From Proposal to Published: Writing Histories of Atlantic Slavery

Dr Sowande’ Mustakeem joined Retrospect for a Welcome Week interview titled, “Writing Histories of Atlantic Slavery.” Here, we offer an edited transcript of the conversation and Q&A.

Could you provide an overview of the text?

Where do we start? What is this book about? What is slavery at sea? In short, it is the first of many kinds. It centres the experience of slavery and really broadens out the narrative before the plantation experience. In so doing, it is going from the point of capture in West and West Central Africa to the point of sale in the Americas. It’s showing the making and the unmaking of enslaved people through the terror-centric process of the Middle Passage. It’s the first book ever to centre females’ experiences alongside males, children, elderly, diseased, disabled, and many who have been overlooked and, perhaps, undervalued in the history.

It makes a really crucial argument in not only broadening the conversation to say slavery happened at sea but then to redefine and deepen the understanding of the human manufacturing process. That includes warehousing, transport, and delivery. Essentially, this is a socio-economic study in how humans treat each other under the violent selling of people for the global market.

What drew you to the Middle Passage?

There was a supernatural experience at the time – it literally fell at my feet. Originally I was interested in the Civil Rights Movement and looking at gender. In 2000, back when I started graduate school, a wind blew through my office and, all of a sudden, I was led to begin to see the Middle Passage – to see the experience in a whole new way. The catalyst was reading a 1981 book, by Vincent Harding, There is a River. It’s looking at the river flow of the black freedom struggle. It sets the tone in the first chapter because in there Harding talks about resistance and centres those narratives about suicide. That would begin to open up for me – What is the place of resistance? How do we begin to read the behaviours and coping with the shock of enslavement? It came from really trying to understand how people are deeply entrenched in suffering and trauma. How do they cope? How do we begin to understand slavery even at its absolute worst? I wanted to look at what slavery looked like when it’s a normal, legalised, traffic. There are no happy stories, that was intentional. There are no happy stories in slavery, there’s nothing to be celebrated. It is about the remembrance. It came to me, just as we find our topics, our topics choose us.

How did you approach the archive? How did you choose what sources you were going to use?

I will admit from the onset that it is very much an evolution. It is learning how to ask the right questions and being open to histories that have been written before. Then, it is beginning to mine the paper trail, both of the past and the contemporary narratives. On a basic level, in reading secondary literature, I began to go look at all the primary sources. Where did they go? What archives? And then, I went to those places that I knew had the sources that I wanted. I entered the archive with a very central question: What was the slave ship experience like? In that way, it was going in with broad enough questions so that I could be open to where the sources would go. In that, over time, I would wake up and know where to go. That would mean that I might hop in the car and drive to Boston, I might tell a friend “I’m coming to New York.” It was moving to England, going to London, going to Liverpool. My whole life was archives, from the beginning to the end. It was getting excited about finding these sources and sitting with them. I would arrive at the archives when it opened and I stayed until it closed. I would only take a fifteen minute lunch break. The whole thing was mining these sources and asking new questions. What do they tell us about how horrible slavery was? I believe it was twenty-five archives across the world, but then within the book there is at least thirteen. That means that there’s still more that can be said and maybe one day will be written. This is just the beginning of that.

What did the writing process look like?

Writing is such a process. Where I am now as a writer is nowhere near where I was twenty years ago. Beginning to study the world, how it speaks, how it tells its narratives of the past. I realise that may sound very simple. But it’s not. What that meant is I began to retrain my brain to listen to the words. What are the concepts? How are we beginning to move people? And so, I carried a Moleskine all the time. That meant that I would write down different words and different concepts that I would come back to. For me, taking the writing where I wanted people to remember, where I wanted people to feel something. I was very careful about not just making it simple but making it emotionally complex.

Time management is huge for me because I’m able to work with time. That means writing is my life. It’s the first thing I would do when I was waking up. The morning pages. There’s also having time for the outlets, yet I never stopped writing. I’m constantly thinking about the writing and studying other people’s writing. That was one of the first and best pieces of advice that was suggested. We can read these texts and try and remember the history, but then there’s where we learn from others. How do I write in a more moving way – in a way that is memorable?

