How Saidiya Hartman Retells the History of Black Life
Photograph by Ryan Cardoso for The New Yorker
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The scholar’s provocative writing illuminates stories that have long gone untold.
On a clear night earlier this year, the writer and scholar Saidiya Hartman was fidgeting in a cab on the way to MOMA PS1, the contemporary-art center in Queens. The museum was holding an event to celebrate Hartman’s latest book, “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” an account, set in New York and Philadelphia at the turn of the twentieth century, that blends history and fiction to chronicle the sexual and gender rebellions of young Black women. Several artists planned to present work that illustrated Hartman’s influence on them. She was nervous just thinking about it. “I’m crying on the inside,” she said. “I’m this shy person, and this feels so weird.”
Hartman, who is fifty-nine, wore a blue batik tunic over slim black pants and plum-shaded ankle boots. A professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, she occupies a singular position in contemporary culture: she is an academic, influenced by Michel Foucault, who has both received a MacArthur “genius” grant and appeared in a Jay-Z video. Hartman has a serene, patient demeanor, which the cultural theorist Judith Butler described as “withheld and shy, self-protective.” She speaks at what seems like precisely three-quarters speed, to allow her to inspect her thoughts before releasing them. “She definitely has a bit of that holding-your-tongue thing as a power mode,” the artist Arthur Jafa, a friend and collaborator of hers, told me. “She carries the universe in her head, and you can feel it in her presence.” But her best friend, Tina Campt, a professor of visual culture at Brown, called her endearingly “goofy and awkward.” On a recent trip to London, Campt told me, Hartman got lost returning to her hotel from a restaurant. The hotel was a block away.
At the museum, a tent had been set up in a courtyard, and a line of attendees snaked around it: artists, fashion people, writers, students, cool kids with their hair in topknots. Thelma Golden, the director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, greeted Hartman with a hug and warned, “Prepare for fan-girling.”
The event’s curator, Thomas Lax, was waiting inside the tent to show Hartman around. (Hartman’s partner, Samuel Miller, a civil-rights attorney, had stayed home in Manhattan to help their teen-age daughter study for finals.) Lax had been a graduate student of Hartman’s at Columbia, and they remain in touch. “Once you’re in the circle, you don’t want to leave,” Lax said. Jafa, wearing a brocaded coat and gold-heeled boots, surveyed the crowd, which included the artists Glenn Ligon and Lorraine O’Grady. “Everybody’s here,” he said.
In three books and a series of essays, Hartman has explored the interior lives of enslaved people and their descendants, employing a method that she says “troubles the line between history and imagination.” Her iconoclastic thinking on the legacy of slavery in American life has prefigured the current cultural moment. In 2008, five years before Black Lives Matter was founded, she wrote of “a past that has yet to be done, and the ongoing state of emergency in which black life remains in peril.” Her writing has become a lodestar for a generation of students and, increasingly, for politically engaged people outside the academy.
At the museum, Jafa screened footage that showed how Hartman’s ideas had “infiltrated” his art-making. The choreographer and performer Okwui Okpokwasili sang a piece inspired by characters in her book: domestic workers, chorus girls, juvenile delinquents, and wanderers. The artist Cameron Rowland read from a letter written by a South Carolina planter, detailing disobedience on his plantation—a litany of impudent acts that the planter seemed not to realize constituted a campaign of sly subversion. Rowland said that the letter evoked the “legacies of Black antagonism that are part of what Saidiya calls ‘acts of everyday resistance.’ ” As Rowland read, the crowd erupted into laughter and cheers.
When the presentations were over, Hartman sat at a table at the back of the tent, where a line of people held copies of her book for her to sign. One woman said that she was having a “small crisis” and was about to change her name.
Hartman, whose given name is Valarie, responded soothingly. “That’s O.K.,” she said. “Which name do you want it signed to?” Another asked for advice on graduate programs; Hartman invited the woman to come see her at Columbia.
After the signing, a group of celebrants headed out to an Italian restaurant nearby. Hartman sat in the middle of a long table, the reluctant center of gravity. “She’s royalty for us,” Jafa said. “We’re celebrating her, but we’re also celebrating ourselves. It’s a victory dance for the marginal, edgy, weirdo Black nerds.”
