Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval
Saidiya Hartman is a Cultural Historian and Literary Scholar whose work explores histories of slavery and its afterlives primarily in a North American context. Her vantage point for writing is oftentimes fraught and incomplete archival records that eclipse and overdetermine Black subjects’ histories. This also holds true for her most recent book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019). Set in the urban landscapes of New York and Philadelphia in the decades between 1890 and 1935, Hartman finds her protagonists— mostly young Black women—in a wide range of archival materials: journals of rent collectors; sociological studies; trial transcripts; slum photographs; reports of vice investigators, social workers, and parole officers; prison files. Almost all these sources present the often newly arrived women from the US South as being on a wayward path—in short: as problems. But for Hartman these sources chronicle something entirely different: the practices and histories of social visionaries, who engaged in radical experiments of living otherwise despite the difficult surroundings that they encountered in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward, the Tenderloin district in New York, Harlem and other urban Black neighborhoods in the early twentieth century. In order to bring this counter-narrative to the fore, Hartman uses the technique of ‘close narration’: “A style which places the voice of the narrator and character in inseparable relation, so that the vision, language, and rhythms of the wayward shape and arrange the text.”
For me, this mode of writing absolutely achieves Hartman’s self-proclaimed goal of combining the research of a scholar with the beauty of the novel. Far from dry historical scholarship about the beginnings of the Great Migration, Wayward Lives recreates the interior lives of vanguard black women two or three generations removed from slavery, who longed for the promises of freedom that Northern cities seemingly held. And who held on to that longing despite the harsh realities they faced and which often seemed to foreclose any kind of potentiality or beauty. In fact, Hartman’s protagonists—mostly unnamed women alongside a few better known ones such as Ida B. Wells and Madame C.J. Walker’s daughter A’lelia— found beauty and freedom in numerous ways. For example in claims for sexual freedom, serial partners, single motherhood—or no motherhood at all; in quitting demeaning jobs and going out dancing or window-shopping instead; and in falling in love with each other.
The text is interspersed with some of the archival materials that inform Hartman’s work. To be able to look at the often objectifying and pathologizing sources as a reader, illustrates for me the near impossible task of finding empowering stories and traces of “a revolution before Gatsby” that Hartman set out to complete. An endeavor, which Hartman is highly self-reflexive about and as in previous works leads her to questions such as: “How does one describe the life that oscillates among the categories of domestic, whore, slave, and corpse? … How does one make this violence visible when it secures the enjoyment, sovereignty, and bodily integrity of man and master?”
For me the power of this text and Hartman’s work in general lies precisely in grappling with the difficult questions that violent archives confront us with. The outcome in Wayward Lives is a changed vocabulary and imagination: one in which Black women’s waywardness, instead of being linked to criminality, is reframed as a “beautiful experiment” and as “a practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive.”
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