Q&A with Sowande’ Mustakeem

slavery-at-seaThis is an interview with Sowande’ Mustakeem, who is an Assistant Professor in the departments of History and African and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Today she speaks with The Junto about her book, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage, which Casey Schmitt reviewed yesterday. Her previous work has appeared in journals such as Atlantic Studies and the Journal of African American History, and edited volumes such as Understanding and Teaching American Slavery, Teaching Lincoln: What Every K-12 Student Needs to Know, and Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Power in Maritime America.

RACHEL HERRMANN: What is the central argument or perhaps what do you see as the book’s major contribution?

SOWANDE’ MUSTAKEEM: The central argument I set forward is that the Atlantic Slave Trade when looked at from the point of an operation of a trade and process that extended for over four centuries, is fundamentally best characterized as a human manufacturing process. Through the various phases of manufacturing—warehouse, transport, and delivery—we see the tangible making and unmaking of slaves from the point of capture and sale on the coast through the shipboard transport and onto the plantations that exposed slaves more concretely to the meanings of degrading bondage and their place within it. This therein leads to the very real fact that contrary to belief, the terrorizing process made impossible the import of prime healthy enslaved bodies, or what some characterize as “the best of the best arrived into port.” The violent preservation methods that hinged on cheap preservation of black bodies sanctioned by merchants, money, and buyers permitted disrupture, devastation, sickness, violation, and losses that shaped the carrying and subsequent import of a black labor force into the Americas. The greatest takeaway for me is not only offering greater detail to deepen the conversation to guard against the exclusion of women, children, and elderly, but also increasing depth of interest in these histories to texturize the histories even more forcefully within and beyond numbers.

RBH: This book makes an argument for the duality of silence and memory in histories of slavery at sea. Where on this spectrum do you see the act of historical imagination?

SM: Every book on slavery stands at a crossroads between silence and memory for the reading public. My book, like many others, offers a choice to actively engage a painful past that includes many unknowns of slavery far less iconic in public memory—or not. As I traveled to archives, conferences, libraries, museums, and historical societies, I interacted with different types of memories among people and throughout this research I continually bore witness to an invisible, persistent, and sometimes an almost casual silence about what actually happened on slave ships. In fact, when I began giving talks many years earlier, one of the most startling revelations of this reality was hearing confessions, “Oh yea I forgot that black women were on slave ships and were traded too.” Over the years we have seen the contentious battle for slavery’s inclusion at least within North American curriculums as educators and local leaders fight against, or in other states fight to perpetuate the blurring and blotting out of the history of the Middle Passage, or rather the Triangular Trade by ridding textbooks of any mention of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. By renaming the system and its terrorizing history, the specificities are overlooked to create more comfortable, sometimes patriotic testimonies devoid of substantial conversation on the movement of diverse merchant money and reliance on violence to appease future visions of wealth centrally across the globe on the backs of black people. This can and will invariably ensure amnesia.

Therefore, operating within what I see as the matrix-like web of memory that writers of the past attempt to engage with themselves, I used my work to push back against the continued overlooking of many people and thematic details of brutalities. In so doing, my aim was to move instead toward making alive the memories of the people, the stories, and the sometimes painful moments. I tell my students all the time that many people are always lured most by sex, love, ghosts, blood, war, and/or murder. Through that I knew the best way to facilitate the visuals of slavery off the plantation was by centering the brutalities, the people, the pain, the agony, the blood, trauma, the body parts, the battles, the losses, and the deaths on ships and the waters beneath. Of course centuries later I have to imagine the movement of ships and water in my mind, but having a very active imagination, over time my writing evolved and storytelling took greater form.

RBH: Olaudah Equiano is markedly absent from Slavery at Sea. Did you decide to omit his narrative because of questions about the veracity of his origins (and thus his section on the Middle Passage), or for some other reason?