Hartman grew up in Brooklyn, but her people on her mother’s side are from Alabama. According to family lore, their forebears were enslaved first in Mississippi, but a slaveowner sold one of them to an Alabama plantation, to pay a debt. As a girl, Hartman occasionally visited Alabama during the summer, and remembers long Baptist services and cold bottles of Coca-Cola; her great-grandfather took her on country drives, pointing out farms that had once been owned by Black folks. The drives “deeply marked me,” Hartman told me. But she also felt out of place in the conservative circles that her family occupied. “That Black social world was defined by a class and color hierarchy that was so extreme,” she said.
Her mother, Beryle, grew up in Montgomery, among churchgoing activists; she and her parents took part in the bus boycott of the nineteen-fifties. During segregation, the family was proudly middle-class: one relative was among the first Black doctors in Selma, and another was a Tuskegee Airman. Beryle went to Tuskegee University and then to Tennessee State, where she studied social work. She was also schooled in propriety, encouraged to wear white gloves and forbidden to have male visitors in her dorm.
During college, Beryle met Virgilio Hartman, a private stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base. Her parents did not approve; Virgilio hadn’t attended college, and he didn’t come from the right kind of people. His family, immigrants to New York from Curaçao, were hardworking strivers, but, Hartman recalled, “there was less keeping up with the Joneses.”
In Brooklyn, Hartman’s parents’ closest friends were a Jewish lesbian couple; her own friends were the children of immigrants from Panama and Haiti. Her mother took her and the neighborhood kids to the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, and to see shows like “For Colored Girls. . . .” Her father, a policeman, encouraged her to attend the highly competitive Stuyvesant High School.
Hartman, surrounded by people of varied ethnicities, considered herself a New Yorker first. Audre Lorde’s daughter was a schoolmate; she also hung out with “privileged, disaffected white kids.” She wrote poetry, played classical guitar, joined a physics club for a month. She wore overalls, flannel shirts, and a “wild Afro,” to fit in with her leftist crew and also to reject the “Black American princess” image that her mother wanted her to present.
Hartman’s early experience of politics was “simple and direct and radical,” she said. She joined socialist organizations and reproductive-rights groups. While in high school, she interviewed the radical writer Amiri Baraka, and asked if there was a more effective way than poetry to bring about societal change. “Yes,” he told her. “The gun.” But her own inclinations were less combative. A few years before, her parents had sent her to a Black-nationalist summer camp in Crown Heights. On a camp trip to Pennsylvania, she accidentally stepped on the foot of a white boy and apologized. A counsellor told her that she should never apologize to a white person, and to go step on his foot again. Hartman made her way back to the boy and brushed his foot with hers. She vowed never to return to the camp.
Hartman was “questing,” she said. After high school, she spent a year at Wesleyan, and then a year in a film program at New York University—an unhappy experience at what she describes as “vocational school for white guys from Long Island.” Returning to Wesleyan, she sat in on a course on feminism, taught by Judith Butler. “She was so smart that I thought the windows were gonna blow out,” Butler, who now teaches Hartman’s books, said. “The quickness of her mind and the sharpness of her critique were breathtaking.”
Hartman’s mentors were working to erode the dominance of European perspectives. Hazel Carby gave Hartman a Marxist view of African-American, Caribbean, and African histories; Gayatri Spivak introduced her to post-structuralism, which holds that the truth of events is inextricably tied to the language used to describe them. Hartman began thinking about the invisible framework that governed her (relatively charmed) life as a young Black woman. “I wanted to understand the inequality that was structuring the world—even as I was feeling that it had not made anything impossible for me,” she said. She changed her name from Valarie to Saidiya, which is derived from the Swahili word for “to help.” The change, she wrote later, “extirpated all evidence of upstanding Negroes and their striving bastard heirs, and confirmed my place in the company of poor Black girls—Tamikas, Roqueshas, and Shanequas.” (Her family called her by the new name reluctantly.)
