Book Review

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments
Saidiya Hartman
Serpent’s Tail

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.

Published in the Irish Examiner, 21/12/19


Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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