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A Book of Necessary, Speculative Narratives for the Anonymous Black Women of History

Saidiya Hartman’s new book of speculative fiction unearths the beauty in the wayward, the fiction in the facts, and the thriving existence in the face of a blanked out history.

Photograph of Ethel Waters, age 12, n.d. (Photographs of Prominent African Americans, James Weldon Johnson Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

When we consider the grand scope of human existence, it becomes obvious that only a small percentage of lives go recorded in the most technical or administrative ways. A staggeringly smaller subset of those go on to be memorialized in history to any significant depth. Obviously, privilege of class, race, gender, and citizen status have affected the long arc of the historical record, affecting the ways in which immigrants, slaves, and others had their histories wiped or misrepresented due to purposeful decisions by a ruling class — perhaps none so much as poor, Black, women in the Reconstruction period, who faced a uniquely crushing array of intersectional hurdles to their basic freedom and autonomy. And yet, while the truism that history is written by the victors tends to hold, a new book by historian, author, and Guggenheim Fellow Saidiya Hartman demonstrates the way in which every writer, researcher, and curious human has choices to make when they turn their sights to revisiting history, with the intention of bringing a story back to the future.

Hartman had a very clear idea of what she was seeking when she undertook the research process that became Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval: “I searched for photographs exemplary of the beauty and possibility cultivated in the lives of ordinary black girls and young women and that stoked dreams of what might be possible if you could escape the house of bondage,” she writes, in one essay, titled “A Minor Figure.” In addition to attending to the fictionalized histories of a few specific subjects, “A Minor Figure” clearly presents Hartman’s underlying values as a researcher: that no life is insignificant, that suppressed narratives deserve daylight, that we hold within us the capacity to expand history with our imagination and shared humanity.

Underwood & Underwood, “Photograph of Silent Protest Parade: Race prejudice is the offspring of ignorance and the mother of lynching.” July 28, 1917 (Photographs of Prominent African Americans, James Weldon Johnson Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)

“For decades I have been obsessed with anonymous figures, and much of my intellectual labor devoted to reconstructing the experience of the unknown and retrieving minor lives from oblivion,” Hartman writes in “A Minor Figure.”

The myriad challenges presented by history to Hartman’s search are elucidated over pages and pages of works that seek to excavate these lives from both the oppressive conditions for freed slaves and early generations of free Black people in Northern cities, and the harmful stereotypes that form a reductive picture of their existence after the fact. Sometimes Hartman generates these works of speculative nonfiction in connection to names already well known to history, like W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells, but in many cases, she works from starting points as vague as a single, unattributed photograph, police booking record, social work case file, or reformatory transcript. Sometimes she had the benefit of a notebook or a sheaf of letters.

Stills from Oscar Micheaux, Swing! (1938) (Library of Congress)
Stills from Oscar Micheaux, Swing! (1938) (Library of Congress)

I have, in conversation with other writers, debated the merits of speculative nonfiction as a genre — arguing that such a concept presents legitimate danger in this post-truth, further blurring lines between what is real and what is imagined — but Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is a perfect case study in the necessity of such a genre. Hartman is working from extant records, irrefutable evidence of lives lived, but stripped down in many cases to only the barest material traces. But as these women lived, and as they bear a common core to all living people, it is fair to assume they dreamed, they hoped, they felt pain, they desired to be free in a society that, having recently toppled one system of their oppression, wasted no time in constructing new paradigms to take its place. Extending her experiences as a human, as a woman, as a person of color, Hartman is able to convincingly stitch a line between fact an intuition, presenting full narratives on behalf of women that might have otherwise remained single-word entries in the record: vagrant, prostitute, wayward, loose.

Still here,” Hartman writes, in “An Unloved Woman,” “They didn’t allow their voices to crack or their eyes to glisten at the cold facts, at the brutal calculus of life and death. Only us and we and still here allowed them to utter one atrocity after another without breaking.” These atrocities form the proscenium of Hartman’s wayward lives, but it does not comprise her characters.

“An Atlas of the Wayward” is an extended essay from the perspective of a 28-year-old W.E.B. Du Bois during 1896, the year he spent residing in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward, collecting sociological data on what was, at the time, the largest Black population in the Northeast. Though Du Bois later made his own efforts in speculative nonfiction to humanize the data he collected and meticulously presented in hand-tinted graphs and charts, Hartman both employs this data to statistically inform the conditions of race-based unemployment, gender inequality, and chaotic family structure that shaped life choices for her subjects, as well as to assign a meta-narrative to Du Bois himself, outlining a terrible struggle between judgment and compassion for his study population.

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman, cover image. Image courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company.

Taken in aggregate, Hartman’s stories form a repetitive litany: for freed slaves and their first-generation progeny, the hope of new life in the northern cities was often crushed and warped by the oppressive social structures responding to the influx of these newcomers. Restrictive hiring and housing covenants confined Black people to ghettos and tenements, and often left Black men unable to find steady employment. In a reversal of the traditional Western gender binary characterizing men as head of household and providers to the family, it was easier for Black women to find work, but it was the draining, endless work of the domestic: laundress, housekeeper, cook, nanny. With most Black men literally barred from meaningful employment or the ability to provide, needing to move wherever work might be found, and women left as the primary breadwinners — in addition to a host of other social and economic pressures — Black households that had remained relatively nuclear in the South were prone to fracture in these Northern cities. Even those that did maintain some semblance of conventional family structure did so outside of the legal formalities of marriage — indeed, as Du Bois’s statistics show, unmarried Black women greatly outnumbered their male counterparts in the Seventh Ward, which not only contributed to a climate of infidelity and out-of-wedlock arrangements, but posed a real danger to women, who could be literally jailed and institutionalized for having sex with men, inviting them to their rooms, waiting for them on the street, and living together outside of the legal status of marriage.

UNIA Parade, Harlem 1920 (New York Public Library)

If there is a weariness in reading the repetition of these sexist, racist, and outrageously oppressive conditions, it is of course nominal in the face of living in their reality. The stories that Hartman lifts from this mix and for which she crafts wings allows them to soar with the possibilities that we know — intuitively, if not factually — lived in their minds and hearts. The beauty in the wayward, the fiction in the facts, and the thriving existence in the face of a blanked out history are the recurring motifs of Wayward Lives, and as a beautiful experiment in its own right, it shines through as a successful one.

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019) by Saidiya Hartman is published by W.W. Norton & Company. It is available online and wherever books are sold.

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