It’s also had a lot of evolution. It’s had death, which is also why I open the book to say this book is marked by death on all sides. Life is happening, death is happening all around us. Honestly, writing became my outlet. Writing became how I navigated anxiety and depression. Really using writing as a rechannelling, learning about myself and learning how to gain courage and knowing that I had something to say. And saying something about a history that most people want to overlook. In the writing it’s about moving the needle even more so that way I bring the reader into that space, into the ocean. I do that with all of my writing, creating that emotional centre. It’s fun, I was born to do this.

Could you talk a little bit about the chapter, “Battered Bodies, Enfeebled Minds”?

There’s so much irony in starting with this particular chapter. The irony is that this is the chapter that I would begin to write in what would become Slavery at Sea. This is where I started, in what was originally the dissertation. Trying to give a deeper context to understanding how people coped with the shock of enslavement. I wanted to meet people where they’re at. Most people are going to ask: “Tell me about how they rose up and fought back?” We can talk about that: we need to draw out the meanings of that violence. But then, to go to the mind, the body, and break down how people gender psychological instability. I didn’t want people to leave it at, “they gave up, they just didn’t care.” They did! There was intention on all sides. In the writing saying that these are humans and that they have emotional responses and physical responses that can take different forms. That can include jumping overboard, that can include clawing at your neck in order to try and cut your own throat. That is, also, essentially psychologically willing something different in the whole living space. Integrating this conversation with the space of the ocean. The ocean itself is constantly having this very deep connection to these histories and, in particular, this history. So, within all of this I wanted to show that there wasn’t a giving up on life but understanding that the process was just so layered. I wanted to centre more conversations about psychology of enslaved people and invite us in to think about the psychology of the enslaver.

The sources came from surgeons, like Alexander Falconbridge, who had written several accounts of the slave trade. He’s talking about different moments of suicide. The House of Commons sessions papers – those were a gold mine and I’ve been really shocked at how under under-utilised those sources are. I was able to mine through. This is where knowing the argument came through. What are you intending to tell? What are the takeaways? So, for me, I want us to understand and feel the history in the full totality of the body, mind, and soul. Yes, there is the fighting back and the physical. What happens when we’re seeing a battle of the minds? A battle over the Black body. You find someone who has taken their own life. In that way it’s really seeing these so-called commodities become humans who are pushing back and saying “no, no.” In that way to think about suicide, and begin to broaden out this whole notion of death and yet someone may end this trade within the human manufacturing process that goes on for over four centuries.

So, I really wanted to deepen the conversations beyond the iconic pictures that all we know is that “they just jumped overboard.” There’s even more in that and throughout the entire book it was trying to show that all of this was layered and deeply interconnected. There was a ship revolt that happened and let’s just say it didn’t result in the way that someone would want. Then there’s the psychology of being contained and confined. To begin with the mind is to give a much deeper understanding of the full totality of slavery itself and how terror-centric it is.

How did you structure the book as a whole?

Structure matters. Title matters. And then the flow. That was the way that I was thinking about beginning to end. I’ve seen this as the birth and a beginning of something that is central to the narrative. I wanted to also name this book – this is not about slavery on the plantation. Looking at Middle Passage Studies, thinking about slavery at sea, and really beginning to re-define the landscape. Going from the point of capture to the point of sale.

Then, when I was thinking about layout, it was really moving from this entire, very complicated process, where it gets framed by business on all sides. You’ve got to look at the interactions on both sides of the Atlantic. The chapter, “Waves of Calamity,” this is a business and there’s also shrewd tactics. The manipulative practices. Looking at the two worlds and trying to make profit off of the selling of these valuable Black bodies. We’ve got to start there.

Then, I really wanted to deepen our understanding of these people who are centred in our narrative and where have we tracked that history. I can argue this a lot, we’ve got to become mindful that we cannot understand slavery only off the bodies of Black men. We have to think about the broader picture, broader spectrum of people. The chapter, “Imagined Bodies,” really tried to think about all these ideas coming from distant investors about this world they want to benefit from. Thinking about the people as well as thinking about what’s on ship.

