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"The Art of Unruliness": On Saidiya Hartman


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In the New Republic, Joanna Scutts reviews a remarkable new book by Saidiya Hartman, professor of African-American literature and history at Columbia University. Entitled Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, the book tells the stories of several young African American women – some of them well known, most not – who traveled from the south to the north of the country in the decades after the Civil War. They went in search of freedom and racial tolerance, but instead found more subtle form of oppression. As Scutts writes, Hartman’s book poetically reconstructs the stories of women who bravely refused the narrow lives on offer to them, instead opting to pursue unruly and sometimes perilous freedom. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Hartman’s kaleidoscopic book foregrounds the stories of young, poor black women in New York and Philadelphia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. African Americans who fled the South in this period found that the north had its own, more insidious constraints. A woman could sit where she liked in public, but she would feel people inching away from her. There were “no visible signs on shop doors barring her entrance”; instead, she faced a constant buzz of verbal insults and rebuffs. Some landlords would rent to her, but she could expect to be charged vastly more than her substandard room was worth. Pretty much the only job open to her was domestic service, cleaning homes or clothes for white families …

Hartman’s real interest is in these young women—those who ran away from grinding labor and resisted the trap of good behavior. In granting these forgotten women a voice, and conjuring their longing for freedom, Hartman resists the century-long diminution of their lives to social problems.

Image of Saidiya Hartman via icaphila.org.