Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals
W. W. Norton & Company, 2019
Reviewed by Kiara Davis
Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments recovers the histories of “ordinary” young Black women trying to “live as if they were free” in Philadelphia and New York City at the beginning of the twentieth century. To find these women, Hartman turns to the archive: social-work files, parole officers’ reports, psychiatrist interviews, slum photography, prison case files, and reformers’ notes, all of which become, for Hartman, traces of ‘wayward’ Black women. To critique the pathologized and criminalized depictions of these ‘wayward’ young women Hartman takes the reader from the archival opening into the tenement, the ghetto, the streets, the jail cell, the theater, the dancehall, the rented bedroom, the hallway––the places where the Black girls are found. In these places, Hartman finds young Black women experimenting with agency and personhood under impossible circumstances, young Black women determined to “make living an art,” young Black women whose experiments as “sexual modernists, free lovers, radicals, and anarchists” inhabited the tensions between freedom and confinement, between autonomy and forced choice, and between deprivation and beauty.
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is divided into three books. Its cast of young Black women includes well-known figures like Ida B. Wells and Eleanora Fagan (later known as Billie Holiday), but celebrities are far outnumbered by unnamed chorus girls, rioters, domestics, factory workers, actresses, inmates, entertainers, and prostitutes. In Book One, “She Makes an Errant Path Through the City,” Hartman puts the reader beside a young Black woman named Mattie who is migrating north to start a new life away from the plantation. Hartman treats the Great Migration as a general strike and positions young Black women like Mattie as political agents participating in a labor movement. Like other young Black women making the journey north, Mattie is “straddling the fault lines of […] an unthinkable past and a blank future.” When we encounter her in the midst of the journey, she is “dreamy with thoughts of what the future would hold.” This future, for Mattie, is the tenement. Just as the northern city endangers the black ghetto within it, so too the tenement endangers the young Black woman. The hallway is “narrow […] two walls threatening to squeeze and crush you into nothingness.” It reminds its tenants, “Negro don’t even try to live.” But this narrow space is also “a clearing,” a place for lively firsts, for tongue kisses, for experiments, for desire. The tenement contains the ugly realities of poverty, lack of opportunity, and physical and sexual trauma, yet it is also “a transient resting place, an impossible refuge,” and one of the few places where there can be a measure of escape from White surveillance. When we re-encounter Mattie in the tenement, she is experiencing intercourse for the first time. Sex for Mattie arises out of deprivation; it is a lust that stems from “the mere force of existing,” fueled by a desire for all of the things the world denies her. Confined by the oppressions of the tenement, Mattie’s sexual desire is something resembling agency, a “loophole of retreat.” Within these loopholes, Hartman tells us, Black women stage “open rebellion,” acts of resistance and self-expression. From the tenement, Hartman follows the path of this rebellion back to the plantation and through Reconstruction to the slave ship and the barracoon. In these open rebellions, Hartman says, “some fought, some jumped, some refused to eat. Others set the plantation and the fields on fire, poisoned the master.”
In Book Two, “The Sexual Geography of the Black Belt,” Hartman introduces us to Edna, a domestic servant in the north. Amidst the hardening segregation in northern cities, domestic servitude was “field and the brothel […] the house of bondage.” Edna flees these constraints for the expressive freedoms of the stage, where she transforms the stress and upheaval of Black life into art. As an entertainer, Edna fashions new selfhood, new life, and new sexual expression. For Hartman, the women of the stage, the cabaret, the dancehall, and the cinema transform not just themselves, but the past with which those selves are continuous. In one example, the horrors of the slave ship become the rhythmic beauty of the limbo dance; form and performance remake “the gateway to or threshold of a new world and the dislocation of a chain of miles” at a time when young Black women in the north were still chained to the past by a lack of opportunity, by respectability politics, and by the color line.
Hartman closes Wayward Lives with “Beautiful Experiments.” In this final book, Black women experiment with forms of resistance against unjust working conditions and “the personal degradation of their work.” They strike, they refuse to work, they frequently change employers, and they deliberately make themselves unreliable, resistances that meet with surveillance, police harassment, and incarceration. In their correspondence from jail, these women continue to demand justice, and within the jails themselves, they organize “noise strikes” and “vocal outbreaks”—further resistance taking the form, in Hartman’s words, of a “soundscape of rebellion and refusal.” As a collective entity, this rebellious chorus binds each woman in a unique, experimental, and intimate relationship with the others; the chorus can move, plan, create, and escape. But Hartman’s focus is perhaps less on the group and more on the individual chorine, on her insistent imaginings of life lived freely. Hartman recovers these imaginings; the horizons of these experimental lives return to us in Hartman’s transformative approach to the archive, to its violence, and to the acts of resistance and rebellion that can be rescued from that violence. By breaking open, expanding, and recombining archival objects, Hartman captures the interior and the intimacy of supposedly ‘wayward’ Black lives. She shows young Black women for the political and cultural agents they were, and indeed still are—waiting in the archive for anyone ready to follow Hartman through the oppressions and terrors of America’s present past. In finding the voices of the chorus, Hartman shapes a methodology that makes possible newly imaginable futures.