I’m pushing back against people’s, sometimes stereotypical, understandings of this history. I wanted to deepen our understanding of toxicity, in the ship itself. And really thinking about, once on the ship, how did they respond? There is this whole conversation of violence externally, but it also invited new conversations to say abortion happened. That’s violence within the body and a battle of the minds in the psychology.

I really wanted us to get us to think about the medical histories of slavery. They do not begin in the plantations. So, when we look deeper, we can really look at the people who were paid to get certified to work in this trade that are coming through this evolution of laws and trade. Who then is represented on these ships? I wanted us to think about that.

Then, we get to the endpoint and it’s really about: how are these people coming in? I wanted to push back against this idea that the “best of the best” arrived. It is about people coming in broken down by the process itself.

By the end of it, I will tell you, my editor and other people looked at the proposal and I presented it at conferences. It was also beginning to put all of that in conversation with people who were seeing the bigger narrative. Then it was making sense of the history so that by the end, in my chapter where I’m talking about this meditation on memory, it’s asking: What meaning do we make of the history? I wanted to make meaning of the silences that we create. The way that we say the Middle Passage is the worst of the worst and again inviting this whole conversation that it represents the Frankenstein of slavery. In all of it I’m really telling the history whilst making us mindful of how fragile slavery and its memory is.

This entire book has benefited from people. That meant that the chapter titles had to change. That is because my own writing has changed. I wanted clear, succinct. I didn’t want you to know everything that’s coming. I wanted the stories to bring you in. It’s a page turner. I was really intentional in that structure. I liked that people are saying “after months, I’m still thinking about your book, after years.” This is all building on me really trying to upgrade in such a way that the world can begin to make deeper meaning of this history that has gone on too long understudied.

What was the response before and after publication?

I am the first African American person to begin the tenure track process within the history department at Washington University and I will say that wherever I go I write history and I make history. I’m grateful to be a part of that. That has its own evolution – learning how to be and how to begin to prepare to share your intellectual ideas within the world. I could never have predicted the response at all. Often times we’re told “you’ll be lucky if three people read your book.” Then what happens, all of a sudden, the world is reading it.

What I will actually remind all of us is that there was an article that came out in 2011 that became the doorway as well as the placeholder for what would become Slavery at Sea. The reason why I bring it up is because it is one of two articles in the world that centres a Black female’s experience on a slave ship. It centred these narratives of disease, quarantine, and then murder. That set the stage, the reception was there from that article. Once the book came out, everything changed. From the moment that I released the cover and just dropped it on social media. Ever since then, things have gone viral. Every year it’s almost like it just came out all over again. So, it’s been a world-wide reception that is just getting started and here we are speaking to the world so it has been great. It has been voted excellent, must read, essential. But I would also add, that means having the courage to include a book soundtrack that has upgraded the learning and thinking about history in that way. Trying to electrify even more people into how do we think about the varying themes of history? There’s so much in the interdisciplinarity of it and in the writing that again it’s just been awesome. It makes me want to write even more.

Could you tell us a little bit more about future projects?

In 2015, I published an article in the oldest Black history journal in the world, the Journal of African American History, as part of a special issue on gendering the carceral state. It was edited by Cheryl Hicks and Kali Gross. My article explored a murder that happened in 1891 in Kansas City, Missouri. Through that, I began to think about making sense of the violence of slavery. Beginning to think about the everyday violence detonated within women, within the community. Essentially, my next book is going to be looking at women in crime, it’s going to get really bloody all over again. It has potential to open up new conversations on the way in which we remember women and violence within the evolution of American history and society. It is about to go deep and I am really really excited because essentially it is an extension of how we make sense of these institutions that can make people.


Why did you choose to focus on the eighteenth century?

We’ve got to look at the height of the slave trade. I wanted to look at slavery before the ending of the slave trade. I found a lot of people wanted to talk about abolition and the abolitionist movement, but let’s look at it as a legalised trade when everyone is involved, at the peak. When slavery was at its highest profitability.

How long did you spend researching the project before beginning to write?

