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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. 5 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

    Alwynne

    There’s something near-archaeological in the way Saidiya Hartman’s sifts through shards of evidence to recreate the lives of primarily-urban, black women in early 20th-century America – with a focus on Philadelphia and New York. Hartman’s exceptionally creative non-fiction - intense, episodic, intimate - draws on a range of sources: ”…the journals of rent collectors; surveys and monographs of sociologists; trial transcripts; slum photographs; reports of vice investigators, social workers, and par There’s something near-archaeological in the way Saidiya Hartman’s sifts through shards of evidence to recreate the lives of primarily-urban, black women in early 20th-century America – with a focus on Philadelphia and New York. Hartman’s exceptionally creative non-fiction - intense, episodic, intimate - draws on a range of sources: ”…the journals of rent collectors; surveys and monographs of sociologists; trial transcripts; slum photographs; reports of vice investigators, social workers, and parole officers; interviews with psychiatrists and psychologists; and prison case files…” But Hartman doesn’t simply review or analyse the material she gathers, she strives to look beyond the judgemental conclusions of those documenting black communities to the actual people concealed within their dry studies. Studies that labelled black women and girls as unruly problems, deviants, objects of scrutiny. The women themselves rarely speak, they were often unable to read or write or just not given the space to voice their own ideas but Hartman’s vision transforms these elusive, missing figures into fully-realised subjects refusing to bend to the white world’s expectations, doing their best to pursue their own dreams, plans, and beliefs. She imagines their thoughts and feelings, what their daily experiences might have been as they faced down prejudice, poverty and violence, and she turns her gaze on the ones who studied them too: philanthropic white women with an urge to save the fallen; W.E.B. Dubois in his brief time compiling reports on the black, urban poor of Philadelphia, confused and conflicted by the feelings they, and particularly the women, arouse. Hartman chronicles the ways in which many black women might have managed to find some element of freedom in their marginality enabling them to subvert mainstream gender conventions, through their rejection of traditional family roles or their insistence on sexual freedom or their embrace of different ways of living: like actress Edna Lewis Thomas whose relationship with photographer Lady Olivia Wyndham lasted for years; or Gladys Bentley who spurned gender boundaries. But Hartman also acknowledges that these tenuous freedoms and rebellion came at a price, becoming the site of a series of moral panics over the so-called ‘licentious’, ‘immoral’ lifestyles of urban black women and subject to numerous attempts by white society to make black women toe the line including rigid forms of policing - simply being out late at night could lead to arrest and imprisonment for assumed solicitation. Harsh policies justified by claims that: ”Black women yielded more easily to the temptations of the city than any other girls,”…because negroes as a group…had not been brought under social control. Policy makers and reformers insisted they were “several generations behind the Anglo-Saxon race in civilising agencies and processes.” For this reason they were in need of greater regulation.” Hartman’s inventive, impressionistic, fluid approach to interpreting the archive has solid underpinnings drawing on the work of academics like Hazel Carby and frameworks from cultural studies such as Roland Barthes’s ideas about image and meaning. I found Hartman’s book fascinating and powerful although her decision to foreground storytelling over the factual could be a little bewildering at times - I sometimes had to check on the background, timelines and context for the places and people she’s talking about here. Hartman also raises important questions about how we recover lost histories or resurrect voices that were silenced or just never heard, or understand the intricate realities and everyday, social interactions of communities who were continually held to account but rarely allowed to account for themselves.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

