The title of Saidiaya Hartman’s new book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, refers equally to the early twentieth-century black women (and men) she writes about and the writerly form of her historical account. Achingly researched from hard-to-access archives, Hartman crafts a historical voice that is engaged, affective, rebellious, and experimental. Here is a history that proffers sensorial descriptions as true to the constraints and broken promises of Reconstruction as to the hearts clenched around hopes for a life that is free, beautiful, and more. Hartman’s words–partly speculative, but always titrated from wide-ranging archival data–bring to life the visceral textures of apartments, neighborhoods, police entitlement, vagrancy laws, employment constraints, the happy happenstance of love or friendship, and the desires for love and fashion and all good things that were experienced, grasped, embraced, and rejected by women living from about 1900 to 1929. The book is loosely chronological but not heavy on dates, as if to make clear that chronological time cannot reflect or express the suffocating recursions and chaotic eddies that frame and channel black female life in a white supremacist society.
I read this book the way I open a precious gift: carefully turning each page, drawn into the smallest detail of packaging and presentation, and delighting in the gift’s substance, which cannot but be transformative. When is the last time you read a 350-page book that didn’t seem long enough?
Hartman expresses the goal of her book with words that draw out the meaning of her subtitle, intimate histories of social upheaval: “The endeavor is to recover the insurgent ground of these lives; to exhume open rebellion from the case file, to untether waywardness, refusal, mutual aid, and free love from their identification as deviance, criminality, and pathology; to affirm free motherhood (reproductive choice), intimacy outside the institution of marriage, and queer and outlaw passions; and to illuminate the radical imagination and everyday anarchy of ordinary colored girls, which has not only been overlooked, but is nearly unimaginable” (xiv). The verbs here are telling: recover, exhume, untether, affirm, illuminate. Together they describe an arc that is itself wayward, for this is not a typical history (recover, exhume) but a history that gently tugs at the knots of presumed judgment and unrelenting despair (untether) in order to imagine what is “nearly unimaginable” (affirm, illuminate).
The above description is embedded in Hartman’s opening few pages, titled “A Note on Method”, but I found even more compelling her brief, two-page meta-reflection on method that occurs about two-thirds of the way through the book. Titled, “Wayward: A Short Entry on the Possible,” Hartman reflects on a word that more directional than referential–an apt prelude, perhaps, to chapters that deal with incarceration and the tactics of musical rebellion. Wayward is vectorial. It is a word brimming with energy and movement, but of a kind that evidences tugging against the grain (or chains). To be wayward is not to be toward something definite, and also not necessarily to be against anything in particular. It is a word that suggests diffusion and palpates a kind of meandering or roaming. Unlike “untoward”, wayward is not simply against (normativity, propriety, expectation, obedience) but suggests a more complicated imbrication. In Hartman’s words, “Waywardness articulates the paradox of cramped creation, the entanglement of escape and confinement, flight and captivity” (p. 227).
Wayward is a term that conveys the affectivity of the Sisyphean task of black women persistingly bursting against constraints that are persistingly bearing down on them. Hartman calls it “a practice of possibility at a time when all roads, except the ones created by smashing out, are foreclosed” and “the untiring practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive” (p. 228, italics in the original). These are precisely the stories and lives Hartment relates to us. Her book begins with the putative objectivity of photographs that Hartman undercuts with captions that “transform the photographs into moral pictures” (paraphrase, 20). And her book ends with the nearly unimagined voice of a chorine, a chorus-line girl, her body in motion within the enclosed boundaries of the stage: “How can I live? I want to be free. Hold on.” The photographs reach out to readers and jostle us into an active engagement with the capture of the soon-to-be-called slums under the rubrics of science, and then, over the course of the book, the increasing volume and pressure of black women’s voices catch readers up in the straining dynamics of waywardness, tugging at us to pay attention, to know and feel with something that is not empathy but rather something more densely affective, like the vectorial quality of waywardness, like the sheer weight of reality…like the gravity that pulls a stone tumbling down a hill, like the effort that crouches behind the stone and begins to push it up. Again.