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Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

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A breathtaking exploration of the lives of young black women in the early twentieth century. In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Free love, common-law and transient marriages, serial partners, cohabitation outside of wedlo A breathtaking exploration of the lives of young black women in the early twentieth century. In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Free love, common-law and transient marriages, serial partners, cohabitation outside of wedlock, queer relations, and single motherhood were among the sweeping changes that altered the character of everyday life and challenged traditional Victorian beliefs about courtship, love, and marriage. Hartman narrates the story of this radical social transformation against the grain of the prevailing century-old argument about the crisis of the black family. In wrestling with the question of what a free life is, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship that were indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work. Beautifully written and deeply researched, Wayward Lives recreates the experience of young urban black women who desired an existence qualitatively different than the one that had been scripted for them—domestic service, second-class citizenship, and respectable poverty—and whose intimate revolution was apprehended as crime and pathology. For the first time, young black women are credited with shaping a cultural movement that transformed the urban landscape. Through a melding of history and literary imagination, Wayward Lives recovers their radical aspirations and insurgent desires.


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A breathtaking exploration of the lives of young black women in the early twentieth century. In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Free love, common-law and transient marriages, serial partners, cohabitation outside of wedlo A breathtaking exploration of the lives of young black women in the early twentieth century. In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Free love, common-law and transient marriages, serial partners, cohabitation outside of wedlock, queer relations, and single motherhood were among the sweeping changes that altered the character of everyday life and challenged traditional Victorian beliefs about courtship, love, and marriage. Hartman narrates the story of this radical social transformation against the grain of the prevailing century-old argument about the crisis of the black family. In wrestling with the question of what a free life is, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship that were indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work. Beautifully written and deeply researched, Wayward Lives recreates the experience of young urban black women who desired an existence qualitatively different than the one that had been scripted for them—domestic service, second-class citizenship, and respectable poverty—and whose intimate revolution was apprehended as crime and pathology. For the first time, young black women are credited with shaping a cultural movement that transformed the urban landscape. Through a melding of history and literary imagination, Wayward Lives recovers their radical aspirations and insurgent desires.

30 review for Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

  1. 4 out of 5

    Alok Vaid-Menon

    Wayward Lives cements Dr. Hartman as one of the preeminent intellectuals of our time. It is one of the most compelling feminist studies I have read. This book is an actualization of Hartman’s “critical fabulation,” a practice of historical speculation that coalesces the magic of literature with the methodology of history in order to respond to deliberate absences in the archive. For Hartman, so much falls through the cracks if we rely on history’s emphasis on events and subjects. Personhood -- r Wayward Lives cements Dr. Hartman as one of the preeminent intellectuals of our time. It is one of the most compelling feminist studies I have read. This book is an actualization of Hartman’s “critical fabulation,” a practice of historical speculation that coalesces the magic of literature with the methodology of history in order to respond to deliberate absences in the archive. For Hartman, so much falls through the cracks if we rely on history’s emphasis on events and subjects. Personhood -- rather than being a priori status -- is produced by regimes of power. To grant subjecthood to the dispossessed requires another mode of engagement. Hartman departs from a reliance on spectacular acts of resistance (marches, policy, etc.) and instead exalts the quotidian: lauding working-class Black women and GNC people in the early twentieth century who experimented with ways of being (“everyday anarchy”) that surpassed the stringent parameters of labor structured by the afterlife of slavery (vagrancy laws, segregation, etc.) Indeed, at this time in Northern cities 9/10 Black women worked as domestic workers and 1/3 of Black people worked as servants. Hartman writes stories detailing how people continued to evade control by taking non-traditional paths, refusing normative scripts, “trying to live when you were never meant to survive.” Survival is recognized as an experimental practice of revolution, its own type of insurrection. Crime is reframed as a tactic of curtailing and disappearing Black life. Black women and GNC people were criminalized for their creative forms of survival -- practices of community, mutual aid, pleasure-making – because in this living was a more generative, intimate, beautiful existence outside of the grasp of the state. The genius is not just in what she argues, but in how she argues it. She embodies stylistically the very freedom that she theorizes, in the process catalyzing a new genre. The elegance of her writing is breathtaking: “beauty is not a luxury; rather it is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure, a radical act of subsistence, an embrace of our terribleness, a transfiguration of the given.” A must read.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    Lyrical and mesmerizing, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments recounts the experiments in social arrangements young black women conducted in New York and Philadelphia during the first decades of the twentieth century. The book focuses on the waves of Black youth who moved from the rural South to industrial northern cities in search of more fulfilling lives, and documents the many challenges they faced. Drawing upon extensive archival research Hartman sketches a series of moving character studies Lyrical and mesmerizing, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments recounts the experiments in social arrangements young black women conducted in New York and Philadelphia during the first decades of the twentieth century. The book focuses on the waves of Black youth who moved from the rural South to industrial northern cities in search of more fulfilling lives, and documents the many challenges they faced. Drawing upon extensive archival research Hartman sketches a series of moving character studies of minor and famous figures alike, and she thoughtfully examines how these women constructed new ways of loving, working, and building community in the face of extraordinary police harassment, sexual violence, and white paternalism. Where there are gaps in the historical record, the writer points them out and offers self-conscious reflections on what might have happened.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Joshunda Sanders

