Skip to main content

Book Review: Saidiya Hartman's "Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments"

E. Watson is an educator, writer and Spanish/English translator who enjoys working with oppositional narratives and documentary poetics.

Oppositional narratives are powerful tools in any classroom that values anti-racist pedagogy. Hartman's novel bridges the gap between fiction and nonfiction.

Oppositional narratives are powerful tools in any classroom that values anti-racist pedagogy. Hartman's novel bridges the gap between fiction and nonfiction.

Reckoning With the Archive in the Classroom

As an educator, I wonder about how or whether the work happening within academia has any value to the people outside of it—whether teaching counterstories that center the lived experiences of people of color in our classrooms can serve as some small drop in the bucket of reparation for the trauma rooted in our country’s history and founding.

How can academic work address social injustice in ways that are meaningful and lasting? In ways that transcend institutional walls and become a part of the fabric of our own lives, of our own realities?

What Exactly Is the Archive?

In a 2018 interview with The Creative Independent, African Diaspora interdisciplinary scholar Saidiya Hartman asks a similar question.

Given that the afterlife of slavery means that black death is the normative condition of civil society, what is the character of the aesthetic in the context of terror,” she wonders. “Does death find its antidote in beauty? (Siemsen)

And while the answer to Hartman’s questions, much like her work, is a continual unfolding that resists concrete resolution, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments offers a way to reckon with historical memory and the voices lost to the historical record.

Bearing Witness to "Intimate Histories"

These “intimate histories'' are testimonies never told that nevertheless must be heard, and through conjuring them, the book asks us to bear witness. In this way, Wayward Lives feels like an answer to my question of whether scholarly treatments of race can find their way outside the walls of the institution.

Hartman’s book shows us how work conducted within the confines of academia can retroactively restore the possibility of anonymous experiences lost to the archive, bring visibility to Black society in the 20th century and highlight its influence on modern culture, and ultimately trouble White dominant society’s relationship with historical memory and the after of slavery in the United States.

Hartman’s book shows us how work conducted within the confines of academia can retroactively restore possibility to anonymous experiences lost to the archive, bring visibility to Black society in the 20th century and highlight its influence on modern culture, and ultimately trouble White dominant society’s relationship with historical memory and the after of slavery in the United States.

When Helping Hurts in Academia

Academic research that turns an eye to marginalized communities, regardless of intent, often ends up reinforcing societal perception of members of those communities as disenfranchised.

We see examples of this kind of help that hurts in Hartman’s treatment of the “reformers and sociologists” who enter the Black Belt with cameras aimed to capture the brokenness of the ghetto, on whom “the beautiful experiments crafted by poor black girls” are lost.

We see them in her portrayal of her character Du Bois, a Tennessee school teacher, as he gazes down the street at women gathered on apartment building steps after dark. Like the statisticians that “gleefully count [...] the prostitutes and the bastards," he sees not the vibrant contradictions and fullness of women who are “smart, crazy, wild, not to be messed with," but rather “reckless [...] embittered” loiterers.

Yet Hartman goes beyond drawing attention to the limitations of, and harm done by, research methodologies based on the White gaze.

Author Saidiya Hartman speaking at an event in 2020 in promotion of her book "Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments."

Author Saidiya Hartman speaking at an event in 2020 in promotion of her book "Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments."

Disrupting the Archive: Hartman at Work

In her own research in Wayward Lives, Hartman punctuates the trauma and violence suffered by Black and Queer communities with an acute attention to desire as its experienced by the individuals she follows.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

It is desire as lust, desire as escape, and desire as the longing for things to be different. The longing for release from the bondage that moved from the plots of plantations to the invisible dividers that separate the ghetto from White neighborhoods. That make up the lines of graphs and numbers in the archive. Release from “the boundaries of the discrete body” that hungers, lies “vulnerable to gratuitous violence,” is swallowed into “an abstract social category” and stripped bare.

Hartman uses the archive to disrupt the archive, pulling names and faces from its pages and restoring some retroactive possibility to these women in an attempt to capture and simultaneously mimic the churning, contradictory aliveness that was the black social life in New York and Manhattan in the 20th century.

Desire Propels and Transforms

As a force of transformation, desire propels the women in her book to imagine new ways of being, to “slip [. . .] into another arrangement of the possible."

