Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval
by Saidiya Hartman
W. W. Norton & Company
Published June, 2019
In ‘The Plot of Her Undoing’, Saidiya Hartman writes:
The plot of her undoing begins with his dominion. It begins in the fifteenth century with a papal bull, with a philosopher at his desk, pen in hand, as he sorts the world into categories of genus and species. It begins with a bill of sale, with a story in the newspaper that enumerates her crimes, with a note appended to the file: she answers questions easily, but appears stupid; it begins with a wanted poster that reduces the history of her life to a single word – condemned.
Hartman’s prose poem accumulates scenes of subjugation and violence inflicted upon an historical ‘her’ – a collective figure whose dispossession forms the basis of our world. A chronicle of domination, her list encapsulates violences abstract and tangible, bureaucratic and enfleshed, structural and everyday – those perpetuated in the name of the law, the nation, the father, the ‘subject’, the market, whiteness, ‘modern’ thought, property. In the final section of the poem, Hartman inverts the construction that has structured the text to this point – ‘The plot of her undoing’ becomes the ‘The undoing of the plot’, with Hartman offering a collection of escape routes and moments of resistance, both major and minor:
The undoing of the plot proceeds by stealth. It is almost never recognized as anything at all and certainly never as significant. […] The undoing of the plot begins when everything has been taken. When life approaches extinction, when no one will be spared, when nothing is all that is left, when she is all that is left. The undoing begins with a potion poured into a silver soup tureen before she delivers it to the table, with acts of sabotage and destruction, with idleness and destitution. The undoing of the plot begins with her drifting from the course, with an errant path, with getting lost to the world.
Here Hartman’s ‘her’ enacts gestures of refusal and nonparticipation, minor revolutions that strike against a white supremacist ordering of the world and its fidelity to the categorical distinctions of subject-object; fugitive expressions that emerge from, and return to, a shared and intimate sociality. The ‘her’ of the poem is not singular but rather a chorus of ‘hers’ assembled to voice the collectivity of Black life as that which is pulled between constraint and escape. This inextricable link between bondage and freedom can be understood as the condition of fugitivity, which is central to Hartman’s conceptualisation of Blackness. Laura Harris offers a resonant articulation when she describes ‘blackness as that which designates irreducible difference’. Such incommensurable difference is unable to be captured and contained either by the figure of the sovereign subject constructed in post-Enlightenment European thought or by the processes of racialisation that produce and uphold supremacy of this figure.
The fugitive bears the trace of the law, called into being by contact with a regulative order and the violent imposition of norms that come with it. And yet, the fugitive constantly evades this order, calling the legitimacy of the law and its norms into question by remaining beyond its clutches. Fugitivity, then, describes a movement of escape that must be understood in relation to constraint. It is an expression of surplus, a force of generative disorder that incessantly moves toward a grammar of being outside that which is imposed by the coloniality of ‘Man’.
Fugitivity is ‘a desire for the outside’, writes Fred Moten in an ongoing conversation with Hartman’s work, ‘for a playing or being outside, an outlaw edge proper to the now always already improper voice or instrument. This is to say that it moves outside the intentions of the one who speaks and writes, moving outside their own adherence to the law and to propriety.’ For both Hartman and Moten, the fugitivity that animates Blackness also poses a challenge to the enclosure of the subject as self-possessed and singular, suggesting instead a subject shaped by its irreducible collectivity. Of this errant and collective fugitivity, Hartman writes:
The undoing of the plot does not start on bended knee, it does not begin with ballots or bullets, or with an address to the court, or with a petition, or with the demand for redress, or with the slogan: no justice, no peace. It begins with the earth under her feet. It begins with all of them gathered at the river and ready to strike, with all of them assembled in the squatter city, with all of them getting ready to be free in the clearing. They don’t say what they know: all things will be changed. The undoing of the plot begins with her runaway tongue, with her outstretched hands, with songs shared across the unfree territory and the occupied lands, with the pledges of love that propel struggle, with the vision that this bitter earth may not be what it seems.
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval continues Hartman’s project of articulating the creativity and possibility of Black life. The work excavates minor and intimate histories of Black women and gender non-conforming people in the early decades of the twentieth century in Philadelphia and New York. Hartman draws from archival documents, letters, photographs, historical texts, and other ephemera to construct a narrative of hidden resistances to the socioeconomic ordering of the world and its criminalisation of Blackness. Hers is a history of fugitive desire, queer kinships, refusals and riots, sexual autonomy, and errantry – a history of possibilities enacted in spite of, and because of, the violent policing of Black life.