    This is a glorious read about Black women whose inner lives and external manifestations of those rich journeys has not been documented with such grace, context and beauty across fluid genders or sexualities. It was a delight, too, to be further educated by the extensive, lovely end notes, written by my Vassar classmate Sarah Haley, a sharp scholar and exquisite writer like Hartman. There is pain here, of course, because the history of Black women and men who did not conform to society's restrict This is a glorious read about Black women whose inner lives and external manifestations of those rich journeys has not been documented with such grace, context and beauty across fluid genders or sexualities. It was a delight, too, to be further educated by the extensive, lovely end notes, written by my Vassar classmate Sarah Haley, a sharp scholar and exquisite writer like Hartman. There is pain here, of course, because the history of Black women and men who did not conform to society's restrictions or twisted visions of us is replete with examples of ways we have been harassed, beaten and raped for resisting any other vision for ourselves. What is most beautiful in this book is that we have always persevered in the direction of our freedom, in ways that are uniquely Black and woman and that's an inheritance that cannot be denied.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Katya Kazbek

    It's so rare and beautiful to read a book that just oozes information and ideas that you hadn't come across before, and even though reading this was not always easy, I was in for a spectacular treat. "Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments" is a visionary journey into the defiant lives of black women during Jim Crow era / Great migration, which breaks molds and stereotypes by showing how they broke molds and stereotypes, while threatened with incarceration, poverty, homelessness and disenfranchise It's so rare and beautiful to read a book that just oozes information and ideas that you hadn't come across before, and even though reading this was not always easy, I was in for a spectacular treat. "Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments" is a visionary journey into the defiant lives of black women during Jim Crow era / Great migration, which breaks molds and stereotypes by showing how they broke molds and stereotypes, while threatened with incarceration, poverty, homelessness and disenfranchisement. I can't even begin to describe all the ways in which this book is groundbreaking and important. First, it crushes the tired narratives of Jim Crow era black women as kindly matronly housekeepers, and lets them reclaim their agency, sexuality, queerness and independence. Second, it shows how the black women had laid out the foundations of the sexual revolution way before their white counterparts even came close to it. Third, it's just an amazing updated guide to the progressive figures of the era: while such run-of-the-mill yet problematic reformists as W.E.B.DuBois and MW Ovington make appearances, they are there for contrast, and the limelight rightfully goes to a whole cast of brilliant women and genderqueer people, who did not spend time on ideology but instead changed the world through their subversive, beautiful lives. This book is a long overdue memorial to their sacrifices. While I was absolutely enamored with the book on the whole, I did find that it was really densely written and lacked in clarity. For instance, the beginning was too much like fiction, which seemed overwritten and excessively florid, and distracted from the main objective. I thought that things only started rolling smoothly about halfway through. It's fine if you have a patient, interested reader, like myself, but I definitely saw it as a missed opportunity to make this range of information be available to a larger set of an audience. Even though it's not as impenetrable as the usual academic books, it was still a little too much of an odd, unclassifiable animal. Neither a nonfiction account, nor a novelization, it just seemed like it hadn't been worked on as carefully by the editors, or additional readers, as it should have, and that made me a little sad, because I would really love for more people to read it.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Schulman

