Wayward lives, beautiful experiments

One of the challenges for researchers working with archival records is how to report research findings while acknowledging that records are always incomplete and fragmentary. Even today, when we have access to digitized documents, born-digital records and warehouses all over the world providing cloud storage space, only a small fraction of materials are preserved for future generations. When examining archival records, a question to ask is whose voices are missing? Whose stories have not been told?

Hartman puts it this way:

Every history of the multitude, the dispossessed, the subaltern, and the enslaved is forced to grapple with the power and authority of the archive and the limits it sets on what can be known, whose perspective matters, and who is endowed with the gravity and authority of historical actor (Hartman, 2019, p. xiii)

Saidiya Hartman (2019), a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York, tackles this problem in her book, Wayward lives, beautiful experiments: Intimate histories of riotous black girls, troublesome women and queer radicals. The cast of characters of the book listed at the outset all represent real people, although some names have been changed for the purposes of confidentiality. The list initially disconcerts — since it includes numerous un-named people, seemingly in no particular order: “Girl #1”, “”General houseworker”, “The Paper Bag Brigade.” Readers will recognize other characters mentioned — Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jackie Mabley, and Billie Holiday. Although these well-known people have walk-on parts in the book, they are not the book’s main characters. The central characters are those whose images, names, and records have found their way into archival collections, sometimes without context. Hartman introduces readers to people whose lives have been marginalized and forgotten.

The subject of Hartman’s historical account is the “wayward lives” and “beautiful experiments” of the girls and women who lived in Philadelphia and New York City around the turn of the 20th Century. Her aim is to “convey the sensory experience of the city and to capture the rich landscape of black social life” (p. xiii). The source materials upon which the narratives in the book are based is expansive, including:

The journals of rent collectors; surveys and monographs of sociologists, trial transcripts; slum photographs; reports of vice investigators, social workers, and parole officers; interviews with psychiatrists and psychologists; and prison case files. (Hartman, 2019, p. xiv)

Similarly to Tina Campt (2017), who encourages researchers to “listen” beyond the surface through a process of “careful looking”, to “attune” to “other affective frequencies” (p. 9), Hartman has imagined beyond the texts she examined; her narrative “elaborates, augments, transposes, and breaks open archival documents” to create a “fugitive text” (p. xiv).

The stories are organized into three books. Book One explores life in the city as young people moved northward to pursue freedom around the turn of the 20th Century. Book Two includes stories relating to the sexual geography of the Black Belt. Book Three describes the beautiful experiments of people who chose to live wayward lives, “the untiring practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive” (Hartman 2019, p. 228).

Every story reveals hidden aspects of black lives. Readers learn about white crusaders who engaged in slum reform, pressing women such as Mamie Sharp into the confines of a “cut-down-to-size respectable poverty” (p. 153). We learn how young women like Mamie refused confinement to the roles dictated by others. A chapter is devoted to blues singer Gladys Bentley. This is written in the style of an Oscar Micheaux film (to view a film by the first African American film maker, see the digitized film, Within our Gates at the Library of Congress website). We learn about a young woman, Harriet Power, arrested as a “wayward minor.” Laws of the time criminalized the conduct of “drinking, dancing, dating (especially interracial liaisons), having sex, going to parties and cabarets, inviting men to your room, and roaming the street under the control of the police and the courts” (p. 224). A significant number of young women who were convicted by the Women’s Court as wayward minors (aged 16-21) were black. Hartman ponders what Harriet Power, a woman who has “been credited with nothing: she remains a surplus woman of no significance, a nobody deemed unfit for history and destined to be a minor figure” (p. 225) might have been thinking:

What errant thoughts and wild ideas encouraged her to flout social norms and live outside and athwart the law in pursuit of pleasure and the quest for beauty? Or to never settle and keep running the streets? Was it to experience something to freedom or to enjoy the short-lived transport of autonomy? Was it the sweetness of phrases like I want you, I go where I please, Nobody owns me rolling around in her mouth? (Hartman, 2019, p. 225)

Hartman’s book teems with life, riots, dancing, singing, anarchy, and rebellion. The wayward and beautiful experiments that Hartman chronicles frequently collided with arrests, confinements, assaults, poverty, the drudgery of housework, and evictions. Through artfully-told stories interwoven with insights from sociological records, readers are invited to learn a different history of these women than has been told to date. The tales recounted in this book will linger with you long after you have finished reading this beautiful book that so effectively evokes the sensory experiences of the era represented.

Kathy Roulston


Campt, T. M. (2017). Listening to images. Duke University Press.

Hartman, S. (2019). Wayward lives, beautiful experiments: Intimate histories of riotous Black girls, troublesome women, and queer radicals. W. W. Norton & Company.

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