Top positive review
A Masterful Text and Generous Offering
Reviewed in the United States on April 1, 2019
The turn of the century was truly a momentous period in American history. Reconstruction had come to an end, and so too had any federal government investment in realizing the promise of Black citizenship; Jim Crow regimes grew and consolidated their power while extra-legal lynching proliferated. Immigration from Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America made and remade race; the fight for women's suffrage continued, and "women's rights" were continually reasserted as something to which only middle and upper-middle-class white women could claim; urbanization pulled folks from the rural areas to the city; the Spanish-American War raged on, and the U.S. empire expanded its reach. And this is only the tip of the iceberg— the turn of the century was a transformative time.
In 'Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,' Saidiya Hartman asks us to consider the lives of Black women migrants during this period, those who had fled the racial terror of the South to encounter a different form of racial terror in the North. As Hartman so beautifully puts it, their lives were "marked by negation, but exceed it." So how do we witness the excess? What were their dreams? How and who did they love? What were their hopes? How did they "make do" in the midst of so little? What gave them pleasure? What made them laugh? What made them cry? Did they aspire to motherhood or reject it? When the archival records on these women point us to social workers' case files, psychologists’ evaluations, prison records, trial documents, and sociological studies that described them as *problems*, where do we look to answer these questions (and others)?
Hartman has "resisted the tyranny of genre," pushed the boundaries of discipline, and the limits of the archive in this book. When there are gaps in the archive, when the individuals or groups who are the focus live in the gaps themselves, we have to become creative and even more rigorous in our historical reconstructions. Hartman uses deep archival research, literary fiction, music, poetry, and theory from various disciplines to speculate and imagine. I want to be very clear here--this is not a work of historical fiction. Every vignette, every portrait is true. This is a historian's generous offering. What speculation and imaginative readings allow Hartman to do, however, is provide a fullness, an interiority, an agency and autonomy to these women's lives, characteristics that academics, social workers, lawyers, judges, urban planners, etc. denied them. Like so much of Hartman's work, 'Wayward Lives' explores the "afterlife of slavery" in immense detail, and it does so with rigor, care, caution, critique, and magnificent intellect. The text is also a really masterful lesson on method--on how to engage archives, on how to read them, on how to explore, research, and investigate with breadth and depth. It poses a new methodological and analytical framework for current and future historians of "the wayward," the marginalized and the dominated, and encourages us to be bolder and more attentive in our work. Astonishing indeed.