    It took me. a long time to read this book because it is so deep, the intimate tone requires the reader's attention, and its unique accomplishment startles while the writing lingers. Hartman reveals a universe and a community of Black women in states of self-creation, world-making, resistance, definition and expression. A very special work. It took me. a long time to read this book because it is so deep, the intimate tone requires the reader's attention, and its unique accomplishment startles while the writing lingers. Hartman reveals a universe and a community of Black women in states of self-creation, world-making, resistance, definition and expression. A very special work.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Fatma

    3.5 stars "The wild idea that animates this book is that young black women were radical thinkers who tirelessly imagined other ways to live and never failed to consider how the world might be otherwise." what a beautiful book. you can really tell that hartman has poured her heart and soul into telling these women's stories. RTC 3.5 stars "The wild idea that animates this book is that young black women were radical thinkers who tirelessly imagined other ways to live and never failed to consider how the world might be otherwise." what a beautiful book. you can really tell that hartman has poured her heart and soul into telling these women's stories. RTC

  7. 5 out of 5

    Sabrina

    A book that I feel like more people should read because of the unique historical context to archival records that it provides, while also remaining extremely culturally relevant in terms of police violence, racial and gender discrimination, and how hard Black women work to make their own spaces and be heard. Definitely points out important gaps in the archival record and the way we talk about American history.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Teehan

    I have both too much and truly not enough to say about this work - this bold, marvelous project - so I'll suffice with what is the easiest: everyone should read Saidiya Hartman. I have both too much and truly not enough to say about this work - this bold, marvelous project - so I'll suffice with what is the easiest: everyone should read Saidiya Hartman.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Liz Mc2

    I learned about Saidiya Hartman when she won a MacArthur Fellowship (“genius” grant) this year. This book is fascinating, focusing on young black women moving to Northern cities in the early 20th century and trying to find some freedom in their intimate lives, even as they were relentlessly policed—arrested and confined on the mere suspicion that they might be, or might become, sex workers, for instance—and the “color line” of segregation closed them in. Hartman’s methods make the book very reada I learned about Saidiya Hartman when she won a MacArthur Fellowship (“genius” grant) this year. This book is fascinating, focusing on young black women moving to Northern cities in the early 20th century and trying to find some freedom in their intimate lives, even as they were relentlessly policed—arrested and confined on the mere suspicion that they might be, or might become, sex workers, for instance—and the “color line” of segregation closed them in. Hartman’s methods make the book very readable. She finds many of her subjects in photographs and in the archives of reformatories and social workers, as they are defined by a censorious white gaze. Hartman fills in the gaps of these lives with speculative narratives—what might these women have dreamed of? What space could they make for their hopes in the narrow confines of their lives? This is history I knew almost nothing about, beautifully written and engrossing.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Theodore

    what an extraordinary book. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman writes and reimagines the lives of black girls, women, and gender nonconforming. Hartman reconstructs the history of these figures who lived in a period that never wanted them to have agency, desires, sexuality, passions, and freedom. the practices of refusal to live wayward beyond the respectability ideals was palpable.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Beverly

