These harsh conditions were buttressed by the mania of white supremacy and its violent outbursts of lynching and rape — brutality hardly bound by an imaginary Mason-Dixon line. The 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that sanctioned segregation sutured the entire geography of the United States together, sewing racial hatred into a national creed. This era, from the 1890s through the 1920s, became known as the “nadir” of African-American history. It created a paradox: a period defined by dynamic change and possibility, but also the ever-present threat of white terrorism.
Saidiya Hartman’s new book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, is a radical, genre-defying examination of the lives of “ordinary” young Black women in this period — women who escaped to Northern cities, living on the great expectations of the Great Migration. Hartman deploys Black feminism as the framework with which to understand the tremendous shifts in political economy, culture, and resistance in this time, making an extraordinary comment on the centrality of Black women’s history and experience to the history and politics of the United States. By situating them as central agents, Hartman disables the notion that US history thrived on the momentum of progress in the Progressive Era. Instead, the lives of ordinary Black women hold the horrors of the American past as much as they represent the possibility of the future represented in their movement and rebellion.
Hartman tells a story about the interior of these women’s lives that exceeds the abuse and torture enacted on their bodies. She is ultimately interested in the multitude of ways that Black women “made a way out of no way,” whether through flight, migration, work, sex, singing, dancing, screaming, and all of the social and cultural innovation born from pure defiance and a refusal to do what you are told.
Hartman searches for the residue of ordinary Black women’s lives among the avalanche of information and data created during this time. As is redolent of all of Hartman’s work, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments offers a blistering critique of historical archives as the singular or even most authoritative source of credible knowledge. Hartman’s critique extends to official bodies of knowledge that are popularly assumed to be impartial, dispassionate receptacles of facts. Even where this is not assumed, as in the case of the collected letters and ledgers of public officials and private citizens, Hartman implores us to pause and consider who is inside of and outside of the archive; whose voice is heard and whose voice is silenced; whose lives matter and whose lives do not. Hartman’s book is, in part, a critique of the mono-dimensional and flat portrayals of Black women and girls as “social documents and statistical persons, reduced to the human excrescence of social law and slum ecology, pitied as betrayed girl mothers, labeled chance creatures of questionable heredity.” Such depictions are prevalent in the social science, becoming the basis upon which wider bodies of work on Black women and girls are built. Changing that requires seeing Black women, their experiences, and their historical traces, differently.
The women at the center of Hartman’s text are outcasts, castoffs, and official nobodies in the hallowed annals of history, but whose “lives [were] shaped by sexual violence or the threat of it; the challenge was to figure out how to survive it, how to live in the context of overwhelming brutality and thrive in deprivation and poverty. The state of emergency was the norm not the exception.” This is important. Hartman is not trying to romanticize or sanitize these women’s lives by looking at the ubiquitous and, yet, nebulous examples of Black women’s “agency.” Nor is she trying to over-contextualize the conditions under which they made decisions to engage in sex, to perform sex work, to terminate unwanted pregnancies, to more generally live a life on the margins.
While not determinative, the context is important, which is why, for example, Hartman critically dissects the insidious role of the police and their presence in cities as agents of misery and abuse, wholly complicit in the illicit enterprises, which they universally blamed on the presence of Black people. Hartman incisively unravels the duplicity and hypocrisy of social scientists and reformers who stood in judgment of the lives of Black women and at times colluded with the police and the criminal justice system to punish Black women for a failure to conform to their imagined social order and hierarchy of society.
Some Black women’s resistance — either real or imagined — to social norms and hierarchy was claimed as evidence of general disorderliness which was often criminalized, thereby making urban-based Black women vulnerable to imprisonment or other forms of institutional punishment. Black women were often accused of prostitution regardless of whether they were actually engaged in sex work because of the vicious assumptions about their presumed, innate licentiousness. This is a point of exploration for Hartman instead of a reflexive defense against the charge. Black women did perform sex work for a variety of reasons, including the autonomy it leant them in other aspects of life. Sex work could mean relief from the misery of domestic labor, where, beyond physical exhaustion, sexual assault and rape were also hazards of the job. Sex work provided a variation of the “escape subsistence” that thrived on the margins.
The autonomy and, in many cases, the anonymity of urban life, gave Black women the foreign experience of sexual exploration, experimentation, and consenting promiscuity as a point of departure in their own investigation of the possibility and promise of desire, even lust. Hartman is interested in the role of the state as it created boundaries and borders that captured and enclosed upon Black people, but she is especially interested in the creative ways that Black women navigated, and what they produced, within these spaces. Black women were constrained, but their experiences cannot be reduced to those constraints. Instead, Hartman is inviting us to look at the lives of ordinary Black women at the turn of the century on their own terms — even when those terms have to be deduced from objectify historical records — to accept these women as credible, intuitive, and discerning people, a few generations removed from slavery and in an active pursuit of freedom as praxis.