Lately, I have been asking myself why it is that Black Feminist study is so central to my understanding of how to live a political life. Why, as a Brown settler also shaped by colonialism and living on Indigenous land in the place often referred to as Australia, do I find myself reading and re-reading Hartman’s work? What is it that Black study offers? Any answer to such a question must necessarily be partial. But perhaps Moten, by way of Cedric Robinson, offers a departure point when he says: ‘The object of Black studies is the critique of Western Civilization.’ What is called Western Civilisation in part describes a racial, spatial, and temporal ordering of the world, one driven by logic of extraction, expropriation, and enclosure. ‘The earth is having an increasingly harder time sustaining itself under the weight of Western Civilization’, Moten tells us in Arthur Jafa’s 2014 film Dreams Are Colder Than Death. ‘And so we study that, we try to pay attention to it, try to figure out how it works, primarily to try to figure out how to stop it.’
If, as a lineage of anti-colonial thinkers from Frantz Fanon to Hortense Spillers to Aileen Moreton-Robinson has shown, Black exclusion is the condition for the emergence of (white) liberalism, then the liberal democracies that emerge from the multiple and overlapping projects of Western settler colonialism are to be understood as fundamentally anti-Black – that is, structured by the negation of Blackness. The white subject of post-Enlightenment thought can only be understood in relation to that which it excludes (or perhaps that which it includes, but only on terms that are themselves a priori exclusionary). And so this foundational anti-Blackness, which gives rise to a set of racialising processes that reduce Black people to objects, is the very thing that gives the white subject, and the social order that protects this subject, its coherence.
Here a circular problem arises in that this constitutive exclusion remains present as a spectre that haunts the liberal project; it is the foundation upon which liberalism fails to rest. The dispossessed and the enslaved form the foundations of a ‘modern’ order that is concerned with the expropriation of land, resources, and labour and, as Hartman tells us, these subjects also occupy the ‘position of the unthought’ – a position that rationalises the subject-object distinction and the dispossessions that arise from it. This formulation has profound implications for how we understand the world we live in, revealing the confinement and limitation of liberal humanist thought and the violent imposition of a subject-object relation in the colonial world-making project (which brings state sanctioned dispossessions, genocides, and ever-shifting processes of racialisation along with it). Structural anti-Blackness then, must be central to any meaningful conceptualisation of political action and solidarity. Any project that seeks to reconfigure the historical terms of political subjectivity must engage seriously with Black and Indigenous study, and with the irreducible relation of Blackness and Indigeneity (which in the Australian context come together in the same body).
Such an entanglement can be found in the refrain, ‘I can’t breathe’, which highlights the genocidal impulses of settler colonialism and the way its operations mark Black and Brown subjects as vulnerable and disposable. ‘I can’t breathe’ links the murders of David Dungay Jr. and Eric Garner: both lives were taken by law enforcement officers, both lives taken by anti-Black racism that manifests as state-sanctioned violence. On July 17, 2014 Garner, an African-American man, was accosted by New York City Police Department officers (NYPD) on the suspicion of selling single cigarettes (‘loosies’) from packets without tax stamps. Pinned to the ground, Garner was choked by an officer as he repeated the phrase ‘I can’t breathe’ eleven times until his breathing stopped, his pleas ignored and dismissed by officers. Dungay Jr., an Aboriginal man of the Dunghutti people, was killed on December 29, 2015 while being held in the mental health wing of Sydney’s Long Bay Correctional Complex. A type-2 diabetic who was insulin-dependent, Dungay Jr. was forcibly restrained by prison guards and administered a sedative after he refused to stop eating biscuits in his cell. Video footage shows four officers storm Dungay Jr.’s cell, brutally ground him, and restrict his capacity to breathe. He, too, uttered the phrase, ‘I can’t breathe’, twelve separate times and yet the officers did not relent.
My intention in giving an account of these deaths is not to reproduce the scene of subjection and the spectacle of Black death but rather to note that these deaths are separate yet related instances of a global anti-Black racism that underpins the violence of policing and the ongoingness of dispossession. These two deaths demonstrate their respective states’ incapacity to conceive of Black pain and the continuation of a logic that circumscribes the Black Indigenous subject to the position of the unthought. To be clear, this is not to suggest the collapse of that which cannot be collapsed – the different histories, traditions, and cultures of Blackness and their specific relations to (dis)placement – but rather to argue that the trauma of colonisation and its associated modalities of thought is that which brings Blackness into being through a racialising operation that links Black Indigenous people around the world.
