Minor Revolutionaries: A New Chapter in Queer Studies
By Jack HalberstamJuly 21, 2019
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman
If Wayward Lives rewrites struggle in terms of errant wandering and rethinks beauty in terms of revolutionary imagination, it also, if perhaps less obviously, initiates a massively important chapter in queer theory and queer historiography. After this book, the history of sexuality can no longer only cluster around gay and lesbian and transgender bodies and communities; it will have to be told by way of narratives of errancy and straying, revolution and free love. Queer subjects make appearances in Hartman’s book — see chapters on Mabel Hampton and Gladys Bentley — but queerness does not inhere in individual bodies: it is instead experienced as a force for change. For Hartman, queerness is a way of turning away from the good and the true; it is a desire for new and surprising arrangements of bodies and futures. Histories of the medicalization and criminalization of desire abound within queer studies, but Hartman’s book reminds us that the life of desire is multifaceted. It lives in the joy of assembly, in the longing for beautiful things, in fantasies of surplus, in moments of “tenderness,” in experiences of Black girls and women in “open rebellion” to systems of management, control, and incarceration. In the stories that Hartman gathers here and teaches us how to read, desire spills over the categories designed to manage it and emerges as a kind of wildness within “practices of intimacy and affiliation.” The book is full of promiscuous scenes of sexual abandonment, flirtations expressed in song, people lost in the pleasure of purchasing the unnecessary. In other words, desire in this book is not the expression of identity but rather a term for the extravagant acts of Black bodies committed to “experiments in living free.”
Wayward Lives is a historical study of the fate of Black girls and women who made the journey from South to North in the United States at the turn of the last century looking for something more than domestic servitude and grinding poverty. Conventional histories usually tell the stories of these lives within the broader narratives of the nation, progress, fantasies of emancipation, and maybe socialist critiques of capital. This book, however, shatters these epistemologies and their tendencies to situate minor figures as microcosms of larger and more important narrative. The minor figure in Hartman’s book is the whole story. It’s a little like a pixelated image that breaks apart on closer inspection: the focus on the minor effectively shatters the unity of the macro narratives. These larger narratives, in socialist and capitalist contexts alike, have offered comforting frames of betterment and inevitability and in so doing have missed the intimate histories that constitute the real theater of struggle.
This book presents the lives of a cast of characters both known and unknown — a General House Worker, Window Shoppers, as well as Ida B. Wells and Billie Holiday. Hartman understands these characters and the peregrinations of Black girls and women in the early part of the 20th century outside of the frames of idleness, disaffection, and even trauma that have otherwise been deployed to explain them. Instead, Wayward Lives uses new techniques of reading and writing history, establishing the wandering activities of Black women as the revolutionary event that so many others were calling for. These acts do not fit into the usual stories of socialist working-class revolt, nor the white feminist calls for voting rights; they aren’t a written statement of demands nor a carefully crafted plan of action. The young Black women in this book nonetheless performed revolutionary acts in every refusal to work, every furious response to the police and the social workers, every rejection of domestic stability. These small acts have to be excavated out of the conventional reports offered by social workers, correctional facilities, and institutional histories. By reading between the lines in these reports, Hartman crafts a new method by which to recreate the voices of the young women who are at the center of the book. She calls this method “close narration,” or “a style which places the voice of the narrator and character in inseparable relation.” The voice of the narrator then offers a swelling, rising, lyrical song and makes itself inseparable from what she calls “the chorus.”
Everything about the book is an intervention within the current system of academic writing — its style, its archive, its mode of documentation, its emphases, and its use of multiple sources and photographs. Hartman doesn’t rely on the props that most academics use: the book does not use conventional citations to legitimize its claims; its arguments flow rather than build; language is an end, not a means. These innovations can be felt at every level. For example, Wayward Lives uses a more loose and wondrous vocabulary than most academic texts. The lexicon of the wayward includes: exorbitant, intimate, assembly, terrible, symphony, chorus, sensation, experiment, social poesis, fugitive gestures, unregulated movement, not to mention leaderless swarm, rambling, cruising, smashing, unrepentant, ungovernable wants, open rebellion, terrible beauty, black music, and so on. These are not the words we usually find in either history or literary analysis, and this vocabulary signals a break with the dry work of telling, explaining, proving, proposing, illustrating, clarifying, identifying, naming, showing. The vocabulary that Hartman favors is that of excess and extravagance. In using these terms, she leads us away from the labors of academia and its grim insistence on knowing and understanding and offers an entryway into an energetic world of gesture, struggle, collaboration, and improvised life.