It is important to say that Hartman is not asking her readers to simply or mindlessly celebrate the lives of these women on the margins though that, in and of itself, would be a break from the ways they have been pitied or ignored by historians and so-called reformers. Instead, Hartman is asking us to see, learn from, and attribute to these women what they have demonstrated and taught the broadly conceived public. This, of course, raises the question: what can we learn from the poor, marginalized Black women of history?
The challenge of this question begins with the complexity of creating a composite of ordinary Black womanhood from the fragments of life that Hartman pieces together. This book is not a monographic exploration of a particular black woman from a particular place. Instead, Hartman’s subjects are found in the indices and ledgers on the periphery of archival refuse. There is a name here, an article there, or even a small discarded photograph from which Hartman is able to quilt together a common story for a great majority of Black women in slavery’s aftermath. Hartman is primarily interested in the women who decide to leave the agrarian life in the South, walled in by the smothering brutality of white extralegal and sexual violence. Hartman disabuses readers of any notion that Northern, urban destinations were a “land of hope.” Instead she describes the ways that cities — particularly New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and eventually the “black city-within-a-city” — were dynamic spaces within which “beautiful experiments” disrupted the rhythm of poverty.
Wayward Lives is in harmonious conversation with an array of literatures that explore the simultaneous torques of possibility and peril in the emergent city at the turn of the century. The mythology of “rugged individualism” fed by the isolation of frontier or agrarian life succumbed to the high density, overcrowded, and rhythmic bustle of city life, upending deeply ingrained assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality. The anonymity and expansive possibilities of urban life threatened to subvert everything within the social hierarchy. Most pointedly, Wayward Lives conjures the spirit of George Chauncey’s Gay New York (1994) and Khalil Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness (2010). It also, of course, echoes the dynamic tension distinguishing “the ghetto” and “the Black city” within the 1945 sociological classic Black Metropolis, but Hartman demonstrates how dramatically different these texts would be if Black women were at their center. That does not diminish those works, but it speaks to the specificity and importance of Black women’s history and experience on its own terms.
Hartman is interested in how her subjects navigate abject misogynoir through improvised kinship and friendship networks newly born in the close quarters of tenement and rooming house life. Where Chauncey describes the “overcrowded and imposed sociability” of the crowded quarters of working-class denizens, Hartman is also interested in the “beautiful struggle to survive” evidenced in “alternative modes of life” and “illuminated in the mutual aid and communal wealth of the slum.” Hartman imagines what can be created in the “cramped space” of the ghetto, “beautiful flaws and terrible ornaments.” In this way, Hartman engages in older debates in new ways. She examines the complex delineation between the enclosure of the ghetto and the racial opulence found in the Black metropolis — what Kiese Laymon might refer to as the “Black abundance.” Enclosure is a condition imposed on Black people. There is wretchedness and deprivation but, as Hartman writes:
Negroes are the most beautiful people. The communal luxury of the black metropolis, the wealth of just us, the black city-within-the-city, transforms the imagination of what you might want and who you might be, encouraging you to dream. Shit, it don’t even matter if you’re black and poor, because you are here and you are alive and all these folks surrounding you encourage you and persuade you to believe that you are beautiful too.
One of the more controversial aspects of Hartman’s book is her use of speculative or fictionalized interjections throughout the text to literally imagine how her subjects may have reacted, spoke, experienced life in a particular moment. It’s a method that, though she uses it with restraint, represents a deeper engagement with the emergence of a modern 20th century.
The hallmarks of the modernist turn in American arts reflected the fragmentation, disruption, dislocation, and chaos that distinguished the white imaginary of a prelapsarian world from this supposed new world. Hartman rewrites the multiple sources of disorientation that animate most of the chaotic renderings of industrialization and urbanism — the maturation of capitalism, migration patterns, world wars, and beyond — as a source of inspiration and exploration for African Americans. Perhaps Hartman is offering us a new modernism when she places African Americans at its center. The text itself resembles the height of the modernist form with the debris and fragments of pictures, ephemera, official records, diaries, and newspapers through which she creates a complex montage of representations.
While historians and other social scientists may recoil, Hartman is not just wildly imagining or speculating to create a dialogue or experience, or intervening within the text, for its own sake; she is providing a space for Black women in the history that has systematically left them out. But she is doing more than that. Hartman is also tapping into a much longer history and tradition of storytelling as a method of keeping histories alive. These were the devices of a people for whom, in the majority of their time in this country, it was illegal for them to read or write.
Hartman’s speculative and fictionalized interjections call upon the oral traditions of Black and African storytelling traditions. Hartman “speaks into existence” the experiences of those otherwise rendered invisible or simply disappeared by the gatekeepers of the archives. In doing so, Hartman’s role within the text becomes a part of its greater significance and meaning. She is narrator and interlocutor, fluctuating her own subject position within the text. She moves throughout it, never settling, thereby making herself a kind of beautiful experiment within her pages.