Research can come in many forms. From May 5, 2005, which just happened to be my birthday, at that point was when I really started writing because I’d already started to map out where I was going to go. I had already written an introduction and the beginning of the first chapter. So, I would say that 2005 was when it really begins. Yet, I was thinking about this history as early as 2000, when I was working on my Masters. That was when I really began to make sense of Du Bois, who would set off this history with his Harvard dissertation from 1896. Part of the work started in 2005, but it was already happening earlier.

Did you write this book for an academic audience or the general public or both? Why did you choose this audience?

I always think about accessibility. I wanted the world to make sense of this history. At the end of the day, I’m trained as an academic to write in a certain way. From there you begin to push the needle a bit more. I wanted anyone to be able to have access to it. I was beginning to think about what those words do. I wrote this for an academic audience, but I wanted to believe that the world was going to read it and they are.

Do you think there’s an issue within historical writing around accessibility?

Each writer has their own way with how they engage on a topic. The past, the present, the future. When there are projects where we want to upgrade the world and its interaction with words, we want to think about how we can take it to another level. So, I think some people’s writing can move us, some people’s writing can be seen to be more accessible, some can be more dense. I even worry whether I used big enough words. When I think about access, it is a way of writing to create feeling in the reader. I always challenge myself. What did you feel when you read that? I always invite students on my course to look at journalists and how they write. There’s so many different ways of writing and I just really wanted to show my way.

How much did you reconfigure your original doctoral dissertation to put together the book manuscript? Do you think you’ve learnt from writing articles how to evoke emotion with the evidence?

This book has changed drastically from the dissertation to the book so it could become my book. One of the biggest shifts, I did change the story from the opening. There’s intention littered throughout the book. Even with opening up on these two women, even knowing that this was the first time a book on the slave trade intentionally decided to include females, that as well as changing the titles. Really being open to the world. Music has continued to influence how I thought about these histories, some of the section titles came from listening to music. When I wrote the dissertation, I was opening every chapter with different lyrics from different songs that I felt encapsulated what I was trying to write. It really has been an evolution of me growing up as a writer and really gaining deeper courage in it, as well as recognising that I have something to say. The other title, Routes of Terror, in the moment I just knew “THAT’S IT!” No, now we’ve got a game changer, we are re-defining a landscape, a seascape. It’s been a whole lot of changes that have helped me grow.

Why do you think female narratives have been neglected?

In starting the first conference presentation I ever gave, ironically the entire panel ended up having to drop out except myself and the commentator. From that moment we knew these stories had to be told. I presented about women and ship revolts. Over the years, I’ve been confronted by people who were ok with forgetting women and so in that regard I would get questions of “oh?” or “how can I talk about women more on the slave ships?” At that point then it was really sort of “how is that possible?” I’m always having to make us more mindful of our memories. There is pushback, now there is more of a hearing about these stories. I’m getting a lot of emails, especially from women, who are like “you have empowered me.” I will say that the source material is very hard to find. Females, not just males, in the broad spectrum should have been remembered a long time ago. This will deepen the lexicon, our understanding of this history of humans.

How you might have removed yourself from the people you’re studying? Do you immerse yourself? How do you deal with that?

How do we begin to manage these very horrific histories? I will admit, I lived with it, I slept with it. I would wake up thinking about this, I would have the books in the bed. I know that I was born to do this. I remember my mother telling me “you are able to really engage this history.” It’s not to say that it doesn’t affect me, it’s just to say that I can re-channel the energy. It’s using these histories and also going at it in a way that it’s going deeper, but recognising at the end of the day it does have to be told. Every time I re-visited the chapter on suicide, I could feel myself saddening. You still have to show up to the work, it may not be easy, it may be bloody, but it has to be told. These people have gone on forgotten for too many centuries.

Dr Mustakeem is Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. She is author of the 2016 monograph, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage. Slavery at Sea was the 2017 winner of the Wesley Logan Prize for best book on the history of the African Diaspora and the 2020 winner of the Dredd Scott Freedom Award for historical literary excellence. Dr Mustakeem is currently working on a podcast, The Book Lane 365, discussing historical writing.

This interview was transcribed and edited by Jamie Gemmell, Alice Goodwin, and Tristan Craig.

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