The entanglement between Blackness and Indigeneity is sometimes overlooked even within branches of thought explicitly concerned with challenging the racial hierarchies we inherit from post-Enlightenment thought. Listening to a pre-eminent Black Studies scholar visiting from the US speak at a recent conference, I was struck by the apparent lack of awareness that First Nations people in Australia are also Black. The address spoke of the importance of Black struggles and Indigenous struggles in remaking the world yet treated these as wholly distinct liberatory projects.
This logic is reproduced in Patrick Wolfe’s instructive comparative analysis of racialisation in settler colonies, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race (2016), which begins with Wolfe making a distinction between Blackness in the Indigenous Australian context and the African-American context. His materialist analysis sets up a distinction between populations marked for elimination and populations targeted for reproduction. He writes:
the role colonialism has assigned to Indigenous people is to disappear. By contrast, though slavery meant the giving up of Africa, Black Americans were primarily colonised for their labour rather than for their land. These basic historical differences live on in settler popular culture, where representations of Black Australians and Red Americans distinctly resemble each other, while each contrasts sharply with representations of Black Americans.
Wolfe sets up a distinction between colonial projects that are concerned with the expropriation of land and those that are concerned with the expropriation of labour without adequately considering the coexistence and overlap between such violent processes. Robin D. G. Kelley identifies Wolfe’s theoretical formulation as a ‘linguistic sleight of hand’ that has the result of erasing African Indigeneity by turning Africans into Black Americans. ‘The Atlantic Slave Trade’, writes Kelley, ‘rips Africans from their homeland and deposits them in territories undergoing settlement and dispossession, but renaming severs any relationship to their land and indigenous communities.’ In making the distinction between land and labour, Wolfe sets up an opposition between processes of racialisation based on ‘the logic of elimination’ (to borrow his formulation) and those based on a logic of reproduction. This construction fails to properly grasp the idea that the settler colonial logic of elimination might manifest as the destruction of culture, identity, ties to land, and ways of being while preserving the labouring body. It also fails to adequately recognise the history of enslavement and indentured labour to which First Nations people in the colony of Australia were subjected. As Kelley explains, in reference to South Africa, ‘the expropriation of the native from the land was a fundamental objective, but so was proletarianization. They wanted the land and the labor, but not the people – that is to say, they sought to eliminate stable communities and their cultures of resistance.’ Drawing on Cedric Robinson, Kelley argues that the destruction of both metaphysical and material relations in order to produce an enslaved or proletarianised labour class is different to assimilation, ‘which imagines disappearance through integration’.
I read Hartman’s work as moving outside of the binary that Wolfe presents. She documents the songs of resistance sung by a chorus of enslaved Black Indigenous subjects across time and space. While focused on the US context, her body of work traces both the continuity and transformation of metaphysical and material relations between such subjects in spite of the various dispossessive forces of slavery and colonialism. Of course, this is not to suggest that Wolfe does not consider the complex ways that ‘the logic of elimination’ manifests and how this gives rise to shifting forms of racialisation that might produce what Lauren Berlant calls ‘slow death’. Wolfe’s analysis turns on the presumption that settler societies eliminate the native in either explicitly genocidal ways (the violence of frontier wars or deaths in custody, for example) or through processes of assimilation and disappearance (such as reeducation programs, forced removals of children, state-sanctioned miscegenation, infrastructural neglect). But this fails to acknowledge the fugitivity of Black Indigenous social life and the ways it finds expression in language, thought, beliefs, metaphysics, morality, culture, dance, song, and much more. In other words, the eliminatory logics of settler colonialism are never total.
Blackness is brought into being by the genocidal impulse of a settler-colonial operation as a racial category that renders certain subjects unable to possess (either self or land). But this is only part of the story, as Blackness occupies a relation both anti- and ante- the colonial order. The colonial ‘scientific’ categorisation of the world is that which names Blackness, however – Blackness both precedes the violent speciation implied in the making of distinctions and hierarchies and opposes it.
The differential histories of Black Indigeneity long precede the normative order of the modern world, and it is this relation of precedence that calls into question what Sylvia Wynter refers to as ‘the coloniality of being’. Moten elaborates: ‘[it] is not (just) that Blackness is ontologically prior to the logistic and regulative power that is supposed to have brought it into existence but that blackness is prior to ontology’. The entanglement of Blackness and Indigeneity emerges within coercive conditions and yet speaks to a solidarity that exceeds the regulative and dispossessive force of settlement.