Hartman was still marked by the experiences of her youth: following the rules down South, roaming free in New York. “I’m both a pessimist and a wild dreamer,” she told me. She imagined getting involved in radical politics, going to Grenada to join Maurice Bishop’s Black-liberation movement. Instead, she went to graduate school at Yale, and studied voraciously. The playwright Lynn Nottage, who met her there, recalled, “At parties, I’d be rocking to the music, and she’d be standing back trying to interrogate what was happening. I’d say, ‘Just come into the party,’ and she would be analyzing the lyrics to the song, how people are dancing, the gender and racial dynamics.”
For her doctoral thesis, Hartman planned to write about the blues. But when she read Foucault’s work on the ways that people are subjected to power, she saw a chance to do something new. Foucault, she realized, was “not thinking about Black people or slavery in the Americas.” Her thesis would examine how totalizing, violent domination had shaped the status and agency of enslaved people.
The result was “Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America,” which argued, in dense and provocative detail, that Emancipation constituted another phase of enslavement for Black Americans, as they moved from the plantations to the punitive controls of the Black Codes and Jim Crow. Hartman was illuminating what she calls the “afterlife of slavery”: limited access to health care and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment—the “skewed life chances” that Black people still face, and the furious desire for freedom that comes with them. As Butler put it, “The question she returns to again and again is: ‘Did slavery ever really end?’ ”
That question had been the subject of earlier scholarship; Hartman’s book, with its compelling portrayal of lives caught between cruelty and resistance, helped move it toward the mainstream. Frank B. Wilderson III, a former student of Hartman’s who now chairs the department of African-American studies at the University of California, Irvine, described her as quietly persuasive. “She’s not an ‘angry Black woman,’ ” he told me. “She’s not Assata Shakur. But what they don’t know is that, where Assata Shakur will blow your head off, Saidiya has just put a stiletto between your ribs.”
Wilderson interviewed Hartman in 2002 for an article called “The Position of the Unthought.” In it, he criticized scholars of African-American history for underplaying the “terror of their evidence in order to propose some kind of coherent, hopeful solution”; he praised “Scenes of Subjection” for exposing the unrelenting violence of slavery. Hartman agreed that turning that legacy into a narrative of uplift was “obscene.” But she has always been interested in portraying the agency of Black people. In “Scenes of Subjection,” her subjects endure vicious circumstances through acts of imagination, making a way out of no way; they evaded work on plantations and, after Emancipation, refused to enter into contracts with their former masters. Hartman told me that her goal was to shift Black lives from the “object of scholarly analysis” to the basis for an “argument that challenged the assumptions of history.” Once, while she was discussing “Scenes of Subjection” with her class at Columbia, a student expressed surprise that she gave the words of a slave the same weight as those of Foucault. “Yeah,” she responded. “Exactly.”
One rainy evening, I visited Hartman at the apartment that she shares with her family, in a stately building on the Upper West Side. Her labradoodle was barking excitedly, and Miller pulled him into the kitchen so that Hartman and I could talk in the living room. Behind her was a book-crammed study, with two handsome desks. Academic work has given Hartman a comfortable life—the apartment, provided by Columbia, is spacious, with hardwood floors, West African-cloth table runners, and a view of Riverside Park. But it has also, at times, been at odds with her creative instincts. She told me that she went to graduate school with no intention of becoming a professor: “I didn’t have a trust fund, and I wanted to continue to study.” That initial ambivalence has never really gone away.
Hartman’s first teaching job was at the University of California, Berkeley, where she received early tenure on the strength of her draft of “Scenes of Subjection.” The chair of the English department told her that, since she now had tenure, there was no need to finish the book. Hartman was taken aback, but ultimately she found freedom in her colleagues’ low expectations. “As a Black woman intellectual, I am at the bottom of the food chain,” she said during a talk at the Hammer Museum, in Los Angeles. But “within that space of no one taking me seriously, there was also all this space to work.”
At Berkeley, Hartman wanted to reckon with the ways in which violence had been used to enforce social order. She also wanted to write with a resonance that was uncommon in scholarly literature. “I wanted to be a Wailer,” she said—a member of Bob Marley’s band. “What does it mean to describe Trench Town, in Jamaica, but be describing the world? What does it mean to have that kind of power articulating a condition, with poetry and beauty?”