    thoughts coming shortly

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jacob Wren

    A few short passages from Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: In a novel, he possessed the ability to transform a ruined girl who grew up in a brothel into a heroine, but achieving the same in a sociological study proved nearly impossible. Literature was better able to grapple with the role of chance in human action and to illuminate the possibility and the promise of the errant path. The scene pivots around the breach and the wound and endeavors the impossible – to redress it. The beauty reside A few short passages from Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: In a novel, he possessed the ability to transform a ruined girl who grew up in a brothel into a heroine, but achieving the same in a sociological study proved nearly impossible. Literature was better able to grapple with the role of chance in human action and to illuminate the possibility and the promise of the errant path. The scene pivots around the breach and the wound and endeavors the impossible – to redress it. The beauty resides as much in the attempt as in its failure. What it envisions: life reconstructed along radically different lines. The people ambling through the block and passing time on corners and hanging out on front steps were an assembly of the wretched and the visionary, the indolent and the dangerous. All the modalities sing a part in this chorus, and the refrains were of infinite variety. The rhythm and stride announced the possibilities, even if most were fleeting and too often unrealized. The map of what might be was not restricted to the literal trail of Ester’s footsteps or anyone else’s, and this unregulated movement encouraged the belief that something great could happen despite everything you knew, despite the ruin and the obstacles. What might be was unforeseen, and improvisation was the art of reckoning with chance and accident. Wandering and drifting was how she engaged the world and how she understood it; this repertoire of practices composed her knowledge.

  13. 5 out of 5

    ColumbusReads

    Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is a brilliant and moving work by Saidiya Hartman that examines a rich social history of marginalized black women in the early twentieth century. Hartman does an incredible job of capturing these unknown “wayward” women - women who in many respects crafted and shaped a different life for themselves amidst extraordinarily dire circumstances. Hartman’s cast of characters includes queer women, cabaret performers, sex workers and others living among the streets o Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is a brilliant and moving work by Saidiya Hartman that examines a rich social history of marginalized black women in the early twentieth century. Hartman does an incredible job of capturing these unknown “wayward” women - women who in many respects crafted and shaped a different life for themselves amidst extraordinarily dire circumstances. Hartman’s cast of characters includes queer women, cabaret performers, sex workers and others living among the streets of Philadelphia and the Tenderloin and Harlem neighborhoods of New York. The author creatively and ingeniously infuses literary license where there was thin history on her subject to wonderful effect. There are wonderful photographs and images throughout that capture the compelling text. Exhaustively researched, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiment is a powerful and groundbreaking work by a most extraordinary historian.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Lalaa #ThisBlackGirlReads

    A beautiful portrayal of black women that left me with the profound feeling that there are more stories like these that are left to be told. I loved reading about the lives of the relatively unknown black female rebels from the early 20th century. This book covered quite a lot from race riots, prostitution, and lively dance halls, all with the underlying truth of radical thinking and other ways of living. Hartman has created a poetic picture of the black woman and her fight for freedom and her st A beautiful portrayal of black women that left me with the profound feeling that there are more stories like these that are left to be told. I loved reading about the lives of the relatively unknown black female rebels from the early 20th century. This book covered quite a lot from race riots, prostitution, and lively dance halls, all with the underlying truth of radical thinking and other ways of living. Hartman has created a poetic picture of the black woman and her fight for freedom and her steadfast courage; all magnified in the realities of the society. Each chapter is anchored by a photo that was taken between 1890 and 1935, and Hartman does an incredible job imagining the inner lives of her subjects in great detail. Woven together the stories give a clear picture of the struggles and courage of these women and their attempts to carve out a piece of freedom. A must read!

