Saidiya Hartman’s book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, is a radical, lyrical, and intimate examination of the lives of “ordinary” and “wayward” Black women in the early twentieth century. Hartman beautifully narrates the radical social behaviors that helped challenge traditional beliefs of love and marriage: queer relations, single motherhood, free love, and serial partners. Such women not only refused conventional intimate lives, they rejected the dictates of a society that prescribed for them a life restricted to labor and degrading work. In this lush revival of forgotten history, Hartman unfurls the intimacy of Black life in Philadelphia and New York by recreating the experience of urban Black women who desired freedom and shaped a new cultural movement inspired by their own subversive desires.
Yannise Jean [YJ]: For this book, you took a different approach by structuring it like a fictional narrative. I think this structure really helps the reader get into the character’s heads. Was this your intention during the outlining stages of your book?
Saidiya Hartman [SH]: I write nonfiction. As I started to write Wayward Lives, I knew that the book would consist of serial stories and it would have a novelistic style. The challenge was to balance the story, historical description, and critical analysis. I wanted the young women to be very large on the page and the narration is key to that.
YJ: There is a lot of discourse surrounding the Harlem Renaissance, which has always been seen as the capital of Black culture and the emergence of a new age. Why did you choose to write about the women who came before that era?
SH: I had always been thinking about them. While scholarship tends to focus on elite actors and the educated, they aren’t the only ones thinking critically about the world. My work has always focused on anonymous or minor lives. Scenes of Subjection and Lose Your Mother had to devise a method for reconstructing the lives of the nameless, the forgotten, the socially dead, and the violated. In Lose Your Mother, I write about an enslaved girl who was murdered on a slave ship. This fact is all that we know about her. In Wayward Lives, I wanted to think about the ways ordinary folks enact their visions of freedom. What does it mean to build a different kind of life? How could I excavate these experiments? Another consequence of focusing on exceptional actors is that ordinary women fall out of those narratives altogether. We know that the Harlem Renaissance was a period of sexual revolution and experimentation. Rather than focus on novels, I wanted to consider how these experiments were enacted in everyday life.
YJ: It really does give insight into the everyday lives of Black people. One of my favorite people in the book is Mattie Nelson. She has a lot of strength and resolve, even in the face of adversity she still looks to see the light in things. Why did you choose to highlight Mattie when her story really isn’t that different from other Black women of that time?
SH: Why do you tell one story and not another? Part of it is subjective. I read Mattie’s story and experienced a very deep connection with it. I found the strength and resilience of Mattie and her mother to be very appealing. Just the fact that her mother supported her. I felt that Mattie’s story problematized the notion of waywardness and critically expanded it. Her mother supported her, even when she did not approve of her choices; she did not believe that her daughter did anything that would justify being confined in a reformatory. Her mother’s letters to the superintendent were so moving and powerful, this along with other elements, made me want to tell her story. It also challenged the perception of the wayward girl as a tragic figure. Mattie is a young unmarried mother, and so many teenage mothers and unmarried mothers are demonized. On a personal note, I was thinking about three cousins of mine, all of whom were young unmarried mothers. They had babies and then went on with their lives, successful and accomplished lives. I just really wanted to trouble this notion of the tragic end and the fall.
YJ: I’ve always found motherhood and mother-daughter relations to be alluring. The idea of inheritance and generational ghosts. In your last book, Lose Your Mother, you were chasing your own ancestry. While researching this book, were you looking for mother-daughter relationships?
SH: I wasn’t looking for mother-daughter relationships. In fact, I think I wanted to write about young Black women outside of their framing as mothers and wives. The contradictions and tensions of mother-daughter relations emerged in telling the story. My grandmother was very fast and wayward, yet the same woman raised my mother to be upstanding and virginal. The court punished Mattie, in part, because her mother too was living an unconventional life, but living that unconventional life with the principal! Mothers were interviewed as part of the legal process that decided the fate of their daughters — would they be sentenced and for how long.
YJ: Well, not everyone is recording the lives of these women because it’s not of importance, so that leaves a lot of gaps in the timeline of these women. Was there information that you found you wanted in the book that couldn’t make it in?