    The Great Northern Migration “Three decades after Emancipation and black folks had nothing. No matter. The flood of migrants did not cease, and the scramble to live did not squelch dreams of the north, the city, and the good life. All they heard back home, in dusty southern towns, were the lies and the assurances—things were easier up there and the white folks ain’t as evil. It took only a week to discover that neither was true.” ‘Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments’ is American history via Black The Great Northern Migration “Three decades after Emancipation and black folks had nothing. No matter. The flood of migrants did not cease, and the scramble to live did not squelch dreams of the north, the city, and the good life. All they heard back home, in dusty southern towns, were the lies and the assurances—things were easier up there and the white folks ain’t as evil. It took only a week to discover that neither was true.” ‘Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments’ is American history via Black biography. It’s an examination of ordinary women surviving extraordinary bigotry, brutality and hardship. From the “negro tenements” of Philadelphia to the workhouses and reformatories of New York, black women with no financial resources either improvised or unraveled. There was no third option. “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.” Through her research, Hartman commits to posterity a few life histories that some people today (see: “The 1776 Commission”) would rather we all forget. Rest assured, there are no mundane stories here. Although most of these women—housemaids and chorus girls, cooks and prison inmates—you have never heard of, some of these women, thanks to Hartman, you will never forget.

  6. 4 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.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Severine

    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.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Reggie

    Saidiya Hartman made sure that women who deserved their place in history got it. Can't do anything but commend her for that. YouTube https://youtu.be/iETGzuxGdCo Spotify https://open.spotify.com/episode/07lC... Saidiya Hartman made sure that women who deserved their place in history got it. Can't do anything but commend her for that. YouTube https://youtu.be/iETGzuxGdCo Spotify https://open.spotify.com/episode/07lC...

  9. 5 out of 5

    Vartika

    One of the finest pieces of feminist scholarship to come out of North America in recent years, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments pushes at the edges of dominant historiography and storytelling to bring to us lost voices from a chorus of forgotten, ordinary black women at the dawn of the 20th century. The emphasis, here, is laid on their nature as lost: Hartman uses critical fabulation to locate their lives between the absences and indictments of the archives, where they exist only as the diso One of the finest pieces of feminist scholarship to come out of North America in recent years, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments pushes at the edges of dominant historiography and storytelling to bring to us lost voices from a chorus of forgotten, ordinary black women at the dawn of the 20th century. The emphasis, here, is laid on their nature as lost: Hartman uses critical fabulation to locate their lives between the absences and indictments of the archives, where they exist only as the disorderly and criminal 'cases' recorded by the police and by the sociologists aiding them. Her intention is, as she says elsewhere, "both to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling." While the voices themselves are irrecoverable, Hartman's efforts seek to approximate the tenor of these women's lives. Though a self-conscious blending of the speculative and narrative power of literature with archival research, this book attempts to turn these elusive figures, the subjects of numerous moral panics and status crimes, into fully-formed subjects with hopes, dreams, and their own ways of understanding and thriving in the world. Here, Hartman follows other critical-race scholars (through echoes of Hortense Spillers and a brilliant use of italicisation as citation) in tracing the difficulties and sham of a 'post-Abolition' America that imposed mores of white respectability on coloured folks deliberately excluded and segregated from it. She invites us to see ordinary black women's rejection of 'traditional' family and gender roles, their embracing of free and queer love, their commitment to mutual aid and community, and their refusal of demeaning work—their waywardness—as creative forms of fugitivity and survival. In fixing scholarly attention on the embodied refusals of ordinary and errant black lives (public intellectuals like W.E.B DuBois, Victoria Earle Matthews, and Mary White Ovington are included only as ways to better illuminate the substance of these lesser-known ones), Hartman highlights their radical potential and position as everyday revolutionaries. She articulates what was commonly seen as a dangerous excess as a commitment to beauty, not as "a luxury" but rather "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." If this last quote is any clue, the brilliance and beauty of this book lies both in the stories it chooses to tell, and in the ways it tells them: the lyrical writing, the juxtaposition of unlabeled images, and the weaving of famous words through stories of quotidian experiences to heighten the everyday as a site of resistance, recorded and otherwise, all make Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments into an unmissable, extraordinary work of historiography. This is a book that wills you to question the conditions of 'freedom' afforded to non-white and non-normative lives today, to question the construction of progressive movements as initiatives of whiteness, to question history and dig into its deep and deliberate recesses for impossible pasts and the possibilities for a future. This book should be required reading for anyone broadly interested in American history or black feminism (remember: neither exists without the other), or in archival interventions and potentials. It is a generative promise and a meticulously-research affirmation of Otherwise, and I can not recommend it enough.

