Review of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

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I have long been familiar with Dr. Saidiya Hartman’s brilliance; first through Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (1997) and then through Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Coast (2008). As a post-doc, I also had the privilege of attending a conference/gathering of several well-respected historians of the African diaspora held at NYU. I was deeply impressed by Dr. Hartman’s presentation as well as her numerous contributions and commentaries on the work of her colleagues.

I admit, I haven’t read her first two publications. One of the reasons I wasn’t particularly interested in Lose Your Mother was because I had spent six months living and traveling around Ghana and another year and some months in Benin Republic, both major hubs of the transatlantic slave trade, each for very different reasons. It may sound silly or strange, but I had no desire to have my own experience influenced or “tainted” by Hartman’s work.

While Scenes of Subjection was well-known in my doctorate program, sad to say, I never took a course for which it was required and I preferred to spend what little free time I had reading novels coming out of African and African diasporic traditions.

I, however, could not wait to get my hands on her latest publication, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019).

Unlike Scenes of Subjection, but like Lose Your Mother, Wayward Lives is a literary publication. It is meant to be read by lots of people. As such, it is stripped of the jargon-heavy, endnote-laden texts of academia.

Which makes it a must-read.

This is not to say that it is easy. While the language is highly accessible, the subject matter—black women’s desire to live life on their own terms while the white supremacist state was determined to circumscribe their lives—is the stuff of nightmares.

Nonetheless, it was my treat for several weeks just before bed after I’d spent my days working hard on my own latest intellectual project.

Wayward Lives covers the urban areas of Philadelphia and New York between 1890 and 1935. According to W.W. Norton’s website, the book explores the ways in which “In wrestling with the question “What is a free life?”, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work. Here, for the first time, these women are credited with shaping a cultural movement that transformed the urban landscape. Through a melding of history and literary imagination, Wayward Lives recovers their radical aspirations and insurgent desires.”

In her interview on Rustbelt Radio Hartman expands on the website description, remarking that the book explores the continuities between slavery, the ghetto as an open-air prison, and the contemporary prison industrial complex. She looks at the quotidian practices of women who refused the rhetoric of anti-blackness and begs the question, “What does it mean to love what is not loved?” This question still stands to be answered today.

Wayward Lives is a beautiful text, very well researched, and important. I could imagine it opening up several avenues for exploration of countless histories that have been subverted and erased. It also provides a roadmap for how to do it.

Let us all be inspired by Dr. Hartman’s work and continue the critical work that she has started.

Rustbest Radio Interview with Saidiya Hartman: Rustbelt Radio

 

 

 

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