museum and none of their belongings are present within. According to the Ghana Tourism Authority, the Elmina Castle Museum was established in 1996 with the main purpose of educating the public on the history of the castle and preserving the cultural heritage of the Central Region. However, the lack of personal possessions of the enslaved point to the failure of the museum to perform its goal of commemorating the dead. Instead, it stands as an empty signifier for the lives lost to the slave trade.

Photo by bdinphoenix on Flickr.
[Image description: A large, white rectangular fort with a slanted red roof sits on the edge of the ocean, with blue sky behind. Palm trees dot the coast on either side of the fort].

As a descendant of the enslaved, Hartman comments that her ancestors made it to the new world, yet her legacy starts with the “graveyard,” reading the slave fort as a site of death. She wonders about her purpose in visiting the fort: “Hovering in an empty room was my attempt to figure out how this underground had created and marked me… I was loitering in a slave dungeon less because I hoped to discover what really happened here than because of what lived on from this history. Why else begin an autobiography in a graveyard?”[4] Hartman dwells on the significance of visiting a landscape haunted by death, wondering about the processes of marking– the ways in which the slave fort has marked the enslaved, the slave’s personal markers within the fort, and finally the fort’s marks upon Hartman and her life as well. Edouard Glissant emphasizes a turn to the landscape in the absence of local historiography, saying, “Our landscape is its own monument: its meaning can only be traced on the underside. It is all history.”[5] Due to the absence of historical archives, a turn to the landscape of slavery can help negotiate the gaps of this archive, even as the landscape itself functions as a site of death.

Hartman visits the dungeon at Elmina Castle and find herself yearning to find traces of the enslaved. As soon as Hartman steps into the dungeon, she reflects on the human waste permanently covering the dungeon floor that even archaeologists could not clear away. She says, “I refused this knowledge. I blocked it out and proceeded across the dungeon as if the floor was just that and not the remnants of slaves pressed further into oblivion by the soles of my shoes. I came to this fort searching for ancestors, but in truth only base matter awaited me… The only part of my past that I could put my hands on was the filth from which I recoiled, layers of organic material pressed hard against the stone floor.”[6] Hartman’s search for her enslaved ancestors leads to the material history of waste, which serves as a diasporic connection, even if she does not invite it. Her refusal of this knowledge is significant, since despite her refusal and affective recoil, she still stands on the remains of the enslaved, creating a form of material intimacy.

Hartman’s refusal of this waste as history stems from her understanding that “ingestion exemplified the merchant’s accumulation of capital and the slave’s dispossession,” therefore waste served as a signifier for capital.”[7] However, this waste is also a significant part of the material history of the West African landscape, creating an alternative archive in the absence of physical artifacts and helping fulfill the diasporic tourist’s desire to remember the enslaved.

Photo by bdinphoenix on Flickr.
[Image description: A wall, discolored with age sits in the foreground on the right and another wall foregrounded left, looking towards Elmina fort in the background].

Hartman’s assertion that waste is outside history overlooks dirt’s presence, which surrounds us in material ways and at multiple scales. Heather Sullivan emphasizes that dirt makes up the earth itself and is mobile like our bodies. Dirt’s mobility makes it just as diasporic in its reach as Hartman herself. Sullivan proposes “dirt theory” as “an antidote to nostalgic views rendering nature a far-away and “clean” site precisely in order to suggest that there is no ultimate boundary between us and nature. We are enmeshed within dirt in its many forms.”[8]

At the same time, Sullivan acknowledges the many definitions of dirt—from toxic grime to nurturing soil—and adds that dirt theory must attend to dirt’s positive and negative connotations in cultural and scientific discourse. Reflecting on the maternal aspect of soil, Chris Maser says that soil is the motherly placenta that nurtures all life and connects the living and the nonliving.[9] Recognizing this maternal connotation can allow us to reconceptualize Hartman’s experience in the dungeon as a space where the waste matter on the floor creates a diasporic link to the enslaved ancestors through an enmeshing of elemental materiality.

Although Hartman desires to pay tribute to ancestors and remember kin, she refuses to see the space of the dungeon as anything other than a hold. Despite the emptiness of the archive and Hartman’s unwillingness to acknowledge waste as history, she admits that the dungeon offers a space for a kind of negative affect. The feeling was “akin to choking. My chest grew congested and my palms started sweating and I got lightheaded… I could feel my torso bulge understand like a corpse swelling with gases.”[10] Hartman grapples with the experience of the slave hold and the physical sensations overpower her so she feels “like a corpse,” inhabiting a similar temporal and spatial dimension as the enslaved ancestors themselves. She claims, “My skin became tight and prickly, as if there was too little of it and too much of everything else.”[11] The waste and dirt fill in for the emptiness of the dungeon and these material remainders become the “too much of everything else” that Hartman experiences. Despite her initial refusal, Hartman’s bodily reactions indicate a diasporic connection to enslaved ancestors through this material memory that arises through the encounter with the slave hold and the waste and remains of her ancestors within.

Examining the material elements of the slave fort such as the waste, dirt, and artifacts in the museum allows us to see the interconnections between the material memory of slavery and the diasporic elsewhere. While Hartman feels disappointed with the emptiness of the slave dungeon, her affective and physical responses to the material space leads her to engage in questions of diasporic connection and alternative horizons. The slave fort moves beyond being merely a form of heritage tourism but begins to serve as a space for possible diasporic connections for the African diasporic tourists and for others reflecting on the site of the slave fort intellectually.

[1] Nadia Ellis, “Introduction: The Queer Elsewhere of Black Diaspora,” in Territories of the Soul: Queered Belonging in the Black Diaspora (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 2.

[2]Elizabeth MacGonagle, “From Dungeons to Dance Parties: Contested Histories of Ghana’s Slave Forts,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 24, no. 2 (2006), 250.

[3] Sandra L. Richards, “What Is to Be Remembered? Tourism to Ghana’s Slave Castle Dungeons,” Theatre Journal 57, no. 4 (December 2005), 622.

[4] Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 116.

[5] Ibid., 130.

[6] Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, translated by J.M. Dash (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1989), 11.

[7] Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 115.

[8] Ibid., 114.

[9] Heather I. Sullivan, “Dirt Theory and Material Ecocriticism,” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 19, no. 3 (December 2012), 515.

[10] Chris Maser, “Living with the Forest: Ecology, Community, Economy,” in The Idea of the Forest: German and American Perspectives on the Culture and Politics of Trees, ed. Karla L. Schultz and Kenneth S. Calhoon (New York, NY: Peter Lang, 1996), 14.

[11] Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 118.

*Cover image: St. George’s Castle (1482) in Elmina, Ghana, is one of the oldest European structures in sub-Saharan Africa. Photo by David Stanley on Flickr.

[*Image description: A series of white buildings dotted with square windows and read slanted roofs surround a white derelict courtyard.]

Edited by Evelyn Ramiel, reviewed by Emily Webster.

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