Black study, in conjunction with Indigenous and anti-colonial study, is a project concerned with rethinking the world. This is a global idea – an invocation of an internationalism – grounded in the differential locality of Blackness. Black Feminist study is nothing short of a revolutionary way of thinking the world, a way to reconfigure subjectivity as it is deformed by fugitivity. To engage in such study, what Denise Ferriera da Silva refers to as Black Feminist Poethics, is ‘to un-organize, un-form, un-think the world’. For Ferreira da Silva, this involves ‘a moment of radical praxis [that] acknowledges the creative capacity Blackness indexes, reclaims expropriated total value, and demands for nothing less than decolonization–that is, a reconstruction of the world, with the return of the total value without which capital would not have thrived and off which it still lives.’
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is a chronicle of Black Feminist revolutionary action. Hartman offers an expansion of the terms of revolution, producing a document of forms of struggle often overlooked when struggle is viewed through the lens of workers’ antagonisms to industrial capitalism. Hartman asks us: what are we to make of the struggles of those subjects commonly excluded from the category of the worker? This question is, of course, not a new one and Wayward Lives builds on Black Feminist and Marxist-Feminist scholarship, as well as Hartman’s previous work in Scenes of Subjection and Lose Your Mother, and seminal essays such as ‘Venus in Two Acts’, in order to articulate forms of resistance such as non-participation, refusal, idleness, and rioting that expand and augment notions of political struggle. Her work stages a crucial intervention into masculine histories of political struggle, reminding us of the power of ‘minor’ modes of resistance articulated by Black women and gender non-conforming people. In a recent interview with Rizvana Bradley, Hartman writes:
I find the general strike to be an interesting, expansive concept that needs to be mistranslated, augmented, and extended in ways it’s not meant to be… I think that one of the things that happens both in [W.E.B.] Du Bois and in C. L. R. James is that at one moment they are addressing the slave, the ex-slave, the fugitive – then suddenly this figure has been translated into the narrative of the worker. And in the worker’s narrative, the very figure that I’m concerned with, the Black female, the fungible life, the minor figure, totally falls out of the frame of what constitutes the political notion of struggle. The “everyday resistance of enslaved women” in the context of a slave economy, for example the refusal to reproduce life, has never been considered as a component of the general strike. Yet, they too were involved in a fundamental refusal of the conditions of work and intent on destroying an economy of production in which their wombs and their reproductive capacity were conscripted along with their labor.
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is itself an experiment in telling this story of struggle. The work is divided into three books – ‘Book One: She Makes an Errant Path Through the City’; ‘Book Two: The Sexual Geography of the Black Belt’; ‘Book Three: Beautiful Experiments’ – each of which draws from detailed archival research and artefacts in order to assemble stories of Black labour, performance, intimacy, and rebellion. But Hartman is not, strictly speaking, an historian; rather she is a critical theorist and literary studies scholar. Her engagement with the archive wrestles with its inconsistencies and writes back to the erasures and silences contained within it. Her methodology is one of ‘critical fabulation’, which she describes in an interview from 2018 as ‘bridging theory and narrative’. ‘I work a lot with scraps of the archive’, she continues. ‘I work a lot with unknown persons, nameless figures, ensembles, collectives, multitudes, the chorus. That’s where my imagination of practice resides. That’s where my heart resides.’
While archives form the basis of written history, they are not the same thing as history itself. An archive manifests as a collection of traces, and as such, it is always fragmented and incomplete – simultaneously a site of preservation and destruction. The archive, then, is the product of a process of power in which certain objects are deemed worthy of preservation while others are discarded. ‘The archive’, writes Achille Mbembe, ‘is not a piece of data, but a status’. Its perceived authority is derived from what is exterior to it and any critical consideration must take into account that which it simultaneously excludes. But how is one to attend to that which has not survived the passage of time? How to tell the story of the excised and discarded? That the archive is a collection of traces from which a narration of history is elaborated goes some way to explaining both its political power and its inherent instability.
