Review: Emily Bernard on Saidiya Hartman’s ”Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments”

Who is she? asks Saidiya Hartman in the early pages of her most recent work, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. The question is inspired by a photograph whose subject captured Hartman’s attention: an unidentified Black girl taken at around the turn of the twentieth century, “a small naked figured” in repose, her eyes trained meaningfully on the camera. Wayward Lives is a faithful, tender tribute to the girl in the photograph and others like her, “surplus women” of all ages, making life up on their own in the margins of Philadelphia and New York between 1890 and 1935. These were real people, “girls deemed unfit for history,” writes Hartman, “and destined to be minor figures.” Together they form a chorus in Wayward Lives, a “serial biography of a generation,” a swelling sonic narrative about the social, political, and erotic life of Black women in the modern world at the dawn of a new era, a breathtaking story that has never been told before.

How do we resurrect stories that have been left out of official records? Like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Wayward Lives is a product of invention as much as recovery, and equally breathtaking in its stylistic innovation. Hartman marries the rhythms of African American literature with the everyday rhythms of the city and the singular idioms of her characters, women who pursued “the real fever of love” wherever it took them. This is a rare book, rich in scholarship and shimmering, line by line, with poetic grace. “I was hungry for images that represented the experiments in freedom that unfolded within slavery’s shadow,” Hartman explains her ambitions early in the book.

Hunger is the dominant theme of the sensual world that Hartman creates in these chapters. The hunger that drives her characters, whom Hartman describes as “sexual modernists,” to find pleasure and meaning in the often hostile world that consistently misunderstands and underestimates them is the same hunger that animates Hartman’s creative vision. Hartman unveils “a very unexpected story of the twentieth century …  one that offers an intimate chronicle of Black radicalism, an aesthetical and riotous history of colored girls and their experiments with freedom—a revolution before Gatsby.”

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Wayward Lives asks new questions of old stories and reveals the limitations in the perspectives of revered storytellers, like W. E. B. Du Bois, whose chronicles of Black American life, in fiction, sociology, and autobiography, are indispensible but indisputably shaped by their author’s elitism. “I refused the mug shots and family albums of Black elites who fashioned their lives in accordance with Victorian norms, those best described by W. E. B. Du Bois as strivers, as the talented tenth, as whites of Negro blood,” Hartman writes. Hartman exposes the errors in Du Bois’ vision in a chapter—much like her chapter on the white sociologist and reformer, Mary White Ovington— that demonstrates the damage that can be done when the authority to define a people is handed to a single person, who, however nobly intentioned, betrays their discomfort with Black female sexuality in their research methods.

When do we as human beings make history, and when does history make us? How much of our own desires, fears, and hungers are generated by us, and how much are determined by forces outside of our control? What, in the end, is a life made of? In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman reveals that life stories are crafted in the battles we wage with the world around us, and no one battles more brilliantly than wayward women who are willing to conduct beautiful experiments with their own lives, women who take to heart the ultimate lesson of Hartman’s engrossing book, which is that “living is not to be taken for granted.”

Emily Bernard is the author of Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother's Time, My Mother's Time, and Mine and Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White

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