MONTEREY - On one of her visits to the local transfer station in the town of Monterey, Saidiya Hartman had a conversation with a neighbor with whom she had something in common.
"I met a woman who went to the same high school as I did, Christ the King in New York," said Hartman, a professor at Columbia University who lives in the Berkshires in the summer and returns to New York City for the rest of the year. "It's a small world in those ways."
Though this was an unexpected bond in an unusual setting, Hartman has focused on the idea of commonalities in recent years. It began when Hartman traveled to Ghana in 1998 where she stayed for a year to learn more about the stories of those affected by the Atlantic Slave Trade, but she ended up writing a more personal story based on her mother's ancestral roots in Ghana. She documented this experience in a 2007 book, "Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route," where she had to rethink notions of a shared experience among the peoples of the African Diaspora and learned to broaden her meanings of identity and community in a global world.
But disclosing these revelations came with a cost, she said. "People have very strong feelings about 'Lose Your Mother.' Some people liked it, but some hated it because it talked about the tensions between African-Americans and Africans," she said. "And then there was my mother; she was upset because she felt exposed in a way. It was like, 'Why do you have to talk about your family at all.'" Turning the attention toward her family wasn't the initial plan.
"I was struggling with the lack of firsthand accounts. I asked myself, 'How am I going to write a book about an encounter with nothing?'" said Hartman, whose many specializations include African-American history. " It was the other scholars I was with who said, 'This story is very personal. Stop resisting.'" Reviewing the detailed journal she kept during her stay in Ghana, Hartman saw her story come alive on the pages. "I had hundreds of pages of my experiences, enabling me to reflect on the scholarly and the personal," she said.
One of the main issues centered on Hartman's identity as a black American in relation to the Ghanaians.
"I didn't feel like I was an outsider; people were telling me I was an outsider. They called me 'bruni,' which means white person, or stranger or westerner," said Hartman. The term is used interchangeably. "I discovered that I had a romance that all black people had a similar experience." But for Hartman, even trying to talk about slavery was considered an affront at times.
"I expected there to be a similar reaction to slavery in West Ghana as it was in the Diaspora, but there was such a different take on it. It was like, why would you bring (slavery) up," said Hartman, who also spent some time in Curacao, Brazil learning about her dad's roots. "Plus, there was African slavery; it was like these two histories of slavery that were overlapping. There's shame that Africans have for participating as trade partners with Europeans. We don't ingest how complicated that legacy is."
Interestingly, Hartman found that the longing she had for an ancestral home that, in essence, no longer recognized her as one of its own, was a theme that resonated with others.
"Some people identified with how we've been shaped by the past. Also, it was interesting to speak with a European immigrant who said it felt like I was telling her story about a home that no longer exists," Hartman said. "People who experienced homelessness and displacement also identified with it."
Reconciled with her past and history, Hartman's identity today is, in a way, fluid.
"I think people, we create our identities, so I think there's power in that. I guess I would say that that was part of my journey," she said. "How and where we belong, that's not static. It changes."