Mattie, a teenage girl from Virginia in search of a different way of living in New York City, finds herself deconstructed in the complicated occasional violence of lovemaking. The entanglement of bodies “transform[s] her into anything else she long[s] to be: like a bird flying high or a thing cast and boundless.” In the grip of sweat and sensation and the threat of punishment, she becomes “oceanic—not a person at all."

Turning like Mattie to “the transport of sex” as transcendence, Queer musician Mabel lets erotic pleasure dissolve the realities “that fix [. . .] her in time and space” and grant her access to “a deeper inhabitation [. . .] of breath, touch and taste."

Entanglement Frees and Resurrects

Hartman returns again and again to entanglement as transcendence, as a release from confinement.

Dancers lose themselves in the movement of bodies on the floor; a single voice is simultaneously lost and infinitely expanded in a chorus of singers; young Edna sheds her skin for the costume of another life as she steps on stage and becomes "nobody and everybody at once." Hartman continuously mimics this process in both her capturing of the characters' experiences and in the book's very form—in the patching together of imagery, sounds, and what-ifs.

Hartman jumps between the perspectives of named and unnamed black women, queer performers, and struggling artists. She gathers pictures, real and imagined, of the slum, pulling noise, thoughts, and movement together until they rise to a cacophony notably absent in the stolen photos of empty dining rooms and full clotheslines.

Anonymous sex workers, "ripened too soon," wonder which shoes to buy their boyfriends, are reduced to "faces in the police file," to bodies found in alleyways, only to be found sipping ale at a live show on Seventh or gazing up at the bright lights at a vaudeville show, lost in the flutter of costumes and song.

Pushing Against the Silence of the Still-Life

Fragments of beauty and desire transport these women from the peeling paint of cramped kitchens and the threat of violence in the eyes of passersby, ushering them toward a new and different future that draws close and hot in the dark theatre.

Hartman pushes against the stagnant silence of the still-life, brushes against it, as if separating some precious bone from the earth, to reveal the possibilities of this life and the lives like it—the struggle and desire and "untiring practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive" in 20th century America.

The scandal of desire, casual sex, the pursuit of beauty and extravagance, revered in its whitewashed representation by flapper girls and crowded, smoke-filled Gatsby-esque parties of the '20s, escaped the gaze of cameras capturing the "moral hazard" of the slum, or else was written away as the vulgarity of the negro quarter.

Hartman lets the "dangerous music of black life" spill out into the streets of the black quarter and alleyways of Philadelphia neighborhoods. She shows us how the "swan song" of protest and riot, the uncontainable "longing to be free," was revolutionary in the Black social fabric of the 20th century.

Mimicking the Simultaneity of Entanglement

White historic memory tends to view slavery as an event with a beginning, middle, and end—as linear and closed.

But for Black communities, “the past, the present, and the future are not discrete and cut off from one another.” History overlaps and folds in on itself. Trauma moves through veins and stories and collapses the generations removed from the plantation.

Through collapsing time in her narration, Hartman mimics the “simultaneity of entanglement,” recreating it for those who do not—cannot—understand (Siemsen).

"'Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments' is itself a stage, a dance floor, a bed in a rented room sagging under the weight of undulating bodies. It serves as a space where the black women 'sequestered from the world, held in the body of the state' can escape the bondage of the archive."

Why the Cast List in Nonfiction?

Like the program you might flip through as you wait for the lights to dim in a theatre, Wayward Lives begins with a list of characters and a brief description of them: “Girl #1,” the first line reads. “Wanders through the streets of Philadelphia Seventh Ward and New York’s Tenderloin, year 1900."

When I first saw this, I didn’t understand. It wasn’t until later that I realized that Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is itself a stage, a dance floor, a bed in a rented room sagging under the weight of undulating bodies. It serves as a space where the black women “sequestered from the world, held in the body of the state” can escape the bondage of the archive.

Through imagining possibility, through “straining to hear” the riot in the “statistical aggregate," Hartman invites the trouble-making stories of the silenced and forgotten, the deep belly laughter, the ravaged bodies, in all their fullness and unknowability, to let themselves be swept up in the sound of Black life in the 20th century.

From within the confines of academic scholarship, she has improvised like the jazz musicians in the heat and smoke of Black Belt dance halls that the forgotten might be “engulfed once again in the collection composition and the collaborative movement” of retroactive possibility, to be “carried away by the rush of black, brown and tan bodies” and be “one among the chorus” that is Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments.

© 2022 Emma Watson

Related Articles