To Exhume Open Rebellion

Janis Jin

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, by Saidiya Hartman, W.W. Norton & Company, 441 pp., $28.95

without the begin of word
grist in a grind and pound of together
in the absence of a past mortared with
                                                            apart
the harsh husk of a future-present begins

-M. NourbeSe Philip, She Tries Her Tongue; Her Silence Softly Breaks


For black women in the early 20th century, the end of slavery marked not the beginning of freedom but a transition into a new state of captivity. As black families moved north during the Great Migration, the urban ghetto replaced the southern plantation as the open-air prison of black social life. Black women in particular were subjected to brutal forms of violence at the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality. Photographs, government documents, and sociological reports of the era tell the stories of countless black women criminalized, imprisoned, and even sentenced to death – often without even breaking the law. The archive lays bare the painful truth of emancipation: not unlike that of the enslaved woman, the condition of the freed black woman living in the aftermath of Reconstruction’s failure was defined by precarity, brutality, and vulnerability to premature death.[1]

But left nameless or named foul, historical archives leave us with little material to try and imagine black women’s lives outside of the violence inflicted upon them, damning them to be remembered as “commodities and corpses”[2] – or to not be remembered at all. That is, the archive tells a truthful story, yes, about the social dispossession and material poverty which shaped urban black life. But how can we believe that this tale of utter deprivation is a complete story? What of struggle, of the yearning for freedom, of ordinary and minor insurgencies? Where do we find these stories if not inside the archive?

These questions pose a seemingly impossible challenge for scholars reckoning with histories of loss and violence: how to tell a story that does not take for granted the constitutive limits of the archive. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is Saidiya Hartman’s latest experiment in responding to this task. Hartman is a 2019 MacArthur Fellow, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, and author of now three books: Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019), Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997), and Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007). Across all her scholarship, Hartman has asked us to contend with what she has termed “the afterlife of slavery.”[3] In Wayward Lives, she wanders with us down alleyways, through dance halls, and into rented rooms, imagining scenes of black life in the ghetto in early 20th century New York and Philadelphia. In doing so, she presents a counter-narrative to the archive’s catalogue of black women listed one after another as deviant, criminal, and impoverished. The project is a love letter to the “wayward” – a gorgeous interrogation of how, in their refusal to be governed, ordinary black girls enacted rich and revolutionary practices of freedom. “The endeavor,” Hartman writes: “to exhume open rebellion from the case file…and to illuminate the radical imagination and everyday anarchy of ordinary colored girls, which has not only been overlooked, but is nearly unimaginable.”

Wayward Lives is not Hartman’s first attempt to redress the violence of the case file. In her now-canonical 2008 essay “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman writes about her archival encounter with Venus, an enslaved woman whose murder aboard a slave ship is a ubiquitous presence in the archive of Atlantic slavery. For Venus and the hundreds of thousands of other black girls whose brutal deaths are recorded as archival documents, Hartman describes the archive as a “death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body, an inventory of property, a medical treatise on gonorrhea, a few lines about a whore’s life, an asterisk in the grand narrative of history.”[4] Hartman’s writing in “Venus in Two Acts” is full of feeling, and irrefutably so: “I want to say more than this,” she confesses. “I want to do more than recount the violence that deposited these traces in the archive…how does one rewrite the chronicle of death foretold and anticipated, as a collective biography of dead subjects, as a counter-history of the human, as the practice of freedom? How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know? How does one listen for the groans and cries, the undecipherable songs, the crackle of fire in the cane fields, the laments for the dead, and the shouts of victory, and then assign words to all of it?”[5]

Wayward Lives might be framed as Hartman’s own answer to her chorus of questions in “Venus in Two Acts.” The book reads less as a work of theory or history and more as a project of storytelling – a departure from Hartman’s earlier scholarship and a reminder of her training in literature. Hartman lingers on legal documents, government photos, and newspaper clippings from 1890 to 1935 and imagines something different for the young black women whose lives have been documented only in their relation to violence. Of a young dark-skinned girl named Mattie who has left Virginia for New York alone at the age of fifteen, Hartman writes:

She loved cashmere sweaters, not because they were expensive, but because the fabric felt so exquisite against her skin, like a thousand fingers caressing her arms, and the cool slip of silk undergarments against her flesh, smooth and releasing all that heat and fire, and the way a gold bracelet glinted and flashed in the sunlight and made the tone of her blue-black flesh so lush, as if right below the skin there were layers of indigo and ochre, a vortex of deep black in which you could lose yourself. Beauty and longing provided the essential architecture of her existence. Her genius was exhausted in trying to live.

Of course, the archive itself does not tell us whether Mattie loved cashmere sweaters. But the inclusion of potentially fabricated details plays a key role in Hartman’s effort to conjure up alternative possibilities for young black girls’ lives. In some ways, then, the book is a work of fiction, a project that hinges on the boldness of Hartman’s own imagination. Admittedly, some of the passages in the book feel a bit far-fetched. But far-fetched is not the worst place to be for a scholar who seeks out to answer impossible questions.