Her experiments with orality and audial text throughout beg for portions of it to be read aloud. Hartman creates sonorous lists at a legato pace that literally give voice to the centrality of movement as the physical expression to be freed. She writes:
Like flight from the plantation, the escape from slavery, the migration from the south, the rush into the city, or the stroll down Lennox Avenue, choreography was an art, a practice of moving even when there was nowhere else to go, no place left to run. It was an arrangement of the body to elude capture, an effort to make the uninhabitable livable, to escape confinement of a four cornered world, a tight, airless room. Tumult, upheaval, flight — it was the articulation of living force, or at the very least trying to, it was the way to insist I am unavailable for servitude. I refuse it.
Freedom, here, is not a specific destination or a single thing that can be gathered by way of a document or a promise. Freedom is self-determination and self-possession. It is the ability to move in the world free of economic, political, social coercion. It is the ability to say, “yes” — or “no” — and mean it; it is relaxation; it is:
[t]he swivel and circle of hips, the nasty elegance of the Shimmy, the changing-same of collective movement, the repetition, the improvisation of escape and subsistence, bodied forth the shared dream of scrub maids, elevator boys, whores, sweet men, stevedores, chorus girls, and tenement dwellers — not to be fixed at the bottom, not to be walled in the ghetto. Each dance was a rehearsal for escape.
Hartman is consumed with the movement, the physical locomotion and literal vibration of Black people as a rejoinder to the stasis and supposed predictability of Black life, especially as rendered by the social sciences that predicted the inevitability of Black extinction in the early 20th century. For Hartman, the range of Black movement from migration to dank dance halls to the chorus line to the palpable sexual energy that courses through the women in the text is life, expectation, hope. It is a different kind of movement, certainly distinguished from the motion required to “strive,” where all is succumbed to the movement up or down an imagined social ladder.
How does this connect with Hartman’s description of Black women as progenitors of the modern? There are two ways to understand this. The first is through the recognition that modernity is a highly contingent and cumulative expression of the previous epoch. In other words, the supposed new world of American Progressivism stood high upon the shoulders of the society it was intended to replace: its prehistory was absolutely central to its 20th-century emergence. If the “rosy dawn” of capitalism, as Marx called it, came dripping into existence with the blood and dirt of slavery and genocide, then its maturation — measured in the innovations of war, imperialism, industrialization, and urbanization — were only possible because of the exploitation and abuse of Black women’s bodies. The resistance to this order could also be read through the violent thrashing of Black women’s bodies against the new order, boundaries and borders that distinguished the supposed modern age. Hartman invokes this paradigm when she describes how social reformers dismissed Black women and girls as “ungovernable” or when she describes the sonic upheaval of young Black women who resisted their imprisonment with relentless screaming and destruction of the prison’s interior.
In 1917 and 1918, Black women and girls, imprisoned for imagined and real transgressions against a social order erected on the mores of white supremacy, rebelled within a New York State prison to protest their conditions and so much more. Part of the ritualistic violence and abuse endured by these women and girls involved torturing them by hanging them from handcuffs so that their feet could barely touch the ground. The point was to get these women and girls to conform to the norms of a brutal social order — exemplified by all parole routes leading to domestic work in the homes of white people in Upstate New York. Black domestic work was considered a normal part of the social hierarchy, and the regime of brutality in the prison was intended to domesticate Black women into accepting the role. The technologies of torture, the prison itself, were markers of modern life even as they were activated in regressive ways against Black women’s bodies marked the bridge between the past and the contemporary. In opposition to this order, these Black women and girls led a multiracial rebellion of “ungovernables” by trying to physically destroy the prison and then settling on a noise strike where their screams were recorded as resistance. It was one of the first political rebellions of the young 20th century and provided a model of resistance that African Americans returned to repeatedly over the remainder of the century.
Hartman finds hope in the qualities that marked ordinary Black women for premature death at the turn of the century — qualities like waywardness and a desire to find freedom in their everyday acts of existence. She is not just writing about the past but also mapping a direction for the inevitable future struggles that must arise from the persistence of white supremacy, misogyny, police abuse and violence, and the ever-radiating violence from the state itself. Hartman insists that engaging these questions requires more than theory or even “good politics.” She calls upon us to look at the lives of those who are on the bottom of the social hierarchy: How do they move, what gives them pleasure and not just pain, and most importantly, what do they want? How do we read resistance from the mundanity and alienation of life under capitalism as an actual desire to be free? Saidiya Hartman would tell us to watch and listen to ordinary Black women. She is not romanticizing the margins, though she suggests that we can find romance — the implacable pursuit of freedom — within the margins’ constraints.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is author of the award-winning book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket Books) published in 2016. Taylor’s second book, an edited collection, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, won the 2018 Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction. Taylor is assistant professor of African American Studies and the Charles McIlwain Preceptor at Princeton University.