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ann

    I found that I loved the idea of this book more than the actual book itself. I am happy that this book was written, and I am glad that I read it. But the book itself is a bit too repetitive and disorganized to be a totally smooth reading experience.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Cavak

    After reading Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, a sensation that I couldn't quite name resonated in me. I was moved, I was amazed. The lines were savored by me, so curious and yet so profound. Some things I learned anew, some things did not surprise me. But something more was there, and I couldn't quite say what it was. So I put off writing this review to think about it a bit more. I wanted to clean my palate and explore why I had felt this way. Read a sociology book that I hadn't touched in After reading Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, a sensation that I couldn't quite name resonated in me. I was moved, I was amazed. The lines were savored by me, so curious and yet so profound. Some things I learned anew, some things did not surprise me. But something more was there, and I couldn't quite say what it was. So I put off writing this review to think about it a bit more. I wanted to clean my palate and explore why I had felt this way. Read a sociology book that I hadn't touched in a while ( A Colony in a Nation ) to get some new insight. Where the "color lines" are drawn, what constitutes a criminal offense, how American society ended up this way. And within the first twenty pages, it hit me why Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments got to me. The answer is so obvious, I feel foolish for not knowing it before. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments brings women into the equation. The women who are often painted as the victims. The women who are often condemned for being different. The women who are often ignored as a person and labeled a statistic. And rather than demanding that women be seen as "the saviors of us all", or some other idol with the tone of raging vengeance, Hartman accentuates how women who had scant opportunities could survive. How indignant it is for society to celebrate the abolishment of slavery without considering the realities for those living in the aftermath, attempting to sweep them under the rug like some hidden shame or regard them as an ungrateful lot. How the women had to be the sole provider of her children and her husband, if he hadn't abandoned her at that point. How women could love other women or how a woman could thrive as a man in a society that would deem them less than human. How nothing came easy to them, not even the simplest of joys, just because of the color of their skin and gender. This and more, all told by Hartman with respect, sincerity, empathy, and mindfulness. Being angry about the injustices dealt to the women in this book would have been easier. Hartman chose the harder path: encouraging us to ponder with her on treatment that can now be seen as inhuman and immoral. She doesn't shy away from the realities of their fates, but she doesn't allow that to be their only note of relevance in her narrative. To let them be seen as people. And somehow through it all, these women's souls shine in all of their natural brilliance and beauty. It's a strange magic cemented into reality with the black-and-white photos and the list of references noted at the end. Yes, you can accuse Hartman of cherry-picking and being biased. You can say that she doesn't provide "any solutions" to the race issue. You can certainly complain about the plethora of sexual exploitation within the book. But I would argue that those are observations that skim the surface of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. Hartman's writings may be a challenge to intuit (especially when the opening story is about the unsettling evidence of childhood rape and pornography), but please try to finish reading this book. My hope is that it will remind us of the histories that were buried and to view popular rhetoric in a different light. I received the book for free through Goodreads Giveaways.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Elliot

    Maybe I’ll go back on this later, but it’s hard not to read this book and think of it as the objectively best book ever written. An argument as forceful as the best scholarship, prose beautiful as poetry, and a scope and detail as strong as the novel, radical just as much in form as in content, yadda yadda. Perfect book ten stars

  18. 4 out of 5

    Orlando Nicoletti

    A beautiful beautiful book. It is hard to grasp the depth of possibility that Hartman opens up through her analysis and through her writing. Hartman explores the lives of 'wayward' young Black women (although women is too narrow a word) at the turn of the century - individuals who were left out of the official historical archive, who were only documented as criminals in police reports, as deviants in psychological examinations, and as aberrant social artifacts in sociological surveys. By "distur A beautiful beautiful book. It is hard to grasp the depth of possibility that Hartman opens up through her analysis and through her writing. Hartman explores the lives of 'wayward' young Black women (although women is too narrow a word) at the turn of the century - individuals who were left out of the official historical archive, who were only documented as criminals in police reports, as deviants in psychological examinations, and as aberrant social artifacts in sociological surveys. By "disturbing and breaking open" the stories told by these documents, Hartman describes how 'wayward' everyday practices are also conceptual critiques of oppressive social categories, are also concrete acts of insurrection against the institutions that engrave those categories onto our physical lives, are also acts of creation, elaborations of completely new ways of being in the world - 'Wayward': "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 the directionless search for a free territory; it is a practice of making and relation that enfolds within the policed boundaries of the dark ghetto; it is the mutual aid offered in the open-air prison. It is a queer resource of black survival. It is a beautiful experiment in how-to-live. Waywardness is a practice of possibility at a time when all roads, except the ones created by smashing out , are foreclosed. It obeys no rules and abides no authorities. It is unrepentant. It traffics in occult visions of other worlds and dreams of a different kind of life." Hartman's profound engagement with these lives, with what they meant to those who lived them, and with the remaking of the world they entailed, is her way of "redressing the violence of history, crafting a love letter to all those who had been harmed". One can only be grateful.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kyle Smith

