Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval

Saidiya Hartman. Norton, $28.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-393-28567-3
In this lyrical and novelistic speculative history, Hartman (Lose Your Mother), a Columbia University professor of English and comparative literature, reconstructs the lives of unknown black female urban rebels from the early 20th century, everyday women whose existences are hinted at by court records, social workers’ notes, and photographs and who she heralds as “radical thinkers who tirelessly imagined other ways to live.” The photos (taken between 1890 and 1935) inspired the book, and each chapter is anchored by one, around which is woven a vignette about the inner experience of the woman depicted, sometimes zooming out to encompass whole parties or streets or neighborhoods, sometimes intersecting with historical figures of note such as sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, suffragist and NAACP cofounder Mary White Ovington, or actress Edna Thomas. Hartman wonders about and imagines her subjects’ lives between the archival lines in vivid detail. Taken together, the affectionate and reverent reconstructions add up to a picture of black urban women’s courage, their attempts to carve out freedom, love, autonomy, power, and pleasure in socially constrained circumstances: “A whole world is jammed into one short block crowded with black folks shut out from almost every opportunity the city affords, but still intoxicated with freedom.” This passionate, poetic retrieval of women from the footnotes of history is a superb literary achievement. (Feb.)
Reviewed on : 02/11/2019
Release date: 02/19/2019
Genre: Nonfiction
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