Hartman is well versed in academic discourse; she sometimes describes her work as an effort to “topple the hierarchy of discourse” and to “jeopardize the status of the event.” But she can also write with striking intimacy, evoking the feelings and the conditions of Black life. In her second book, a kind of anti-memoir called “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route,” she described a pervasive sense of dispossession:
Two people meeting on the avenue will ask, ‘Is this where you stay?’ Not, ‘Is this your house?’ ‘I stayed here all my life’ is the reply. Staying is living in a country without exercising any claims on its resources. It is the perilous condition of existing in a world in which you have no investments. It is having never resided in a place that you can say is yours.
The book grew out of a trip that Hartman took to Ghana, inspired by her great-great-grandmother Polly, who had been a slave in Alabama. As a girl, Hartman had been frustrated with the gaps in Polly’s story: what she looked like, how her life had been. She wanted to investigate the rupture between Africa and the United States—the oceanic graveyard that transformed free people into slaves and, she believes, shaped the identity of the Black diaspora. “The routes traveled by strangers were as close to a mother country as I would come,” she writes. In Ghana, she retraced the paths of captives, from ancestral villages to holding cells. But, instead of the words of enslaved Africans, she found only silence. Hartman wandered Accra and the Gold Coast for a year, disappointed that the Ghanaians she met saw her as an outsider, and upset that they refused to talk about African culpability in the slave trade.
The historical archive was little help. Hartman pored over records that often amounted to commercial transactions of enslaved bodies: slaver manifests, trade ledgers, food inventories, captains’ logs, bills of sale. “In every line item, I saw a grave,” she writes. “To read the archive is to enter a mortuary; it permits one final viewing and allows for a last glimpse of persons about to disappear into the slave hold.” The detailed narratives that did exist had been left by people like Thomas Thistlewood, a British plantation overseer in Jamaica. In his diaries, he described punishing a slave: “Gave him a moderate whipping, pickled him well, made Hector shit in his mouth, immediately put a gag in it whilst his mouth was full & made him wear it 4 or 5 hours.” How could Hartman describe an enslaved life using such a passage, whose “annihilating force” revealed a great deal about Thistlewood but nothing about the slave?
Through those years, Hartman told me, “I was wrestling with what it means to have the colonial archive, the archive of the Western bourgeoisie, dictate what it is we can know about these lives.” Even later, more earnest attempts at historical memory were misleading; the Works Progress Administration’s slave narratives, which often had white Southerners ask formerly enslaved people about their lives, made honest responses unthinkable. Hartman had been trying to overcome the silences about Black life, but she found herself reproducing them. As she once wrote, “The loss of stories sharpens the hunger for them.”
For Hartman, reckoning with history means returning again and again to old events and ideas. The writer Maggie Nelson told me that “Scenes of Subjection” is one of her favorite books, because it “uses historical record and trenchant argument to upend truisms.” Nelson praised Hartman’s ability to reframe events: “As a writer, she’s continuing to shift the kaleidoscope and keep offering something different, like ‘Now how about this? How about this?’ ”
In “Lose Your Mother,” she wrote of a girl who was tortured to death on a British slave ship, possibly because she had refused to dance naked for the captain. The girl’s death intensified a debate in England over the abolition of the slave trade. Hartman’s account, re-creating the brutal killing and the trials that followed, briefly mentions another captive on the ship, a young girl who is referred to in legal documents only as Venus. After the book came out, Hartman said, “I was really haunted by that second girl.”
A year later, in the essay “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman returns to the girl, criticizing herself for abandoning her. She admits to being tired of trying to tell stories based on “empty rooms, and silence, and lives reduced to waste,” and wonders how to wring more from the archive. “What else is there to know?” she writes. “Hers is the same fate as every other Black Venus: no one remembered her name or recorded the things she said, or observed that she refused to say anything at all.”
Hartman began exploring “what might have been,” starting with a single invented detail, of a sailor testifying that the two girls seemed like friends. In a process that she calls “critical fabulation,” she imagined a narrative: two doomed children passing days together, finding solace and joy in each other’s company; Venus holding her friend as she died, whispering that everything would be all right.