    This is a beautifully written book. I learned so much about the lives of many women who, unfortunately, seem forgotten by history, yet their experiences deserve attention. My biggest critique of the book is that sometimes the beautiful style of writing bogged down the narrative, which could be distracting. Other than that, I would definitely recommend this one.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    An astonishing book that isn’t just a breathtaking work of research and historiography, but also a tremendously impressive feat of imagination and creative writing. The accumulation of stories about the many hardships, loves, and creative resistance yields a searing history of Black women under America’s horrific Jim Crow laws.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Becky

    Wow. I don’t even have words for this incredible work. On a level all it’s own.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Jennie Chantal

    Magnificent. In a genre all its own. History brought to life in utterly unique ways. Just brilliant.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Katie

    The way this book is written is unlike any nonfiction I’ve read before. From the beginning, Hartman makes it clear that these women’s lives are so poorly documented that she’s forced to make inferences about who some of them were, how they lived, and what they aspired to. At times it reads more like poetry. The majority of the book focuses on relationships, some are queer and some are not, some are married and some are not. There are many different types of relationships covered, some of which ar The way this book is written is unlike any nonfiction I’ve read before. From the beginning, Hartman makes it clear that these women’s lives are so poorly documented that she’s forced to make inferences about who some of them were, how they lived, and what they aspired to. At times it reads more like poetry. The majority of the book focuses on relationships, some are queer and some are not, some are married and some are not. There are many different types of relationships covered, some of which are met with violence. I can appreciate how difficult it must have been to write this, not only because of the research, but also because of the sacrifices these Black women made. I’m glad that they are finally given this space for more to learn about their lives. See more of my reviews: Blog // Instagram

  24. 5 out of 5

    Timothy

    Wow. This book is just... a revelation. SO good.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Katie/Doing Dewey