History, as the old adage goes, is written by the victors, and the capacity to write (and reproduce) history depends on control of the archive. As Jacques Derrida tells us, ‘there is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory’. Such control plays an important role in the production (and reproduction) of a colonial representational paradigm in which Blackness is consigned to the realm of death. This reproduction of colonial representations naturalises Black death – both real and symbolic – in the white imaginary: think here of the repeated failure of the state to hold white police officers to account for the extra-legal killing of Black people, or the way state-sanctioned infrastructural neglect is recast as a moral failure of racialised communities, or the way that everyday forms of racism (commonly called micro-aggressions) contribute to health conditions such as hypertension that lower life expectancy. The production of a temporality in which slavery and colonisation are ongoing – which, as Patrick Wolfe has shown, are structures rather than singular events – requires control of the archive. This control allows these operations to be disguised by the narration of history as a linear passage of time in which there is a before and after colonisation, a before and after slavery. And yet when taken as a collection of traces rather than a unity, we are reminded that the archive is inherently unstable and therefore open to revision and fragmentation. In her critical account of Dutch colonial archives in Indonesia, Ann Laura Stoler reminds us that production of taxonomies and systems of classification that underpin colonial rule was unruly and piecemeal. She writes:
Grids of intelligibility were fashioned from uncertain knowledge; disquiet and anxieties registered the uncommon sense of events and things; epistemic uncertainties repeatedly unsettled the imperial conceit that all was in order, because papers classified people, because directives were properly acknowledged, and because colonial civil servants were schooled to assure that records were prepared, circulated, securely stored, and sometimes rendered to ash.
Against the idea of the archive as coherent and infallible, Stoler implores us to look closer in order to register its anxieties, incoherences, and silences. She suggests, following Claude Lévi-Strauss’s imperative, that we might read the archive for what is ‘not written’. Hartman is this kind of historian, one who works in and against the archive in order to complicate history as it is given and received. She explains that one of the driving concerns that motivates her work in the archive is how to inhabit and narrate historical time. For Hartman, the afterlife of slavery involves a ‘sense of temporal entanglement, where the past, the present and the future, are not discrete and cut off from one another’. Instead, she tells us, ‘we live the simultaneity of that entanglement’. In that simultaneity Hartman affirms that the archive remains unfinished, continually haunting the present, not because it can’t capture everything but because it can never find a stable home in the here and now. Her work raises the spectres that lurk within the archive – the ghosts of repressed violence and abusive power systems – in ways that complicate the experience of time, blurring the boundaries between the past, the present, and the future.
Hartman’s method of critical fabulation speaks to this entanglement and she herself becomes a player in the history of the dispossessed that she constructs. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments opens with a short note on method in which she writes: ‘I employ a mode of close narration, a style which places the voice of narrator and character in inseparable relation, so that the vision, language, and rhythms of the wayward shape and arrange the text.’ Her approach speaks to a conception of the root of aesthetics as something that located in the social. It is sociality that animates art, not the other way around. And so she enters the archive in order to pick up and narrate the wild and rebellious threads, the radical imagination of Black women. She explains:
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 apthology; to affirm free motherhood (reproductive choice), intimacy outside of 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.
Hartman grapples with authority of the archive, asserting the creativity and generativity of Blackness in spite of the violence and disposability imposed upon it. To tell this story, to narrate time differently, Hartman has ‘pressed at the limits of the case file and the document, speculated about what might have been, imagined things whispered in dark bedrooms, and amplified moments of withholding, escape and possibility, moments when the vision and dreams of the wayward seemed possible’.
‘The photograph is small enough to be cradled in the palm of your hand’, writes Hartman of an image of a young Black girl who is reclined, naked, on a horse hair sofa in a living room in 1882. The image, ‘not a lush silver print, but an inexpensive albumen print’, forms a central part of Book One of Wayward Lives – a meditation on the conditions of the image’s production, on the unrecorded life of the girl in the image, on the nature of freedom just a few decades after the official end of slavery. Hartman’s reading is equal parts formal visual analysis and speculative reconstruction:
The odalisque, an image of a reclining nude, conjoins two distinct categories of the commodity: the slave and the prostitute. The rigidness of the body betrays the salacious reclining posture, and the girl’s flaty steely-eyed glare is hardly an invitation to look. She retreats as far away from the camera as possible into the corner of the sofa, as if seeking a place in which to hide. Her direct gaze at the camera is not a solicitation of the viewer, an appeal for recognition, or a look predicated on mutuality. The look assumes nothing shared between the one compelled to appear and those looking. The private wish is that the harm inflicted won’t be too great and that there will be an exit from this room and others like it.