SH: Initially, I was on the search for vernacular photographs that represented the beauty and danger of this period. What makes Wayward Lives different from Lose Your Mother is the character of the archive. The archive of the Atlantic slave trade is characterized by a dearth of stories, by absence and loss. There was so much information about these young women because the state bureaucracy produced files, institutional biographies of the wayward, social surveys of migrants and the poor. Much of the information was violent, descriptions of young women as feeble-minded, judgments about the character and the sexual history, presumptions about sexual transmitted disease, dire predictions about their future. I would never disclose or use such information or reproduce the view that made them a “case.” The challenge was to tell a story of everyday life. How do you tell a story of this collective subject?
YJ: There is definitely a discrepancy between what they chose to be private or public. They are eager to write about the immorality and sexual perversion of women but they conceal all the abuse and horror that these women are subjected to. But you exposed both sides of the coin. Were there moments where you were afraid of being too invasive when writing or recording this information?
SH: Yes, I was careful about what I shared and how it was shared. It was also important for me to describe Mattie coming into her own as a sexual being in the world. I had to do that in a way that wasn’t too risqué or objectifying. I wanted to convey an experience of being in the flesh and not being violated or humiliated. I remember sharing an early chapter of the book with several people and a number of them said, “Oh I see all the violence but I don’t see the beauty.” I was floored. Why could they see only violence and not beauty? I had to make sure that people saw the beauty.
YJ: There is a lot of emphasis on beauty in the book. You say that beauty is radical and it parallels the characters’ pursuit of beauty as a way to break free. Beauty is really the heart of this book. Is that a conclusion you came to while writing this particular book, or was it a statement you’ve always thought about?
SH: One thing that I know about Black culture and Black people is that we have made beauty in the worst circumstances. Often social reformers and philanthropists described these young Black people as too beautiful. This excess of beauty was linked to criminality and danger. How can working-class young men and women look this good? The love of beauty and excess was so important because it sustained us inside the enclosure and evidenced the fact that we saw ourselves in radically different terms than those of the white world.
YJ: How the world sees us is important, it’s even important about the language that’s used. It’s about writing with care.
SH: My first responsibility is to ones I’m writing about. This entails acute regard for their lives. My way of attending to and honoring those lives is through language. The way I see Mattie versus the way she was described in the case file are radically disparate. The language of the case file was so racist, it sounded like a page torn from National Geographic. The violence of the racist gaze is so eviscerating, so part of the intention of the book is to look differently, to imagine these lives in radically different tones.
YJ: A’Lelia Walker is mentioned in this story, she’s the daughter of Madam C. J. Walker, the first Black woman millionaire. Her mother is presented as regal and conventional but her daughter is engaging in sex parties. When you came across this information how did you react and how did you want to portray it in the book?
SH: A key aspect of the Harlem Renaissance was the sexual revolution, which until very recently was repressed because it was so queer. Countee Cullen walked the streets of Harlem in full makeup. He took his lover, Harold Jackman, on his honeymoon. So many of these writers, performers, intellectuals, and artists were queer or bisexual. A’Lelia Walker was a patron and a friend to many of them. She came into the story for me because of Mabel Hampton’s vivid memory of an evening of freedom and luxury, sex and beauty. My description of A’Lelia Walker is based on David Levering Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue, it was Mabel’s encounter with her that was important. There was a code of silence imposed on the gatherings at A’lelia’s place. Those who disapproved of the evenings at the pleasure lair or her fondness of queer life “learned to guard their tongue.” Mabel recalled that a condition of entering was this commitment to secrecy. A’Lelia Walker had a reputation for shunning those who spoke out of turn about her or exposed any of her secrets.
YJ: You use W.E.B Du Bois’s Philadelphia Negro as a framework to describe the social aspects of how he recorded Black life, but you also disagree with him a lot. Why did you include him even if you disagree?
SH: Du Bois is so important is because he was the first sociologist to describe Black life, and the Philadelphia Negro inaugurates the discourse around the pathology of Black intimate life and Black family life. Du Bois is a towering intellectual figure for whom I have much respect, yet his view of Black culture and Black social life was encumbered by his elitism and Victorian mores. The point is to paint the brilliant scholar as a man and with all the complexity of his stature as an elite, Harvard-trained intellectual and as a poor boy raised by a single mom who supported her family by laboring as a domestic. It’s hard to put those two pieces together. He is a world apart from the slum which he describes and deeply entangled with it. He has both the objective lens of the sociologist and the heart of a poet. Later when describing his research in Philadelphia, he is able to laugh at himself. He recalls the people of the Seventh Ward saying, “Who are you to come here and treat us like we’re specimens?” He certainly evolves from that moment as a scholar. Helen Parrish is no less complex of a figure. Many readers think she is awful. One of the things that I appreciated about her journals is her honesty about making mistakes, being overbearing and ineffective. She left wonderful traces of the lives of ordinary Black folks and their struggle against people like her and all others who attempted to control their lives. They say plainly. “I’m not going to obey your dictates. I’m not going to do what you want. Just because you’ve made this house available you’re not my boss.”