SM: In thinking about the voices I was intending to amass to tell this critical chapter in global history through the book, I was strategically intentional towards centering the multitudes of unknown whose experiences of bondage are most times left out of public dialogue precisely due to the unfamiliarity of their story and their lives. For over a century of historical scholarship, adult black men have been the focal point of tracing the history and outplay of the commercial sale of black bodies. Olaudah Equiano and Phyllis Wheatley are two of the most referenced captives historically connected to and talked about relative to the slave trade, but what about the many, many others largely unfamiliar to many of us?

I am always drawn to the less obvious and less popular, the underdogs of history if you will. Therefore, when wrapping up, I asked myself, “what does this history look like if these historical icons are understood as apart from the mass of experiences within the commercialized process, rather than retelling their story as emblematic of all slaves?” This book is not about one person or one group of participants. Instead, I attempt to meet readers at their most basic assumptions of the trade while also problematizing it further to get much deeper at the core of human embodied experience. I open the book invoking the curious case of two bonded females, which already stands apart from many books on the Middle Passage or the slave trade. The story told alters the conversations which are based many times solely on the iconic Brookes vessel image influential in many people’s expectation of male bodies and male stories, although visually devoid of diverse other bodies similarly sold as viable goods. The book opens with this active slaving past by giving readers the vantage point from the gaze of two women, and moreover by providing a macro-micro history wherein which Equiano could not be centrally included in my narrative without luring the gaze towards his own story and on-going debates.

RBH: In the book you make clear that you have envisioned your chapters theoretically in centering the making and unmaking of slaves, but also symbolically, as different disembodied body parts of enslaved men and women — genitalia, blood, and limbs, among others. When and how in the writing and editing process did these overlapping structures occur to you?

SM: The path to publication made the book even better. So that when the book was initially done, I went back to ensure the central argument was not only woven throughout to account for the entire process and its theoretical meaning connected with the making and the unmaking of slaves, but also holding my own self accountable in the writing process. I began to ask for the first time, “what is this? What is this history?” It is big, it is massive, it went on between and through centuries that none of us ever lived in within this lifetime. However, thinking more deeply about what was produced even beyond the top layer of slavery itself but also death, I thought more about the many bodies, the disparate body parts, and the many people—white and black—whose lives and deaths become stitched together through the process. Taking the view more deeply, as I considered what each chapter offered I began to envision the focal point of body parts and limbs through which I was wading through in an attempt to reveal the laboratory of suffering.

I was quite fearful of writing the end of the book because I could not understand how to say it all over again without sounding boring and losing the reader’s attention. To be sure, I knew that the preceding seven chapters sought to make clear the history, but I kept thinking even more—it is the meaning of this history and what was produced, dismantled, and broken apart through the process. So being the risk taker I am, I said I have one shot to create something interesting, maybe even memorable. I read against the grain, meaning I drew upon my training in a graduate program in Comparative Black History to go beyond merely reading African American history and delving into Caribbean, Central/South American, and West African history to widen my scope of understanding. Even more, I am a huge fan of Elaine Scarry’s important work The Body in Pain, Kathryn Verdery’s truly provocative book, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies, and Simone Giggliotti’s work, The Train Journey: Transit, Captivity, and Witnessing in the Holocaust. Collectively these books helped me to understand the less obvious I am always searching for, but most of all they helped me to gain language to understand and likewise detail the range of pain, the terror, the loss, and devastation within spaces and against others that was human, real, graphically unavoidable, and unable to be reduced to a statistical equation.

As I wrote the epilogue I worked diligently on integrating emotion-producing words and stories of many, many, many spirits whose lives and sometimes deaths are still left within that mark of time and dimension, waiting to be remembered. I challenged myself to make clear what this history means and I offer, as I noted in the title, a mere “meditation” on memory offered within Slavery at Sea. While talking with a close friend about tying up the book, we spoke in depth going back and forth on ideas of what it is about the Middle Passage that people blatantly chose to avoid. Through that conversation the “Frankenstein of Slavery” was born, if you will, because I saw this history even more like a stepchild of history with consequences for those in the past and the present. I remembered movies like People Under the Stairs and even V. C.  Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic, which visualized the hiding of the sins done and caused in the lives of others. In fact, the opening derives—far from accidental—from the British Showtime series, Penny Dreadful and the Season 1 treatment of the birth of Frankenstein. Therefore when I thought on what this history means that the reader should care about, I thought about the creator and also what was created, what was hidden and how integrated the histories and the people became on all sides over centuries and generations. So I opted to end with a theoretical outtake that could offer some nuanced ways of thinking about this arguably forgotten history.