Here Hartman articulates the workings of the imperial gaze with razor clarity. In her account, physical violence haunts the epistemological and representational violence of the visual plane. Both Hartman and the girl in the image accept the movement from one form of violence to the other as given, and both are left wishing – the girl privately and Hartman publicly – that the exit from this scene of subjection is as swift as possible. But Hartman’s description is also a subtle account of non-performance: the girl’s ‘flat steely-eyed glare’ simultaneously a retreat from a scene in which she is an unwilling participant and a quiet but willful refusal to submit to the power of the gaze. Her prose speaks back to an image paradigm designed to reinforce to the viewer’s power over the body that resides within the visual field. Is it possible, she reflects, ‘to make my words into a shield that might protect her, a barricade to deflect the gaze and cloak what had been exposed?’
My first encounter with Hartman’s thought came through the challenge she issues in the opening pages of Scenes of Subjection: to rethink the nature and brutality of subjugation and domination without reproducing the violence of the spectacle. That book begins with Hartman’s refusal to reproduce the ‘terrible spectacle’ of Aunt Hester’s beating famously recounted by Fredrick Douglass in his 1845 abolitionist memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. She explains that her decision not to reproduce the beating was ‘in order to call attention to the ease with which such scenes are usually reiterated, the casualness with which they are circulated, and the consequences of this routine display of the slave’s ravaged body’. She questions whether the reproduction of such violence works to simultaneously naturalise and spectacularise Black suffering and Black death, transforming the witness into a voyeur who becomes immune to, and fascinated by, exhibitions of terror and suffering. Instead, she asks us to consider how we participate in these moments of violence, to interrogate the ethics of witnessing and spectatorship, and to reorient how we approach trauma:
At issue here is the precarious nature of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator. Only more obscene than the brutality unleashed at the whipping post is the demand that this suffering be materialized and evidenced by the display of the tortured body or endless recitations of the ghastly and the terrible.
I have been thinking about this problem since I first opened Scenes of Subjection, returning again and again to Hartman’s instructive thought in order to try to develop a mode of analysis and witnessing that refuses transparency as the only possible modality. She cautions against a narration of history that seeks primarily to produce an empathetic response, reminding us that the structure of this feeling depends on the obliteration of the other and the installment of ourselves in their place.
Hartman’s treatment of the image of the unnamed girl in Wayward Lives further develops this line of thought. Here Hartman makes the decision to reproduce the scene of subjection, enlarging the image so that it covers every inch of a double page spread in the book. The image is not presented as a spectacle as Hartman’s prose is superimposed on it. Her words obscure the image, making it only partially legible. Our attention is drawn to it and yet it remains just beyond our grasp, unable to be possessed by a voyeuristic gaze. Conscious of the way the internet and digitisation has made the archive radically more accessible, Hartman is faced with a new ethical conundrum: does not reproducing the image still refuse the operation of the spectacle in a moment where such images are freely locatable and accessible as decontextualised objects? Her answer to this question is no, and so she incorporates the image into the book but her words, overlaid on top of it, act ‘both as a defacement… and a shield or a scrim for the girl’. Her prose traces the material histories and conditions that have enabled the production of this image, probing at the question of consent in ways that complicate our understanding of freedom in the wake of emancipation. She writes:
The odalisque is a forensic image that details the violence to which the black female body can be subjected. It is a durational image of intimate violence. So much time accumulates on her small figure, the girl might well be centuries old, bearing the weight of slavery and empire, embodying the transit of the commodity, suturing the identity of the slave and the prostitute. All of which makes it impossible for her to be a child. The photograph fabricates her consent to be seen. How does she consent to coercion? How does the pleasure taken in the image of sexual assault issue from the girl’s invitation? It is a picture redolent with the auction block, the plantation, and the brothel… Is it possible to give what has already been taken?
Book Two of Wayward Lives, which bears the subtitle ‘The Sexual Geography of the Black Belt’, considers how the psychic criminalisation of Blackness plays out in relation to the actual criminalisation of Black intimacy and sexuality in urban centres of the North of the United States in the early decades of the 1900s. Hartman is focused less on producing a chronicle of police infractions and more on the radical practices of intimacy that emerged in response to various laws and restrictions against vagrancy and loitering, such as the New York State Tenement House Act of 1901. She tells us of bonds forged in practices of free love or in the intimacy of a stairwell or in the shadow of violence; she tells us of gender-queer subjects and fluid sexualities; she tells us of ‘the anarchy of colored gilrs assembled in a riotous manner’. She tells us of Gladys Bentley:
If Gladys Bentley’s life were an Oscar Micheaux film, it might open with a shot of the three-story tenement house in Philadelphia in which the entertainer grew up. Four boys play in the alley behind the house. The camera settles on the eldest, distinguishing him from the others as the film’s protagonist, but not exaggerating any difference between him and the other boys. Nothing about the way he jumps from the top of the stairs to the bottom of the landing or shoves his young brother aside, which causes him to fall and to cry Mama, establishes or fixes the categories “boy” or “girl,” “brother” or “sister.”