    Summary: A lovely, unique history that highlights the radical, innovative social lives that black women shaped for themselves during the Jim Crow era. I was immediately drawn to the concept of this book, which tells the stories of people whose lives weren't considered worth recording in their own time. When the stories of black women were recorded at this time, it was typically by people who saw them as a social problem. The lives these women shaped for themselves included "free love, common-law Summary: A lovely, unique history that highlights the radical, innovative social lives that black women shaped for themselves during the Jim Crow era. I was immediately drawn to the concept of this book, which tells the stories of people whose lives weren't considered worth recording in their own time. When the stories of black women were recorded at this time, it was typically by people who saw them as a social problem. The lives these women shaped for themselves included "free love, common-law and transient marriages, serial partners, cohabitation outside of wedlock, queer relations, and single motherhood." At the time, these choices were seen as a threat to social order that needed to be controlled or eliminated. This books shows the bravery and beauty of those revolutionary choices, driven by a desire to live freely and expansively despite social constraints that made mere survival a challenge. The structure of this book was something truly unique. At first, its mix of history, speculation, philosophy, and poetry felt a little too artsy to me. I was nervous about distinguishing facts from the author's speculations. After checking enough endnotes though, I began to trust that the author had confirmed the facts of each story she was telling. It was still difficult to know if the women she wrote about had talked about the philosophy guiding their lives. I'm guessing that the philosophical bits were all the author's voice. Overall though, I ended up loving the way the author used the basic framework of the facts to talk about why these women's lives mattered and what their choices meant in their social context. I also loved how poetic her tone was, capturing the feeling of each scene. I found this a challenging read for many of the same reasons I admired it. The author is clearly incredibly familiar with the academic literature discussing black women, culture, and the treatment of black bodies in the Jim Crow era. This text converses with these earlier works with apparent ease. The author uses citations to support claims too expansive to explore fully here and even incorporates evocative phrases from earlier texts . In some cases, this meant that I could only grasp what the author was saying with the help of endnotes about the references. As I got into a rhythm, reading the endnotes along with the text, the stories started to flow more easily. Another challenging but awesome aspect of this book was the poetic language. Some of the essays I found most beautiful and moving were short, lyrical pieces. I think a lot of their power came from the work the author did telling us stories first. This gave me, with my lack of prior knowledge, the background needed to understand a less literal essay on this topic. Throughout, I loved the opportunity to learn something new. The author does an incredible job juxtaposing multiple stories or pictures with stories to both have an emotional impact and to support her conclusions. I really admired the black women she described for refusing to live in a constrained way. Despite access to only the most menial jobs at low pay and to the worst apartments atthe  highest rents, these women insisted on having full lives. Despite the threat of being arrested essentially at random, they pursued the relationships they wanted; wore what they wanted; did the work they wanted; and created communities. Their pursuit of lives that pushed the boundaries of what was considered socially acceptable was truly revolutionary. It also made sense given the many forces preventing them from following more traditional paths! And there is a clear relationship between the freedoms they demanded and the freedoms women have today. I highly recommend this book and I plan to read it again myself. It is beautiful, emotional, educational, and truly unique. I don't feel certain I've done it justice, so I'd recommend checking out some other goodreads reviews.This review was originally posted on Doing Dewey

  26. 4 out of 5

    James Lawless

    Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments which is subtitled Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, examines the lives of various oppressed black women in Harlem and Philadelphia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of these women were part of a fugitive movement of descendants of former slaves fleeing from the plantations of the south to the city in their quest for freedom. Hartman is a thorough researcher and she culls stories of the lives of these women from rent collecto Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments which is subtitled Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, examines the lives of various oppressed black women in Harlem and Philadelphia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of these women were part of a fugitive movement of descendants of former slaves fleeing from the plantations of the south to the city in their quest for freedom. Hartman is a thorough researcher and she culls stories of the lives of these women from rent collectors, surveys and monographs of sociologists, trial transcripts, slum photographs, reports of vice investigators, social workers and parole officers, all presenting, as the author rightly points out, as ‘problems’. She is not happy with the archives which she delves into because in the main they deal with one-sided accounts of the dominant over the dominated. Blacks were bartered as fungible commodities and treated hardly as human, and the self-righteous moralising of white people, which often condemned black people as licentious, ring hollow when you consider the poverty and hardship of their lives. Many of them were married but had no documents to prove it as they struggled in tenement dwellings with congestion, ‘the flesh-to-flesh intimacy that would make most white folks recoil’. While many of Hartman’s insights are illuminating, the constant drumming of the same points time and time again in a repetitive and circumlocutory style of writing sometimes has the opposite of its intended effect and deadens the natural empathy of the reader, and is somewhat like watching endless reruns of the assassination of JFK or the 9/11 disaster. Also Hartman, no matter how well meaning she may be, makes many suppositions by attempting to enter the minds of these oppressed women in presuming to see what they see, or know what they think, as if she has a monopoly of their imaginations. Sometimes one wonders if the black women themselves had been allowed to tell their harrowing stories without the constant authorial interjections or at least with more understatement, would they have had greater impact, and it would have made for a tidier book. But despite the tautology, there is no denying the harsh and unjust treatment of many of the black women of the time. ‘They were treated less kindly than a stray dog, handled less gently than a mule.’ They were brutalized and abandoned by the law who could arrest a black person for even walking the streets or for what policemen deemed ‘taking up public space’. And ‘jump raids’ were a commonplace where plainclothes officers without a warrant broke into the homes of black people whom they considered suspiciously. There is too much guessing however. For example a young woman Mattie’s migration from Virginia to New York prompts the author to suppose all the things she ‘would’ have done. And a whole chapter dedicated to the explanation of the word manual is insulting to a reader’s intelligence as if he or she could not figure out the nuances of meaning in the word. Cinema offered an opportunity to imagine a better world, and indeed some of the women did in fact make it as actors. There were some offers of work in the Lafayette Theatre but only if you were a h.y. —a high yellow as the degrees of blackness were coded. And some made it as dancers or singers such as Billie Holiday who with natural talent were able to free themselves from the ghetto where music and jazz in particular articulated the pain and pathos of their lives. Blues, please tell me do I have to die a slave? Do you hear me pleading, you going to take me to my grave. https://jameslawless.net