Hartman knew that such a counter-history would be seen as less legitimate. “History pledges to be faithful to the limits of fact, evidence, and archive,” she wrote. “I wanted to write a romance that exceeded the fictions of history.” But a conventional history of the girls’ experience was impossible. As she noted, “There is not one extant autobiographical narrative of a female captive who survived the Middle Passage.”
Still, she spends much of the essay describing her own uncertainty about what she’s doing. Can stories fill in the archive? They might provide comfort, but to whom? For the dead, it is too late. In the end, Hartman decides that the goal is not to “recover” or “redeem” the dead girls but to create a fuller picture of their lives. Campt, her friend and colleague, said, “She gave us a way of seeing them, not on the terms that society wanted to see them but on their own terms.”
In 2017, Arthur Jafa directed a video for the Jay-Z single “4:44,” an apology for the rapper’s romantic failings. Two and a half minutes in, a woman walks down a New York street, wearing a pensive, purposeful expression: Hartman. “I was totally awkward and stiff,” she said, laughing as she recalled the filming. “She had a certain primness, properness,” Jafa acknowledged. “But it’s an image of a person thinking in motion.” When Jay-Z saw a cut of the video, he asked who Hartman was. Jafa explained that she is “the archangel of Black precarity.” Her presence, he said, “may not register to ninety-five per cent of his audience now, but five years down the line, ten years down the line, twenty years down the line, that’s going to be one of the most powerful moments of the video.”
These days, Hartman is regularly referred to by activists, social-media influencers, and woke celebrities like Jeremy O. Harris, the author of “Slave Play.” Her latest book, “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” might be her most daring; it is certainly her most popular. “After ‘Scenes of Subjection’ and ‘Lose Your Mother,’ I thought, I just can’t write another book about slavery,” Hartman told an interviewer at the London Review Bookshop last October. But Hartman, who describes her work as “a lot of sitting at my desk and staring off into space,” has spent much of her writing life thinking about how Black people have resisted subjugation by means of “productive, creative, life-saving deviations from the norm.” As she worked on the book, she began reimagining a scene from the life of W. E. B. Du Bois.
On an August day toward the end of the nineteenth century, Du Bois was on South Street in Philadelphia, amid day laborers and new migrants, pretty boys and brazen girls. Twenty-eight years old, Harvard-educated, and dressed in a gray three-piece suit, Du Bois was then a novice sociologist, hired to conduct a study of the Seventh Ward, the city’s oldest Black neighborhood. Du Bois was scandalized by the slum’s naked display of brawling, pleasure-seeking, and hustling; he blamed slavery’s destruction of the Black family, but also the loose morals of the recent arrivals from the South. On South Street, he saw two young Black women window-shopping at a shoe store, and heard one tell the other, “That’s the kind of shoes I’d buy my fellow.” In Du Bois’s view, “the remark fixed their life history.” They must have been prostitutes, from one of the slums “where each woman supports some man from the results of her gains.”
Hartman admires Du Bois, whom she sees as a model for innovative readings of the archive. In “Black Reconstruction,” he narrates the lives of slaves who refused to work and who fled plantations; by describing these activities not as criminality but as a “general strike,” he changed the way historians treated enslaved people.
But his telling of the encounter with the two young women felt incomplete to Hartman. “There was drama in that moment,” she told me. “There’s Du Bois’s framing of it—but how did he look in their eyes? Why was female desire so scandalous that they could only be prostitutes?”
In “Wayward Lives,” Hartman retells the scene from the women’s point of view, as if she were a filmmaker, pulling back the lens to reveal characters at the margins of the frame. “They looked long and hard at all the objects on display in the shop window, expectant and dreaming of a way out,” she writes. Stopping to admire a pair of boots, the color of oxblood and ivory, they imagine them worn by a “beautiful, dangerous” man, and fantasize about the adventures they might have with him. They pay no mind to Du Bois; he is just part of the hectic cityscape, an afterthought.