Bentley was a flamboyant entertainer who came to prominence singing raunchy lyrics set to popular songs of the day in the cabaret clubs of Harlem. Hartman’s reconstruction of Bentley’s life and the space that defined it – the club – is rendered as a series of scenes from an imagined (and unmade) film by the groundbreaking Black director, Oscar Micheaux. Hartman paints a picture of the club as a space of escape and beauty and debauchery and creativity: ‘In the cabaret scene, black virtuosity is on display. Then comes the chorus, and the dancing bodies are arranged in beautiful lines that shift and change as the flourish and excess of the dancers unfold into riotous possibility and translate the tumult and upheaval of the Black Belt into art.’ For anyone who has experienced the ecstasy and possibility that comes from dancing together, Hartman’s account of the power of the club might resonate: ‘the bodies in motion, bodies intimate and proximate, recklessly assert what might be’. Crucially, this assertion of creativity and generativity points, she tells us, to ‘how black folks might could live’.
Emerging from the scene of the club is Bentley, who ‘always worked in a tuxedo and top hat or flashy men’s attire’. Unlike many other accounts of Bentley’s life, Hartman takes seriously his ambiguous relationship to gender and the promiscuity of his intimacies. ‘There was nothing feminine about him; it was more than glamour drag, more than a woman outfitted as a man, as several of his wives, both white and colored, could attest,’ she writes. In Hartman’s reading, this queer Black life defies the regulative force of white family values and their written-ness in, and as, law. ‘Bentley’s queer masculinity’, she continues, ‘ran roughshod over the riotous propgation that resided at the heart of every racial melodrama. Bentley trashed the gendered norms and family ideals central to the project of racial uplift – self-regulation, monogamy, fidelity, wedlock, and reproduction – and scoffed at the moralism of the latter-day Victorians, the aristocrats of uplift.’
In her landmark essay, ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe’ (1987), Hortense Spillers describes how the violence of the Middle Passage reduced Black subjects to ungendered and undifferentiated flesh. The analytic of the flesh is given through the Black female slave, who must be stripped of her gender and therefore of her capacity to establish and maintain the maternal bond in order to be transformed into a commodity object. She tells us that ‘before the “body” there is “flesh,” that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography’. The flesh, stripped of all the signifiers attached to the body (gender, subjecthood, full life), is reduced to matter or bare life. But for Spillers constraint is only one half of the story since the analytic of the flesh also contains a radical possibility, one that arises through the relation of precedence. If the flesh precedes the body, then the flesh also precedes the histories of signification that become attached to the body. Here, again, we are presented with the paradox of Blackness as that which is yoked between constraint and escape. The operation of constraint that transforms one into flesh offers us a way of imagining a grammar of subjectivity that is not defined by the entanglement of colonialism and political liberalism.
Hartman’s excavation of the intimacies of Black life follow the vectors of escape given in, and by, the analytic of the flesh. While she notes that Bentley ‘wasn’t a radical, but a brilliant performer’, her reading of his life uncovers an inherent and unrecognised radicality – a life lived that showed little regard for the disciplinary norms imposed by the state that manifest in the grammar of the body and the subject. Hartman’s attention to the fugitive erotics of the flesh is a way of returning to a question she has asked before: ‘What would it mean to not have a social political order that’s founded on settler colonialism and slavery, racism and anti-blackness, in particular?’
The final book within this book – ‘Beautiful Experiments’ – includes a short, poetic entry on waywardness itself:
Wayward, related to the family of words: errant, fugitive, recalcitrant, anarchic, willful, reckless, troublesome, riotous, tumultuous, rebellious and wild. To inhabit the world in ways inimical to those deemed proper and respectable, to be deeply aware of the gulf between where you stayed and how you might live. Waywardness: the avid longing for a world not ruled by master, man or the police. The errant path taken by the leaderless swarm in search of a place better than here. The social poesis that sustains the dispossessed. Wayward: the unregulated movement of drifting and wandering; sojourns without a fixed destination, ambulatory possibility, interminable migrations, rush and flight, black locomotion; the everyday struggle to live free… Wayward: to wander, to be unmoored, adrift, rambling, roving, cruising, strolling, and seeking. To claim the right to opacity. To strike, to riot, to refuse. To love what is not loved. To be lost to the world. It is the practice of the social otherwise, the insurgent ground that enables new possibilities and new vocabularies; it is the lived experience of enclosure and segregation, assembling and huddling together… It is a beautiful experiment in how-to-live.