YJ: You talk about how the ghetto is the epicenter of Black life. A lot of the photos of the ghetto show women looking out of windows. We don’t know who they are, but they’re there. Ghettos aren’t necessarily seen as a mecca, but a place of sensuality and sadness. And there is this tension of ownership and autonomy that occurs in this space.
SH: Migrants are scrappy. A quality of courage is required to leave the world you know and head off to an unknown place. Black folks were certainly hungry for freedom and for a better life. While people know the South was brutal in its racism, many are unaware that places like New York and Philadelphia were also incredibly racist. Job opportunities were more restricted in a place like New York than in the South. I think most people are surprised by this fact. Those arriving in Northern cities were disappointed and enraged at the forms of racism and exclusion they encountered. The ghetto is an enclosure. Yet even within these constraints, young people were trying to figure out how they might live, how they might escape servitude and make a better life. Even when there is nothing to confirm that this might be possible. Radical acts of imagination are required in these confines. While young Black women aren’t credited with being thinkers or social visionaries and radicals, how could they not be in such circumstances?
YJ: It’s true that Black women will never get the credit that they deserve with pushing the button on social justice issues. We see it with Ida B. Wells, who was mentioned in this book. They just passed legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime. This is legislation that she was fighting for over 120 years ago.
SH: Ida B. Wells was so fearless and courageous. She took a radical stand against lynching, speaking freely and “insolently” to the white world and receiving little support from black leaders or race men. She was excluded from the NAACP, an organization that she helped to create because she was a troublesome woman, that is intelligent, argumentative, not easily pacified. Wells understood sexism and so expected to be written out of history. That is why she wrote her autobiography so that they wouldn’t succeed in making her disappear. People borrowed her strategies, but without giving her credit, without acknowledging her work or writing.
YJ: I noticed that all the photos in the book are missing captions. Why did you choose this layout?
SH: I did not want the relationship between the image and the text to be framed or interrupted by the caption. The images had to be embedded in the narrative. The case file contains a horrendous objectifying racist description of Mattie; the photograph in that section is of a beautiful dark-skinned girl in her Sunday best. It produces an implicit critique of that discourse without that being explicit. The relationship between image and text would be different if the photos were identified by someone else’s caption. When you’re looking at the images, you’re thinking about the characters in the narrative. Those images have a different signifying power when they’re released from their captions.
YJ: A lot of artists and thinkers are taking charge of their own history and taking the initiative to create their own archive. I’ll use Beyoncé as an example because from what I’ve seen, she’s been adamant of having that ownership of her own history.
SH: I think the impulse to create and remake the archives and produce counter-histories is necessary. Du Bois was involved in this project as are a number of Black intellectuals, musicians, artists, organizers. We have to archive ourselves, because if we don’t, who will? I was at a feminist labor conference a few years ago and domestic workers were talking about the need to create their own archive to just document their lives and their organizing.
YJ: Wayward kind of has a double meaning to me, like someone who has lost their way but it can also mean someone choosing to go a certain path. Was that your intention?
SH: That was absolutely my intention. The term suggests being errant, wandering, meandering, making a path that hasn’t already been scripted for you. It also connotes transgression, an act of disobedience, a refusal.
YJ: In an interview at PEN Out Loud with Leslie Jamison, you said that self-love is radical to you. Do you think that is a concept that you put into your work and everyday life?
SH: I need a lot more of it in my everyday life! [Laughs.] Love motivates the work. One of the things that have pleased me most about the reception of the book is that the love that drives the book is palpable to readers. So they come to love these troublesome women and riotous Black girls and queer radicals. I do think love is radical because the world keeps telling us that we’re wrong when the world is wrong. For me, what’s so amazing about Black women is our commitment to loving each other even when no one else does. It’s why we are still here.
Saidiya Hartman is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.
Yannise Jean is a writer and an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at The New School. You can find her on twitter @yjeanwrites.
This interview was first published on March 13th, 2020 at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.