- Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval by Saidiya Hartman
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. By Saidiya Hartman. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019; 464 pp.; illustrations. $28.95 cloth, $17.95 paper, e-book available.
In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, Saidiya Hartman threads immersive detail, sweeping narrative, and incisive critique together to chronicle the visionary labors of early-20th-century black women who dared to "live as if they were free" (xv). Narrating the "beautiful experiments crafted by poor black girls" (4) who migrated from the US South to Philadelphia and New York City between the 1880s and 1930s, Hartman establishes these "minor figure[s]" (13) as the dauntless initiators of modern struggles for black freedom, female sexual autonomy, and queer possibility. Telling stories of subjects often relegated in history as "surplus women of no significance" (xv), Hartman delivers an epic of this uncredited collective, and with it, a new scale and method for the feminist study of black women, queer life, and the social history of US American modernity.
The formidable contributions of Wayward Lives arise both from the intimate histories of selffashioning and "open rebellion" (xiii) that it unearths, and from its original approach to them. Assembling a "Cast of Characters," from "Girl #1" and the "unnamed young women of the city" (xvii) who constitute the book's "Chorus," to the recognizable Ida B. Wells and Billie Holiday, Hartman deploys "close narration" (xiii), rich description, and the careful, yet nonindexical, placement of photographs to flesh out each figure and their surround. Hartman's ability to transport the reader "inside the circle" (xiv) is a feat in itself, accomplished through her scouring of archival fragments and her "speculat[ion] about what might have been" (xiv); for, as Hartman relates, where and when these figures appear in archives is often in state inventories of their criminality, not in first person narratives of their inner lives. Sustaining a critique of archival power that extends from her influential essay, "Venus in Two Acts" (2008), and from the uptake of its key terms in black studies, Hartman undertakes entirely original experiments in this new book that materialize her essay's concept of "critical fabulation" (2008:11) and make Wayward Lives a singular achievement.
Book 1 propels readers into Hartman's experiment across its eight parts. Contemplating a nude photograph of the unnamed, very young Girl #2 in "A Minor Figure," Hartman exhumes the violence of the photograph's capture and its residual violence as it overdetermines Girl #2's presence in the archive. Announcing her search for "another path to her" (30), Hartman's pursuit diverts in multiple directions. Following another minor figure, Mattie Jenkins, out of the South in "An Intimate History of Slavery and Freedom," Hartman explores the desires that buoyed Jenkins while enumerating the conditions of servitude and state white supremacy that met her in New York in 1913. In "An Atlas of the Wayward," Hartman makes the first of several pivots away from the intimate lives of the wayward toward those of the reformers and [End Page 168] sociologists who judged them so. Deconstructing W.E.B. Du Bois's The Philadelphia Negro (1899) from inside the scholar's own intimate shame, Hartman initiates the book's interrogation of how black women's freedom came to be seen as the "Negro problem" itself (101), the target for reformers' moral condemnation, and worse, the state's justification for black women's confinement.
The 12 sections of Books 2 and 3 clarify the high stakes of black women's lived experimentation, detailing the "incredible ferocity" with which states and municipalities acted to "shape and regulate intimate life" (256). Across these sections, Hartman denudes intimate history of its solely celebratory register, clarifying that, to know the intimate histories of poor black women during this period was to hold a weapon against them. Hartman demonstrates the vicious efficacy of intimate knowledge in her...