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jess

    I loved the first few sections of Wayward Lives and the way Hartman describes her project. I soon found the repetition and lack of citations for easily sourced stats frustrating. The terms wayward and beautiful were used consistently throughout the beginning of the text then they disappear for more than a hundred pages only to return almost out of context. The book became disjointed and was more list-like than analysis or narrative. I also found it frustrating that the photographs sometimes had I loved the first few sections of Wayward Lives and the way Hartman describes her project. I soon found the repetition and lack of citations for easily sourced stats frustrating. The terms wayward and beautiful were used consistently throughout the beginning of the text then they disappear for more than a hundred pages only to return almost out of context. The book became disjointed and was more list-like than analysis or narrative. I also found it frustrating that the photographs sometimes had nothing to do with the person being described. I will say that I thought using a photo as watermark, covered in text, was an excellent and respectful approach to the subject of studying voyeurism without perpetuating its harm. Hartman is at her best in the first pages of this book. I wish what followed had matched the early lines.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Cherisse

    Beautifully written, deeply researched, profoundly moving, sadly reminiscent of the ways that black women have always fashioned and wielded power in a world that has attempted to demoralize, control, marginalize and ignore them.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Morgan M. Page

    "In the whimsical girlish tones, in the loud laughter and the back-and-forth exchange of the hallway, in the girls dancing in the stairwell is a will to unsettle, destroy, and remake that is so forceful it takes the breath away, so palpable it makes you reel with pain," writes Saidiya Hartman of the subjects of her book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. It is a sweeping, gorgeous, and heartrending recording of "In the whimsical girlish tones, in the loud laughter and the back-and-forth exchange of the hallway, in the girls dancing in the stairwell is a will to unsettle, destroy, and remake that is so forceful it takes the breath away, so palpable it makes you reel with pain," writes Saidiya Hartman of the subjects of her book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. It is a sweeping, gorgeous, and heartrending recording of the voices of the chorus - the everyday lives of the first generation of African American women and girls post-emancipation as they try to create lives for themselves with no roadmap, little support, and immense opposition. This is easily the best book I read in 2020, not only for its depth of research but also for the lyrical prose which I have never before found in a history book and rarely outside of one either.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    Fascinating, beautifully written, and brutal. I was expecting more focus on happy little found families and gender-bending polyamory, but because the archival documents available were often from police and social workers-- well, content warning for all the bad things that can happen to Black women and girls and transmasc folks. I think this would pair well with In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action and I suddenly want to bump Riot. Strike. Riot.: The New Era of Uprisings up m Fascinating, beautifully written, and brutal. I was expecting more focus on happy little found families and gender-bending polyamory, but because the archival documents available were often from police and social workers-- well, content warning for all the bad things that can happen to Black women and girls and transmasc folks. I think this would pair well with In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action and I suddenly want to bump Riot. Strike. Riot.: The New Era of Uprisings up my to-read list.

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