At the age of 15, Mattie Nelson travelled by steamer from Hampton, Virginia, to New York City, in search of a better life than the menial labour on offer in her segregated hometown. It was 1913, and the jobs she found as maid and laundry worker were in fact no better, but the social life in the city was freer than she could have imagined. Her 25-year-old boyfriend introduced her to sex and thereby reset the course of Mattie’s life. He abandoned her, as did her next partner. But Mattie, now attuned to her own desires, was determined to fulfil them. She craved beautiful things – cashmere sweaters and fancy lingerie – as well as sexual satisfaction. The price she paid for her desires was steep: three years in Bedford Hills prison for stealing underwear from a clothesline. The prison’s detailed records enable Saidiya Hartman to reconstruct her story, one of many she recounts in her brilliant new book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.
Nelson was one of thousands of young black women who emigrated from the rural South and the Caribbean in the early years of the 20th century to neighbourhoods in Philadelphia and New York City that were not yet the ghettos they would become. Most of these women resigned themselves to the cramped accommodations and demeaning conditions of domestic service, the only available employment. But those Hartman designates the too fast girls did not. Rejecting both the punishing physical demands and requisite submissiveness of domestic work, they perfected what Hartman describes as “an everyday choreography of the possible”. They strolled through Philly’s Seventh Ward or down Harlem’s Seventh Avenue, spent the afternoon at the movies, danced the night away and loved whom they chose or whoever chose them.
Their refusal to work was often attributed to laziness or moral turpitude, but Hartman characterises it as a continuation of the “general strike” W.E.B. Du Bois defined in his seminal study, Black Reconstruction in America (1935), whereby blacks fled southern plantations after the Civil War because they refused to do the labour as free people they had been compelled to do while enslaved. The women Hartman limns acted out of a similar impulse. Analogously, they rejected the “conventions of sexual propriety – monogamy, heterosexuality, and marriage” which encroached on their freedom. These choices made them vulnerable not only to social censure but to arrest – the book cites statistics showing the disproportionate number of black women charged with vagrancy and prostitution – and incarceration.
Documenting the lives of the literate and the privileged is a daunting enterprise, but a straightforward one. What does a scholar do when the archive offers little or no evidence of the lives led by those she seeks to study and understand? Those who study enslaved people have mined legal records and interpreted vestiges of oral expressions in order to tell stories of slavery as it was experienced by those under its power. Hartman’s first book, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997), is a widely influential example of this ongoing project. In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, she performs a similar feat for women born in the afterlife of slavery who were intent on escaping its shadow.
To do so, she draws on an array of sources: sociological monographs and surveys, the journals of reformers and rent collectors, trial transcripts, prison case files, interviews with psychiatrists and psychologists, newspaper articles – and a stunning gallery of photographs, which she reads with as much care and nuance as she does the other texts on which she relies. What the dominant white society and doyens of black respectability deemed wayward behaviour, Hartman redefines as “beautiful experiments” by women who, under extreme duress, fashioned free lives.
Of course, public documents cannot reveal the reality of her subjects’ intimate lives – which is where they exercised their autonomy most decidedly. So Hartman is compelled to speculate about feelings as well as behaviour. She is careful to identify these speculations as acts of the imagination, which readers can trust in part because they are performed by an author with a thorough knowledge of prior scholarship in history and a gift for gleaning insights from literature. The 63 pages of endnotes cite what seem to be all of the studies relevant to the subject. The method is informed by affect theory, black feminist thought and Marxist theory. Academics will find themselves turning back and forth between the narrative and these notes. But general readers can ignore them if they choose. In no way do they interfere with the profound pleasure this book affords.
Professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, Hartman also uses myriad quotations from a range of novelists and poets, including many African American women; the epigraph (“She was, she knew, in a queer indefinite way, a disturbing factor”) is from Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. Hartman draws on the insights fiction offers to inform her speculations about the structures of feeling that informed her subjects’ lives. Following Zora Neale Hurston, who contended that poor rural black people believed “there can never be enough of beauty, let alone too much”, Hartman argues that poor urban black women were on a relentless quest to make their lives beautiful.
Their desire was beyond the ken of sociologists, for whom demography was the important calculus. Young black women in Philadelphia and New York outnumbered young black men by a significant margin, prompting social reformers to predict moral crisis. One quoted in the book expressed exasperation thus: “This was the trouble with Negroes – the law did not determine what was right and wrong in their eyes, as if they could live outside or oppose it.” In fact, the trouble for young black women was the frequently violent response to their choices, whether at the hands of their intimate partners, the police or unruly mobs of fellow citizens.
Hartman’s subjects were not all previously anonymous. Her portraits of well-known figures, with whom the too fast women may have crossed paths, are deftly drawn. W.E.B. Du Bois published The Philadelphia Negro in 1901; foundational to the discipline of sociology in the United States, it provided a comprehensive survey of the neighbourhood that several of these women called home. Mary White Ovington – like Du Bois, a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a wealthy white woman – took up residence in the Tenderloin district of New York and served as an advocate for her black neighbours. Activist, journalist and troublemaker Ida B. Wells came to Philadelphia and New York on her anti-lynching crusade. Hartman suggests parallels between Wells’ accounts of violence against black women in the South and the violence black women experienced in northern cities; she considers the too fast women and Wells kindred spirits. Although more insightful and knowledgeable than most Americans of their time, these figures were nevertheless limited in their ability to empathise with poor black rebellious women.
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is a virtuosic work of scholarship that recovers fragments of the lives of women who were supposed to be forgotten. As a result of her formidable research, stunning erudition, translucent prose and bold imagination, Saidiya Hartman reanimates their lives. Readers will not be able to forget them. They will also learn much about the social forces that enabled and constrained their struggle to live in beauty and freedom.
Cheryl A. Wall is distinguished professor of English at Rutgers University and the author of On Freedom and the Will to Adorn: The Art of the African American Essay (2018)
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval
By Saidiya Hartman
W.W. Norton, 464pp, $28.95
Published 19 February 2019
Saidiya Hartman, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, was born in Brooklyn but spent the first half of her childhood in Fort Green and her grandfather’s brownstone in Crown Heights. Her “parents’ decision to move to Queens”, she recalls, felt like “the end of my childhood”, adding that “the New York City in which I grew up no longer exists”.
At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Hartman was “deeply engaged in creative writing and film-making, and reading Marxist and feminist theory and what we then called ‘black women’s literature’. In my senior year, I encountered Hazel Carby, Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler and the engagement with these brilliant thinkers set me on the course to graduate school.”
This led to research and books, says Hartman, exploring “questions of everyday practice, the archive and the afterlife of slavery. The enduring entanglements of slavery and freedom and the still unfolding narrative of black dispossession are at the heart of my concerns…My new book Wayward Lives continues the lines of investigation that began with Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997).”
Looking at “the lives of young black women at the turn of the 20th century and their attempts to live as if they were free in the context of racism and servitude, and the ever-present threat of confinement”, in Hartman’s view, can teach us a number of important lessons: “The first lesson is: don’t let the world define who you are or set the limits of the possible, especially a world that consistently fails to imagine or to nurture black female genius. The second is that obedience won’t protect you, but an errant path might be the threshold to a beautiful life. Last, even in the most dire circumstances, black women never stop dreaming about a new set of social arrangements, never stop plotting and striving to make it so.”