The cast of characters in Wayward Lives ranges from iconic names like Ida B. Wells, to girls like Mattie who appear fleetingly in the archive, to anonymous women left unnamed or identified only in communion with each other: “Girl #1,” “Girl #2,” “The Rioters,” “The Chorus.” Despite the wide range in characters, none are made up – all are present, albeit briefly or disparagingly, in the historical record. There’s May Enoch, a black woman arrested in 1900 on charges of “loitering” and “soliciting.” In the early 1900s, vagrancy laws were used to arrest black women for being unemployed and “leading the life of a prostitute,” a ubiquitous charge encompassing everything from loitering on the front stoop to dancing with friends in a Harlem nightclub. When May’s husband Arthur Harris tried to defend her from a white plainclothes officer attempting to arrest her on such charges, the conflict set off the 1900 Tenderloin Riot, one of the worst race riots in New York City history. May Enoch is described in the archive as a “negress” and a “wench” – “dissolute,” “criminal,” “promiscuous.” Hartman, however, takes on May’s voice to tell a different kind of story:

Next month, the fourth of September, would be their first anniversary. Things with Kid [Arthur Harris] had been good enough for them to try their luck in New York. If there was luck to be found anywhere for a Negro, it was here. New York was the largest black city in the north. It was more alive and more dangerous than Philadelphia. This was an auspicious year and she, like every other Negro, hoped 1900 was a potent of change. Yes indeed, New York was the city for a new life and a new century.

In her portrayal of May as a young black girl filled with hope at the cusp of the century, Hartman’s commitment to crafting a counter-narrative to the archive rings in an acutely affective register. In a later section about the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, Hartman presents a photograph – a mug shot – of one of the two hundred and sixty-five young women tortured and brutalized inside the prison’s walls. She describes being moved by this mundane image, Barthes’ punctum at work: “The photograph, which was intended to classify, measure, identify, and differentiate, offers no clue about the riot or her role in it, but I am unable to look at her face without anticipating it, without straining to hear its music.”

Anticipation is indeed the defining grammatical mood of Wayward Lives. In wondering about what else might have been possible for her subjects, Hartman mobilizes what Lisa Lowe has called a “past conditional temporality” – the temporality of what could have been. Hartman turned to Lowe in “Venus in Two Acts” when she proposed that the speculative or subjunctive mood might be particularly apt for projects which strain against the limits of the archive; in Wayward Lives, Hartman tests the limits of her own proposal as she asks readers to imagine “how black folks might could live.” As Lowe has written, this kind of temporality “symbolizes aptly the space of a different kind of thinking, a space of productive attention to the scene of loss, a thinking with twofold attention that seeks to encompass at once the positive objects and methods of history and social science, and also the matters absent, entangled, and unavailable by its methods.”[6]

In recalling Lowe’s “what could have been,” Wayward Lives reminds me too of José Muñoz’s then and there. In Cruising Utopia, Muñoz posits queer futurity as a mode of reckoning with the pervasiveness of queer death while also insisting that another world is possible. While Hartman never goes as far as to use the word “utopia” in her writing, I want to suggest that a Muñozian kind of utopia offers a generative framework for relating the archival and historical interventions made by Wayward Lives to the unfolding present. Muñoz, like Hartman, is interested in anticipation. For Muñoz, queer utopia is not the place of futurity, but the very “longing that propels us forward.”[7] In other words, we might think of queer utopia not as a noun but as a verb, a present-tense participle: longing, yearning, dreaming, “not simply a being but a doing for and toward the future” (emphasis added).[8] This kind of doing envisions utopia as a practice in longing, the future as a rigorous critique of the present.

Set between 1890 and 1935, Hartman’s book offers a direct critique not of the contemporary moment but of the historical archive. But Wayward Lives is, if nothing else, a text filled with longing. While the book makes indeed a historical intervention in how scholars might write about urban black women’s lives in the early 20th century, its more remarkable and far-reaching contribution is that it lays out a blueprint for how to confront the image of violence and long – rigorously, relentlessly, radically – for something different. Daphne Brooks has called Hartman’s text a model of “the highest form of ethical work that we can do,”[9] and as students and scholars writing in a political moment rife with images of death and devastation, we ought to follow in Hartman’s tracks. From Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s mutilated face in the 2016 Whitney Biennial to that viral photograph of an asylum-seeking father and daughter lying dead in the Rio Grande, it is clear that the archive of our contemporary era has done a good job documenting moments of spectacular violence. But Wayward Lives makes a compelling ethical call to demand more of our own imaginative capabilities. Hartman asks us to tell impossible stories, to take Michael Brown, Layleen Polanco, Roxana Hernandez, and ask what else could have been possible for them, to look into the open casket and “discern the glimmer of possibility, feel the ache of what might be.” When scholars in the next century look into the archive of our own, what will they see? Did we long for something different? Did we dare to imagine that another future-present was possible? Wayward Lives – Saidiya Hartman’s most reckless, imaginative, and defiant work yet – will certainly place her within the category of those who did.

[1] Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

[2] Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (2008), 10.

[3] Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 6.

[4] “Venus in Two Acts,” 2.

[5] “Venus in Two Acts,” 3.

[6] Lisa Lowe, “The Intimacies of Four Continents,” in Ann Laura Stoler, ed., Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 208.

[7] José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York, New York University Press, 2009), 1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Daphne Brooks, “The Beautiful Struggle,” The New Inquiry, July 22, 2019, https://thenewinquiry.com/the-beautiful-struggle/.