Historical experiments on the will to live free

In an attempt to write the lives and freedom dreams of black women on the margins of most archives, African American thinker and writer Saidiya Hartman plays with the speculative.

Every historical work is marked by the writer’s subjective interpretation, which can and, at times, must, border on speculation. Saidiya Hartman’s most recent offering, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019), openly and evocatively embraces the speculative as central to her method. 

The question of how to write and research the stories of those who dance on the outsides of the archive has long haunted historians – particularly historians concerned with, connected to and committed to the various multitudes of the oppressed. 

How do you write against the grain of what we find in the archive? Is it possible to hear and listen for the hopes and dreams of those who – due to the conditions of their lives and contexts or their own choices and actions – either escaped the records or who enter them primarily as problems and statistics rather than as free-thinking people?

These are some of the questions Hartman improvises responses to in this book. The subjects she is primarily concerned with are black women living in the American cities of Philadelphia and New York City between 1890 and the 1930s. The book attempts to detail and imagine the ways in which they made life in a context that was violently hostile to their very existence, autonomy and joy. It tries to sing with the chorus, being attentive to the dreams of freedom that these women’s practices and their experiments in life embodied. It is concerned with their choices, modes and spaces of producing beauty; their incessant improvisations toward a life less frightening, owned and determined by none other than themselves. 

Post-slavery social control

Two or three generations after the formal abolition of slavery in the United States, amid accelerated social change, many black people were on the move. Out of the South towards the cities of the North, it was the general strike against the plantation. The age-old pursuit of a better life took place in the tumultuous context where the legal and social apparatuses for maintaining and sustaining white supremacy were being reworked. Hartman says multiple times that the plantation was being extended to the city – the ghetto was under construction. It was within and through these changes, which were themselves responses to black practices of freedom, that black people were forced to live.

Besides the not-yet-white but becoming-white, poor immigrants from Europe.
In the overcrowded tenement houses.
Living just enough for the city where industry ‘doesn’t use coloured people’.
Under the gaze of the University people.
In close proximity to the well-to-do, respectable blacks who’d managed to secure some kind of stable livelihood.
Amongst those with dreams of singing, whilst washing white laundry daily.
At the mercy of the racist police.
Always at the mercy of the racist police.

Through a number of women’s experiences, Hartman shows how the white imagination of black women as “loose” and “morally degenerate” manifested in the assumption that they were “prostitutes” until proven otherwise. Women were arrested while waiting on the streets for their husbands to finish a drink, arrested while walking into their own homes, arrested on suspicion of living in the company of people known to be of questionable character or merely inviting a man into their apartments – assuming that they were soliciting or might in the future. They were arrested for the impossibility of living a life that adhered to white middle-class norms of what a woman should be and how they should behave in public.

Related article:

Hartman writes: “Young women between 14 and 21, but sometimes girls as young as 12, were sentenced to reformatories for visiting or residing in a house of bad reputation or suspected of prostitution, or associating with lowlifes or criminals, or being promiscuous, or not working.” 

This war on their freedom of choice, or where they happened to be at any given moment, resulted in alarmingly high rates of incarceration of black women, many or most of whom were not even guilty for what they were charged with; and even if they were, their choice of sex work was itself often a refusal of other forms of socially acceptable-servitude – it generally paid better than housework. 

After sentencing, they were separated from worried parents and distraught partners, who incessantly wrote to the jails, workhouses and other institutions of reform, begging the supervisors to treat their loved ones well after hearing the frightening stories of torture and abuse at the hands of prison authorities. 

The will to live free

One of the great contributions of Hartman’s work is highlighting the ways in which, up against the wall, these women’s actions were continually motivated and inspired by the will to live free. Even in these conditions women revolted. Ensembles of the locked-up were also ensembles of resistance. 

“Collectively the inmates had grown weary of gratuitous violence and being punished for trifles, so they sought retribution in noise and destruction. They tossed their mattresses, they broke windows, they set fires. Nearly everyone in the cottage was shouting and screaming and crying out to whomever would listen,” Hartman writes.

One of Hartman’s contemporaries and co-thinkers, Fred Moten, points out that “the scream” – the cry of anguish, where words don’t always suffice, where a retch wrenched from and against black pain, against racism and slavery, is the only possible attempt at articulation – is one of the bases of African American music. It is easy to see how the improvised sounds of free and avant-garde jazz from the 1960s onwards, often labelled noise or, a din, was prefigured in sonic revolts such as the December 1919 reformatory riot described above. 

Related article:

The reformatory was only one place where resistance was enacted. On the dance floors, on the stage and in the stairwell, in the bedroom and in the home, black women not only refused the persistent persistence of unwanted advances and all-too-pervasive harassment of white and black men, but they also independently pursued their own pleasure, built their own intimate beauties, refusing the norms of who and how they should love. 

Some had fleeting sexual encounters with other women members of their cabaret chorus. Cabaret star Gladys Bentley sang, dressed and acted like a “man”, wearing tuxedos and loving many women. Mabel Hampton went with a rich white woman to an upper-class sex gathering where “the collective lust washed over you; claimed you; dared you; transformed you”, Hartman writes. Others pursued affairs with men while their husbands were away. 

These were deviant spaces of joy, pleasure and autonomy, part of the architecture of black women’s revolt against what they were supposed to be. 

A tradition of revolt

In these women’s actions, their desires and in our imagination of theirs, we glimpse a tradition of revolt against servitude, against alienated and alienating work, against the imposed, against the proper and property and the ways they attempted to contain and define black womanhood. Against all this and for and toward beauty, where “beauty is not a luxury; rather it is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure, a radical art of subsistence, an embrace of our terribleness, a transfiguration of the given”.

In this historical context, black women were constructed as wayward – lacking in morals. But the conditions of existence and subsistence were so precarious that the pursuit of life was by necessity wayward – rescripting and improvising paths through urban jungles. Their transgressive paths show us the “anarchy of coloured girls” and the riot of the chorus, a radical tradition largely missed, ignored or dismissed by the left. Hartman insists on their importance as radical thinkers. 

While speculation always runs the risk of projecting the writer’s own imaginations of what we want to believe about history – a danger that animates the work – what becomes possible is what we have here, Hartman’s attempt, across the chasm of time, to join the chorus, in a beautiful, wayward experiment.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.