Hartman also builds shockingly radical epistemologies and ontologies. She uses the raw materials of institutional archives — like most historians — but she wrestles with that material not in order to line it up with what we already know, but to create a window through the unknown and unknowable into intimate histories of freedom. Wayward Lives does not narrate Black struggle in the 20th century through the writings and actions of leaders and intellectuals (although those figures make their appearances), nor is it invested in different readings of major political events and currents. Rather, Hartman locates historical contestations with truth and reality within the “minor lives” of the unnamed and unrecorded or the incarcerated. These figures appear in many guises in the text: sometimes they are “easy women, dangerous men, sissies, and tribades” and at others they appear as “chorines, bull daggers, aesthetical negroes, lady lovers, pansies, and anarchists” but then again they might be “slick, fresh-mouthed boys, comely, buxom girls, policy runners, ne’er-do-wells, petty gangsters, domestics, longshoremen, and whores — the young and the striving, the old and the dissipated.” These minor players, in her account, fill the streets of Harlem in New York City and the Seventh Ward in Philadelphia in the first few decades of the 20th century. Their passions, their despair, their dreams, and their fantasies have gone unrecorded and remain unimagined in conventional histories. But, in Hartman’s book, everything happens in the spaces between recorded knowledge, documentation, and Black life itself. Conjuring this new history and its dark corners by way of a method she calls “critical fabulation,” Hartman pushes to one side all that stands in the way of Black history — namely, white imaginaries, colonial narratives, and sociological truth. And so, first, Hartman reads through the archive for the hegemonic narrative (meaning, the narrative officially sanctioned or told by the various institutions of power — police records, legal documents, et cetera). Second, she then reads through the archive again, looking precisely for the pieces of the story that the hegemonic narrative suppresses. And finally, she reads again for the traces of those other modes of living. In this way, Hartman can speak to, with, and, sometimes, for the dead.
Where there are not clear archives, Hartman uses this method of “critical fabulation” to extend what is there into what could have been. For example, in a chapter on the queer singer, pianist, and performer Gladys Bentley, Hartman imagines Bentley’s life as if it “were an Oscar Micheaux film,” or more precisely as if it were “select scenes from a film never cast by Oscar Micheaux.” (Micheaux was a Black filmmaker and writer in the 1920s and ’30s.) The chapter opens with a series of hypothetical scenes from this unmade movie about Bentley, and through the imagined but nonexistent film we access a montage of Bentley’s life. The imagined montage establishes Bentley’s masculinity, his struggle with a mother who wanted a son, and his quest to become the son she wanted but could not embrace. This not-son, not-sufficient child of a not-good-enough mother leaves the family home to take his place in a queer world where he can “swagger” and “preen.” Hartman uses Micheaux’s visual strategies to establish the world within which a Black butch can be king, leading us into the club, into dance scenes, into the “collective movement” of the chorus and simultaneously offering a reading of Bentley’s biography and Micheaux’s work. The song and dance scenes in Micheaux’s films, like the force of music in Bentley’s life, are “never inessential.” In these scenes, Hartman writes, “black virtuosity is on display. Then comes the chorus, and the dancing bodies are arranged in beautiful lines that shift and change as the flourish and excess of the dancers unfold into riotous possibility and translate the tumult and upheaval of the Black Belt into art.”
By placing Bentley among dancers and cabaret singers, Hartman reorders whole systems of significance, placing song and dance way above work and property in this beautiful experiment of utopian reimagining. Hartman indicates as much saying that while Bentley may not have been a revolutionary, he was instead a “brilliant performer” to whom men and women were drawn. He was a bountiful source of pleasure and power, brimming with a secret knowledge of how to live. Ultimately his shameless gender transgression, his love of the night, his voice, and his promiscuity contested the obligatory narrative of racial uplift. In Micheaux’s films, these kinds of characters usually met with death. In real life, Bentley suffered a worse fate: he was forced into marriage and repentant womanhood.
This “fabulation” is more than just hypothetical, but it pulls way short of restoration — the chapter offers us a cinematic view of the singer and his milieu while reminding us that Bentley’s life could never have been a Micheaux film but still benefits from the visual regime that Micheaux set in motion. Hartman writes: “Bentley’s life refracted through Micheaux’s cinema is the wild, deregulated movement that refuses the color line and flees the enclosure of the ghetto. The bodies in motion, bodies intimate and proximate, recklessly assert what might be, how black folks might could live.” While Hartman cannot pull Bentley from the wreckage of his own life, she can “look after” Bentley in a mode described by Kara Keeling as “an affective labor.” This is a mode of care that seeks not to restore Bentley’s proper story or place him in alignment with gay or trans history; instead, it is a generous and moving form of witness: “La Bentley was a star in Harlem’s Jungle Alley, one of its high priests. Bentley was abundant flesh, art in motion.”