The young Black women in “Wayward Lives” arrived in New York and Philadelphia in the early days of the Great Migration, a generation or two removed from slavery. They were hoping for something more than what they’d left behind. What they found was decrepit slums, domestic work that felt akin to slavery, and social reformers and policemen who patrolled their most intimate activities. Laws to discourage “wayward minors” criminalized dancing, dating, and even walking in some streets. Under the guise of housing reform, young Black women were routinely arrested on “suspicion of prostitution,” and sent to reformatories and workhouses. Hartman writes that they were arrested “on the threshold of their homes and inside their apartments, while exiting taxicabs, flirting at dance halls, waiting for their husbands, walking home from the cabaret with friends, enjoying an intimate act with a lover, being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Many of the city’s young Black women lived in a kind of “everyday anarchy,” anyway; they took lovers, had lesbian relationships, dressed and behaved as they pleased. (Black women, Hartman notes, were flappers before the term existed.) She writes of Harriet Powell, a seventeen-year-old who, despite being arrested for her “nocturnal wanderings,” danced past midnight in Harlem clubs, went to movies, and rented a room where she met her lover. Powell and other Black girls in the city’s sexual revolution had a freedom that their grandmothers could only dream of.
The archival material that Hartman draws on was mostly left by people who saw Black women as a “problem”: journals of rent collectors, surveys of sociologists, trial transcripts and slum photographs, prison case files, interviews with psychiatrists and psychologists. To balance the portrait, Hartman does her most speculative work, exploring her subjects’ shared horizon of desire and yearning. In one exchange, she writes about a white reform worker, Helen Parrish, fretting over her tenant Mamie Sharp, who saw other men besides her partner:
There was no easy way to lead into the matter of adultery, so Helen broached the issue directly. “Mamie, have you been going around town with other men? Have you?” The question was as much an accusation as inquiry. Mamie’s reply was no less direct: “Yes, I like to go about as I please.” Mamie didn’t apologize or offer any excuses for not being able to hold steady; she did not try to temper Helen’s judgment by admitting that she had been lonely. As Hartman worked on the book, she thought of her maternal grandmother, Berdie. She had gone to college to be a teacher, but became pregnant with Beryle, and her parents threw her out of the house, raising the child themselves.
Families like Beryle’s, striving for respectability in a racist world, would have been embarrassed to acknowledge women who had children out of wedlock—let alone those who did sex work or had female lovers. “There is a certain kind of uplift and progress narrative that was saying, ‘Oh, no, no, don’t waste any time thinking about the past. Move on. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’ ” Hartman said. In “Wayward Lives,” though, women like these are “sexual modernists, free lovers, radicals, and anarchists.” They are visionaries, imagining a different way of life.
Hartman’s rethinking of the archive has enormous appeal for readers hungry to see their identity—feminist, queer, gender-nonconforming—mirrored in the past. Part of the book’s argument is that Black women originated a set of social arrangements that were once considered deviant and are now commonplace: expansive notions of family, generous intimacy and sociality, fluid romantic relationships. Black women, Hartman says, have often operated outside of gender norms, whether they wanted to or not. During slavery, they had little control over their children or their reproduction. Afterward, poverty and discrimination forced them to do things that few white women did: work for wages, lead households, and enter and leave marriages freely. If they could not meet expectations set by white men, that allowed them to conduct experiments in living. The poet and theorist Fred Moten told me, “Saidiya does the very crucial work of expanding our understanding of the Black radical tradition,” revealing that it is “fundamentally the work of working-class Black women and young Black girls.”
But the historian Annette Gordon-Reed, writing recently in the New York Review of Books, wondered if Hartman was projecting political aims onto people driven by necessity. She considered the case of Mattie Nelson, who, on the way to a sexual awakening, lost a baby in a teen-age pregnancy and was painfully abandoned by several male lovers. “If Nelson were given the choice between living a precarious life, depending upon men whom society prevented from realizing their potential, and being a wife and mother under circumstances available to white middle- and upper-class women, there is no reason to assume she would not have opted for the latter,” Gordon-Reed wrote. “We live after a sustained critique of bourgeois values and lifestyles, decades in the making. Nelson did not.” For Hartman, though, rebels don’t need to be motivated by ideology, or even to consider themselves revolutionaries. “Many of the people who have produced radical thought have not been imagined to be involved in the task of thinking at all,” she said.