RBH: Do you think that the relationship between water and violence changes at all depending on where on the ocean people were located? To put the question differently: was all water equal, or was coastal water somehow different from the middle of the ocean?

SM: Water and violence have such an integral relationship far more than many realize. While I would say superficially that all water was equal, thinking about differences within vast spaces—on the coast versus in the middle of the ocean—forges even more the necessary understandings of slavery not only within but moreover outside of plantations to understand the contours of black history through and on water. Kevin Dawson’s groundbreaking article that came out while I was in grad school on enslaved divers in the Atlantic World opened my mind to the water and the relationship of black bodies in and of it. David Cecelski’s book, The Waterman’s Song likewise got me to think early on about the coastal waters and the role of black mariners. Jeffrey D. Bolster’s book Black Jacks, as well as his later 2008 article in the American Historical Review, “Putting the Ocean in Atlantic History,” had drastic influence on how I considered water and the maritime world in nuanced ways. Early in my career I made a point to situate my work within, not outside, maritime conversations and in so doing I was able to understand space, water, place, and bodies, but moreover the ongoing relationship of humans to the sea that is largely taken for granted through the transport process. Without this project I would never have thought about the anonymity and grossly private nature of behaviors acted out within the ocean. The middle of the ocean when land was far from sight facilitated a dangerous isolation without sustained public awareness, gaze, or even understanding of the treatment of people in tangible ways. So through my book water holds an important place as an agent far more deserving of public and scholarly attention because water was the pathway, but also a portal between worlds, when we are willing to delve beyond the surface to consider worlds both seen and unseen.

RBH: You take care in the book to make clear that part of the work you are doing is to expand the definitions historians use to refer to bondpeople — such as making sure that when scholars write about women, they also need to include infant girls and the elderly. What other words or terms do you think require more care from historians?

SM: Part of my graduating training required being clear on terms and as I was a part of conversations I could not understand why men and women were the only groups largely referenced in primary dialogue. A two year old is not a woman, nor did every bondwoman come in with children. So it’s the requirement of deeper thought and moving past a singular narrative of suffering because as I remind my students men cannot die from an abortion and women cannot die from a torn scrotum. In being clear on the terms moreover we have to be clear on the experience and the variance of the process. Equally connected to this is the fragility of assumptions connected with behavior where for instance every bondperson who committed suicide was not Igbo nor can we cast every slave seen as rebellious as Akan.

RBH: Health takes a variety of forms in this book’s discussion including and beyond disease and physical sickness. Can you expand on the medical discussions offered and how you think this may broaden discourses of race, medicine, and treatment of black bodies for current studies?

SM: Centering the medical history of slavery at sea may be one of the most nuanced lenses for my book, if merely because it is unexpected in the variegated forms it offers. Health is very much a central factor that runs throughout when you look at health as more than the plantation view of physician and “patient.” Instead, health surfaces through the discussion during moments of trauma, inspection, boarding, psychological breakdowns that both males and females acted out, including common ailments of smallpox and flux, as well as perhaps being the first book on the Middle Passage to offer a beginning discussion of disability on both sides of the Atlantic during the slaving process and moreover how it was perceived by potential buyers. The suicide chapter is perhaps one of my most admired chapters because thematically that is how I came into the project as a first year graduate student at The Ohio State University when I took a “Black Political Movements and Organizations” course and was introduced to There is A River by Vincent Harding. His opening chapter in particular got me thinking more deeply on whether such moments of psychological angst were heroic or not through the desperation activated for freedom from torment. Even more within my book, I wanted to be sure that ship revolts—the most highly sought out aspect of my book often when giving talks—was not conflated with the terrain of mental evolution that all slaves went through in not only attempting to cope with the shock of enslavement, but also surviving the process as best they could.