The entry describes waywardness as an orientation, a practice, a methodology, a speculation, a form of resistance. In this final book, Hartman describes the music of rebellion, the Black noise animating resistance and refusal, the anarchic choreography of the chorus. We learn of women who riot, who abscond from their posts as indentured servants, who sing and dance and love with wild abandon. Hartman tells us that it is in this waywardness that their radicality resides, that their fugitive movements are an orientation toward imaging (and inhabiting), what Ashon T. Crawley would call, ‘otherwise possibilities’.
‘If you listen closely, you can hear the whole world in a bent note, a throwaway lyric, a singular thread of the collective utterance’, Hartman tells us. And so I find myself listening for the social situation that animates Hartman’s work in a bid to locate it in our present. I find myself studying the minor revolutions that she narrates in order to attune to the possibility of another world, another order, another future. To think in these terms is to hold on to a certain type of utopian thinking, an ambivalent kind of utopianism that takes the entanglement of escape and constraint as the ground from which possibility emerges.
Reading Hartman I am reminded that there is no general strike that is not also a Black, Indigenous strike that is not also a gender strike. And so I continue to engage with Black feminist study and the resistances, both minor and major, that are its objects of this inquiry. I continue to read Hartman alongside Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Hortense Spillers, Chelsea Bond, Alexis Wright, Christina Sharpe, Fred Moten, Alison Whittaker, Ruth Wilson-Gilmore, Debbie Kilroy, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Cedric Robinson, Tess Allas, Evelyn Araluen and so many others, in order to better understand the nature of struggle in a world governed by anti-Blackness, to expand our very conception of what constitutes struggle to include those subjects and actions so often relegated from the realm of politics, and to better understand how we might enact a solidarity both grounded in locality and reaching out toward the formation of a new internationale. ‘Bodies are in motion’, Hartman tells us. It is up to us to study these movements closely:
The gestures disclose what is at stake – the matter of life returns as an open question. The collective movement points toward what awaits us, what has yet to come into view, what they anticipate – the time and place better than here; a glimpse of the earth not owned by anyone.
Lauren Berlant, ‘Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency)’, Critical Inquiry 33, 2007.
Rizvana Bradley and Saidiya Hartman, ‘Regard for One Another: A Conversation Between Rizvana Bradley and Saidiya Hartman’, LA Review of Books, 2019.
Ashon T. Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility, Fordham University Press, 2017.
Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. Eric Prenowitz, The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Denise Ferreira da Silva, ‘Toward a Black Feminist Poethics: The Quest(ion) of Blackness Toward the End of the World’, The Black Scholar 44(2), 2014.
Laura Harris, Experiments in Exile: C.L.R James, Hélio Oiticica, and the Aesthetic Sociality of Blackness, New York: Fordham University Press, 2018.
Saidiya Hartman, ‘The Plot of Her Undoing’, Notes on Feminism, Feminist Art Coalition, 2019.
Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth-Century America, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Saidiya Hartman and Thora Siemsen, ‘On working with archives: An interview with writer Saidiya Hartman’, The Creative Independent, 2018.
Saidiya Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson III, ‘The position of the unthought: An interview with Saidiya V. Hartman conducted by Frank B. Wilderson, III.’, Qui Parle 13(2), 2003.
Arthur Jafa, Dreams Are Colder Than Death, film, 2014.
Robin D.G. Kelley, ‘The Rest of Us: Rethinking Settler and Native’, American Quarterly 69(2), 2017.
Achille Mbembe, ‘The Power of the Archive and Its Limits’, trans. Judith Inggs, in Refiguring the Archive, ed. Carolyn Hamilton et al, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002.
Fred Moten, Stolen Life, Duke University Press, 2018.
Fred Moten, The Universal Machine, Duke University Press, 2018.
Hortense Spillers, ‘Mama’s baby, papa’s maybe: An American grammar book’, Diacritics 17(2), 1987.
Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense, Princeton University Press, 2009.
Patrick Wolfe, Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race, Verso Books, 2016.