In March, “Wayward Lives” won the National Book Critics Circle Award—for criticism, rather than for nonfiction or fiction. No one seemed sure how to categorize it. “The book has had a very complex reception,” Hartman told me. “I’ve been exploring the same set of critical questions since the beginning. But some people in the university world are, like, ‘ “Scenes of Subjection” is the real thing. What are these other two books?’ ” Her publisher, W. W. Norton, had hoped for higher sales, and Hartman wondered if the book’s marketing was partly to blame. The U.S. edition was published with extensive endnotes, and the interplay of factual and speculative sections may have confused readers new to her work. Her British publisher, Profile Books, classified “Wayward Lives” as both literature and history; it cut the endnotes and put them online, allowing the book to be read as creative nonfiction rather than as scholarship. “Some people told me, ‘Oh, I like that novel,’ ” Hartman said, laughing. “I’m so unfaithful to genre, so it was fine.”
But Hartman rejects the idea that her books should be understood as historical fiction. Instead, she calls her work a “history of the present”—writing that examines the past to show how it haunts our time. Many of her peers were engaged in the same project, she said; she points to the Canadian writer M. NourbeSe Philip’s “Zong,” a book of poems, extrapolated from legal documents, about a hundred and fifty Africans who were drowned on a British slave ship, so that the owners could collect an insurance payment.
For several decades, Black female scholars like Hortense Spillers, Sarah Haley, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Tera Hunter, Farah Griffin, and Deborah Gray White have been creatively reading the archive, reconstructing the experiences of Black women using such alternative sources as cleaning manuals, Black newspapers, musical productions, and buried correspondence. Hartman sees her work as “enabled” by these women. But, she says, “the people who I really felt provoked and solicited by have been creative writers, the novelists and poets who are making other kinds of stories.” Her inspirations include Caryl Phillips, Jamaica Kincaid, and, especially, Toni Morrison, whose novel “Beloved,” inspired by a single newspaper clipping, was a painstaking effort to deepen the archive.
In 1987, the year that “Beloved” was published, Morrison wrote of a process of “emotional memory” that aimed to find truth in the gaps of verifiable fact. “They straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places,” she wrote. “It is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that.”
In “Wayward Lives,” a chorus girl at a Harlem night club finds herself in the luxurious apartment of A’Lelia Walker, the daughter of the Black hair-care entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker. The girl, Mabel Hampton, sees men and women—“voyeurs, exhibitionists, the merely curious, queers, the polyamorous, and the catholic”—stretched out on silk pillows. They are drinking champagne, eating caviar, and smoking marijuana; to Hampton’s surprise, they are also having sex out in the open.
Walker—who, Hartman writes, “drank excessively, played cards with her intimates, gorged on rich food”—arrives late but makes an impression:
She conversed with her guests, wearing a little silk short set, but it might as well have been an ermine coat; she had the bearing of a queen, and wore the flimsy little outfit with a stately air. Even without her infamous riding crop, there remained something forbidding and dangerous about her.
The scene is rooted in archival fact; historians agree that Walker had queer friends, threw decadent parties, and hosted salons during the Harlem Renaissance. In an interview in 1983, Hampton recalled attending a sex party in the early twenties. “There was men and women, women and women, and men and men,” she said. “And everyone did whatever they wanted to do.” But the vivid specificity of Hartman’s portrayal drew criticism.
“I’m uncomfortable with people making claims and drawing conclusions,” A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist who is Walker’s great-granddaughter, told me, “just because they want to project something onto her.” Bundles, who has published several books about Walker and is working on a new biography, said that Hartman had not consulted her or examined Walker’s letters. She disputed the detail of the riding crop, which suggested that Walker was interested in S & M; in Bundles’s photographic archive of Walker, she never carried a crop. A private sex party “would have not been impossible,” Bundles said. But her research made it seem unlikely that Walker would have led such a visibly queer life.
Hartman said that she never interviews her subjects’ relatives, and pointed out that the crop appeared in earlier historians’ work. She believes that the pushback revealed “an anxiety around queerness.” Her goal, she said, is “not about trying to pin down an identity, but thinking about the queer networks of love and friendship, and depending on the ephemera and rumors when the archive refuses to document these lives. So much of queer life could only survive without being detected.”