Going further, there is a tangible chapter that explores epidemiology but also the tenuous interactions of slave ship surgeons and sailors. I likewise teach a medical history that I have taught for many years, so I already see first-hand how my discussions on slavery and health can go more deeply beyond the plantation but also beyond even my 2011 Atlantic Studies article—which examined how an eighteenth-century Rhode Island ship captain ordered the homicidal death of a black woman left for dead by crewmen out in the middle of the ocean to preserve the remaining cargo. Slavery at sea not only offers closer views on the body, but also allows a continuous thread throughout to trace the medical insight gained along with the difficulty of importing these idealized healthy prime bodies into port given the alchemy of horrors throughout. The future remains to be seen in the historical expansion of these medical conversations, but the future studies can no longer exclude black females, children, and the elderly from these critical interventions. Nor can we overlook the beginnings of medicalized treatment of black bodies held and transported and commercial property through the Atlantic Slave Trade.

RBH: More recently terror has become centered in global realities of histories and histories of slavery. How was it operationalized within slavery at sea? How did you come to integrate that particular theme within your narrative?

SM: When I started this project I saw violence and trauma only in telling the stories, however over time terror became more central in its operation when I got the final framing. In fact, when selecting the title I was intentional about its inclusion and placement because I saw more clearly over time that terror seemed to encompass a far more totalizing of slavery that went beyond the physical body and space. I shared with my editor when finalizing the book title that having “terror” in the title in fact would draw more interest and the world and its continued uproar of terror, brutality, and pain has made this prediction right as globally our understandings in various corners of the world through varying races, ethnicities, and religious espousal. Although it is hard for some to hear, the world we live in helped me fully to detail the misuses of power in the treatment of humans. I listened to the news and I watched a lot of television and movies, all of which began to have bearing on my writing, allowing me to see much better how to tell a story of terror, violation, kidnap, rape, overthrow of ships, selling of people for dreams of wealth and power that are ingrained in stories we read and watch many times every day. As such, terror was the fundamental anchor throughout the entire slaving process from the point of capture through overseas auction sales and considerations, and while many may look for happy stories within the book and the history, the stories that I uncover that affect all considered and sold through the human manufacturing process make you feel neither good nor happy. Instead readers will find deeper truths of the history of slavery at sea, the truth of terror and pain, the path to oppression, the breaking of spirits and bodies, the violent building of a black labor force, and the survival and endurance of bondpeople forced into the Middle Passage acted out in the relentless drive to freedom.

RBH: Access and preserving the past has become more complex with the evolution of history, archives, and especially digital technology more recently. Can you speak on the diversity of your research experiences? Also, were there any sources you found less helpful than others in writing the book? Tools that assisted you with writing about slavery in the 21st century?

SM: Unlike many graduate students I traveled to over 25 archives across the U.S. (within the north and the south), England, Jamaica, London, and Liverpool. I was trained to physically access archives and touch primary sources rather than rely on photocopies or digital versions held online. Doing so allowed greater understanding of the research process for myself and future training of students but it also allowed me to tap into local histories and to see how my attempt to access the history of slavery was perceived. Every archive and region has its own characteristics as I found in the movement between repositories. Even more, to get at your other question, in my pursuit of the past every source holds value even down to one small shred of paper. So instead of less helpful sources I was faced with unexpected good problems in finding that over time I had been constructing my own library and goldmine of sources across the eighteenth century of slaving, much of which did not even make it in the book but will have future bearing on future projects. There is a cost to everything so I have seen the approach to research, archives, and conducting history change and evolve in interesting ways, but in the study of slavery it takes more than the sources themselves to tell what happened. For me, I retrained my ears to use radio and television to in essence help me write but in many respects to use the world to help me to tell how we treated one another historically through varying types of sometimes painfully terrorizing moments. I emphasize here that good writing on movies and tv has helped me even more in the writing than I could have ever imagined. I kept a good journal to jot notes that helped me to visualize what I wanted to say in each chapter but most of all I recognized and fully accepted the role given as a historian, scholar, and writer to serve as a channel between worlds in order to inform the present—those most curious—about a history centuries far gone, but deserving of greater study.