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is, I would venture to say, one of the most important books in queer studies, ever. This is not just because it lines up Bentley alongside Black girls and women who did not announce their queerness but acted upon it nonetheless, nor simply because of the insights it offers into the lives of Mabel Hampton, Ethel Waters, Ethel Williams, and others. It’s important because in this book, the violation of sexual and gender norms forms the very bedrock for experiments with freedom. This is not to say that Hartman claims that only queer bodies violated sexual and gender norms and thereby sought to be free. But it does suggest that the category of Blackness is always to be found within queer formulations of life, love, and pleasure precisely because Black bodies, as C. Riley Snorton’s work has demonstrated, have occupied the space against which white normativity expresses itself. And what’s more, the queer perambulations of the “chorines, bull daggers, aesthetical negroes, lady lovers, pansies, and anarchists” in this book do not remain on one side or the other of an imaginary boundary between hetero and homo or male and female. The transitivity of Black bodies — their restless motion against the tide of history — marks another kind of queerness altogether. Queerness here is not just a single voice raised in fury to announce presence and to demand recognition. It is rather a chorus singing on behalf of being “lost in the world.” These queer voices can be heard in the clubs and tenements, in the prisons and dance halls, as well as in political and social movements. According to Hartman, even Hubert Harrison, the socialist and political leader of 1920s Harlem, may have celebrated and practiced this form of queerness in his lectures, where he “extolled the erotic life of the ungovernable.”
The erotic life of the ungovernable — what a concept! By connecting dissent with the erotic, and recognizing a sexuality within the state of being ungovernable, Hartman leaves binaries like hetero and homo far behind. The book then offers a model of rebellion within which sexuality and desire are structures or forms rather than content. In queer studies, all too often, the sexual practices of queer people are offered up as resistance or insurgency, but, in Hartman’s book, the erotic is inscribed within modes of refusal that never rise to the level labelled as “political.” And so, in the rebellions of young Black girls and women — ordinary girls who break laws just by leaving or not leaving their houses — and in the charges mounted by the state against them — “waywardness” being one such charge — we find an excess, an expectation, a desire or hope that expresses itself as a voluptuous belief in pleasure and possibility. This is what it means to be Black and trans or Black and queer in the untold history of 20th-century experiments in living.
There are a number of female-bodied characters in Wayward Lives who are still recognizable in contemporary terms as queer or trans, others, figures like Esther Brown, Mattie Nelson, and Loretta or Mickey Jackson, must be read as queer because of their persistent pursuit of pleasure over compulsory work. Most, if not all, the figures who populate the assembly gathered in this book risked everything in order to be in “open rebellion” against a system that marked them as “future criminals.” And as much as Wayward Lives is a history of theses assemblies, it is also a project that tears apart the institutions that governed, managed, and tried to curtail or end their lives. Even as Hartman traces the lives of the Black girls and women who were preemptively condemned to the torture chambers of reformatories and prisons, she simultaneously turns official archives back on themselves. She combs the archives in order to read the police records, the sociological accounts, the social workers’ testimonies, the oral histories, the photographs, the medical histories, and the prison records against the institutions within which they appear. This simple reversal — the garnering of evidence against the institutional forces that assembled the evidence in the first place — allows for a different kind of history to take shape. It supplants the history of crime with a history of corrupt institutions and allows for the arrested to speak, the condemned to testify, and the rebels to yell. Their screams can finally be heard as a language of resistance. It deinstitutionalizes knowledge.
Black women in prison collectively voiced and sang these songs of refusal and resistance. Eva, a woman paroled not to her husband’s house but to a white couple who abuse her, packs up her small bag and walks away only to be returned to Bedford. Her act made her a fugitive, but her desire was not simply for freedom but for “autonomy” from white management. Another woman, Loretta Michie, or Mickey as she was known, appears in a disciplinary report as “[v]ery troublesome,” as promiscuous, as rebellious, as someone who incited others to riot. Hartman uses the prison’s own documents to turn this narrative inside out. The evidence for Mickey’s arrests is used instead to tell a story of principled, planned, deliberate rebellion. Hartman links figures in the archive not through their classifications as degenerate or dissolute but as girls who liked to “smash things up,” as young women forging intimacies with one another while holding on to life beyond the prison walls. Some of these stories engage same-sex intimacies and others engage marriage and hetero-reproduction but none of them can be located as normal. Together, the stories create what Hartman calls “the dangerous music of open rebellion.”
The Black women of the chorus in this book often went to jail for doing nothing in particular. They pursued pleasure, they tried hard not to work, they loved and lived outside of the law. These women, Hartman shows, had unparalleled access to political knowledge about the racial state, racial capital, discipline and punishment, governmentality and state violence. And while that knowledge, as Hartman points out, does not lead to “political [tracts] on the refusal to be governed,” it does emerge as Black music, “sonic upheaval,” or the “the anarchy of black girls” and the sound of the chorus. The Black girl/woman for Hartman, is a “minor figure,” part of the group of “surplus women” whom history has passed by, but she is also the revolutionary subject, a theorist, a radical thinker, a restless presence, a queer body, always looking around the devastating conditions of the present toward another future altogether. The girls about whom Hartman writes dart in and out of legibility, in and out of sexual and gender norms. They live on the perimeter of history, as minor figures who form formidable assemblies and who work together because only these improvised collaborations can make a difference. The Black girl in Hartman’s history is free not because the state has deemed her so: she is free because she has nothing, she wants everything, and she knows the truth about the “help” the state would offer. She is ready to break free, smash things up, love wildly. She is not yet completely tethered to the system. She is its harshest and most effective critic because she knew then and she still knows now that other worlds are possible.
Jack Halberstam is the author of Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal (Beacon Press, 2012).
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