The historian and artist Nell Painter saw value in Hartman’s interrogation of the archive: “She can raise questions for historians to do historical work that they might not have thought of.” But, she told me, “her work is not history—it’s literature. She has a lot to say to history, but historians do something that’s somewhat different. We can’t make up an archive that doesn’t exist or read into the archive what we want to find.” Painter believes that there is still more evidence to be found about the history of Black life. “The past changes according to what questions we ask,” she said. “The archive is a living, moving thing. The sources we can put our eyes on are changing as we speak.”
All historians make imaginative leaps, but filling in blanks with precise details makes some uneasy. A fellow-academic and admirer of Hartman told me, “When it comes to specific people who lived real lives, I think fiction is the only place where we should speculate.”
Hartman tends to be less interested in honoring the archive than in considering “the way in which language and narrative and plot are entangled in the mechanisms of power.” She argues that much of what the archive contains about enslaved people was left by people whose views were so compromised as to be effectively made-up. “Fact is simply fiction endorsed with state power . . . to maintain a fidelity to a certain set of archival limits,” she said, at the Hammer Museum. “Are we going to be consigned forever to tell the same kinds of stories? Given the violence and power that has engendered this limit, why should I be faithful to that limit? Why should I respect that?”
As the coronavirus forced New York into lockdown, I visited Hartman’s corner office at Columbia, where she had begun teaching a seminar remotely. A framed print of Lorna Simpson’s photograph “Two Sisters and Two Tongues” leaned against a bookcase; outside, students in graduation gowns posed for distanced photos on the steps.
The university sprawls along the southern edge of Harlem, where Hartman once lived, in a housing project with her film-school boyfriend. (“My family was mortified,” she recalled.) I asked if she ever felt nostalgic when she went uptown. Looking out the window, she said, “It feels like a museum. All I see on the streets is private capital and rapaciousness, moving people of color out of New York.”
A few days later, Hartman and her family left for Massachusetts, where they have a home. When I spoke to her recently, she had been at her desk, working on a project that she prefers to keep secret. “I’m very superstitious about that,” she said, laughing. She would say only that it has to do with chronicling the history of the world from the perspective of Black women. She had also been gardening, rereading Morrison and Claudia Rankine, and watching “Greenleaf,” a TV melodrama about a Southern Black church, with her daughter.
The news from the city had been on her mind. “Witnessing so many Black and brown people die, it was really emotionally devastating,” Hartman said. As the lockdown intensified, New York assigned police to enforce social-distancing and mask-wearing rules. In six weeks, Brooklyn officers arrested forty people for violations; thirty-five were Black. Reports emerged of officers breaking up an evening cookout, swinging batons and knocking out someone’s tooth.
In “Wayward Lives,” Hartman lingers on the incongruous beauty of dark hallways where lovers could meet. For residents of Black neighborhoods, the halls, staircases, fire escapes, stoops, and courtyards became an extension of living spaces; if your apartment was too small or too uncomfortable, you could go a few feet outside and still feel at home. But that practice of escape has become fraught and, during the lockdown, criminalized. “You’re not permitted to take up space in the public sphere,” Hartman said. “We see this in gentrifying neighborhoods in New York. The new homeowners will try to pass ordinances like ‘No barbecues in the front yard.’ ”
During the pandemic, the tense relationship between Black residents and the police worsened. Mass protests against the police killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, swept through the city, and video footage captured incidents of violence from officers. Black New Yorkers were not only dying from the coronavirus at twice the rate of their white neighbors; they remained disproportionately vulnerable to police brutality. But Hartman saw reason for hope. “Millions of people are involved in the critique of anti-Black racism and state violence,” she said. “They’re not settling for a tinkering with this order, but saying that the foundation of this order is slavery and settler colonialism, and that we have to build something new.” They were imagining a different way of life. ♦
This article has been updated to reflect Thomas Lax’s pronoun usage. Published in the print edition of the October 26, 2020, issue, with the headline “Secret Histories.”
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