RBH: You deal unflinchingly with some very graphic and disturbing material. Can you say a bit more about how you practiced self-care while researching and writing this book? Is there any advice you would offer to graduate students considering similar or adjacent topics?

SM: I admit I tend to immerse myself in the shadowed side of histories that bring up terror, trauma, bloodshed, beheadings, castrations, lynchings, forcible death, and many things that are less enticing to explore, teach, pen, let alone celebrate for many people. Self-care is an interesting question if merely because it never came up until years later. I live with this history so I am very much used to it all the time. Creating separation to get back to what is normal in the 21st century was necessary, however it took different forms for me because of my own life circumstances. I showed up every single day for my book, but when I needed some happy time I made sure to watch comedic shows, get out of the house, take brain herbs and teas, write in the coffee shop and book stores, go dancing, meet with friends, take walks in the park, etc. However I am not only a caregiver to a 5-time stroke survivor (my mother), but I need activity more than others so I had to implement things that enabled the balance I craved and as such, dancing, drumming, hot yoga and meditation became incorporated and really gave me a way to celebrate myself and forward progress of the work. Several years ago, unsure of the future of much of the book, I left for a two week silent Vipassana meditation course/retreat where all writing, speaking, and outside connections were not permitted for two weeks so that you could have time and a full immersive experience within yourself and connecting with the inner core. It changed me on multiple levels still unseen.

More graduate training could do well to encourage these ways of supporting mental health and emotional well-being, but all in all I came out of that meditation even more perceptive to the bigger picture on my work and life; I was able to see connections, and over time my memory seemed to double as well. In short, there is no perfect way really to balance the disturbing material authors of slavery write about if merely because an active imagination means it is always in the back of your mind and we have to be intentional, creative, and most of all personally clear on what ways to create space from the work and horror that work for us! It is all personal to our lives and our lure for balance, peace, and joy in the work we do has to reflect the personal. Most of all for graduate students is to know and be yourself and be unswayed by others’ ideas about what you should be doing. For me, making and taking time to be with the ones I love, friends, family, and finding my own joy no matter how unique from others was what got me through—and still does.

RBH: How does this publication from your estimation fit within an ongoing moment or movement in our current global lives?

SM: Slavery at Sea came out at an interesting time, linked into a legacy forged by W. E. B. DuBois’ 1896 dissertation on the slave trade at Harvard, thus connecting our books 120 years apart. However, more than that, blackness, the study of black histories across the Diaspora, and histories of slavery are gaining greater ground in public demand after a long period of interest in the 20th century because it was considered more easy and interesting by some. Yet slavery is seeing its time and resurrection as those on the edges of memory yearn for their stories to be told. Even more unexpected by some within the book, I make a point that within the Middle Passage is where we in fact see the beginning of the mass detentioning of black bodies that has been long reserved and understood within prisons and the convict lease system. However the surveillance, disciplining, and regulating of black bodies fundamentally for laboring need and racialized justifications I argue began on slave ships more concretely, thereby extending the history of policing black bodies that may lend itself to and expansion of the greater need for studies, fellowships, and programs to remember this active slaving past and how best not to forget it. This book also represents a clear reminder of the anchor of terror historically in black history that when tracing its path from the Middle Passage onward we see many parallels of fear, violence, and intimidation that took varying form over historical time and space.

2 comments on “Q&A with Sowande’ Mustakeem

  1. […] of Sowande’ Mustakeem’s Slavery at Sea, and then followed it up with Rachel Herrmann’s in-depth interview with Mustakeem about the writing of the book.  Here, Mustakeem reminds us of the importance of thinking critically about the entire population of […]


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