  10. 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.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    Phenomenal. Beautiful and laceratingly powerful. A text which blurs the genre boundaries in wonderfully inspiring and illuminating ways, allowing a glimpse of lives long lost but still whispering, singing from the gaps between the words of their oppressors. Reading sources against the grain, using empathetic imagination to suggest possible truths where no record remains. Highly recommended.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ellie

    This is a difficult book to summarize--it is an often poetic rendering of the horrors of racism, primarily in New York City at around the turn of the last century. I felt particularly saddened and horrified by the viciousness of the racism in my own city, by the gratuitous cruelty and targeted punitive actions taken by both institutions and individuals. But Hartman relays these horrors in the context of individuals attempting to find a way to live and be true to themselves in an extremely hostile This is a difficult book to summarize--it is an often poetic rendering of the horrors of racism, primarily in New York City at around the turn of the last century. I felt particularly saddened and horrified by the viciousness of the racism in my own city, by the gratuitous cruelty and targeted punitive actions taken by both institutions and individuals. But Hartman relays these horrors in the context of individuals attempting to find a way to live and be true to themselves in an extremely hostile environment. As black women, many of whom are gay, they have few rights or protections but still a powerful longing to be free and live their lives passionately and fully, even when all that is wanted is to be simply left alone to love and live. The book begins with a chorus describing life in the tenements and slums. The people are interchangeable. As the book goes on the lens focuses in on individuals. I was delayed and often sidetracked as I paused to find out more about the real people who appear--Gladys Bentley, a singer and piano player, a gay woman who dared to perform wearing men's clothes, Moms Mabley (whom I remembered hearing in my childhood) and other actresses, singers, businesswomen and more. And contrasted with the successful women--some of whom, despite their talents and success still died in destitution are the stories of the unfamous. Women who served time in the nightmare of the Bedford Hills reformatory, where they were continuously ill-treated and tortured. Their crime? Wayward behavior--not listening to parents, being seen with men not their husbands, behaviors that indicated to the current powers-that-be that they (a disproportionate share of whom were black) were headed in the direction of criminality. For the possibility of future criminal behavior--and that behavior being prostitution--they were sent away for three years. These are stories of continual resistance to a world that rejected, subjugated, controlled and in every way worked to prevent black women from simply being themselves. A beautifully written and passionate work.

  13. 5 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

  14. 4 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. 4 out of 5

    Obsidian

    I loved this though I found the audio a bit hard to get into. I would prefer the book, but it cost a bit more than I was willing to pay. My library had the audio so I got this. I thought the themes that Hartman gets into definitely resonate. I can't say anything better than my buddy reader friend here though, check out Christine's review. I loved this though I found the audio a bit hard to get into. I would prefer the book, but it cost a bit more than I was willing to pay. My library had the audio so I got this. I thought the themes that Hartman gets into definitely resonate. I can't say anything better than my buddy reader friend here though, check out Christine's review.

  16. 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.

  17. 5 out of 5

    danny

    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.

  18. 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.

  19. 4 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.

  20. 4 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.

  21. 5 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.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Beverly

    thoughts coming shortly

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jimmy

    Sometimes Hartman is so poetic about something so simple, that I find myself wary, wondering if she's conflating what's actually there. For example, in the chapter titled "An Intimate History of Slavery and Freedom," I think: Mattie is simply a young black woman who is being courted, and she gives in to her desires, has sex with Herman Hawkins, an older black man. Is it really as Hartman says: a revolution? A sexual revolution that predated the age of the Gatsbys? Hasn't there always been this r Sometimes Hartman is so poetic about something so simple, that I find myself wary, wondering if she's conflating what's actually there. For example, in the chapter titled "An Intimate History of Slavery and Freedom," I think: Mattie is simply a young black woman who is being courted, and she gives in to her desires, has sex with Herman Hawkins, an older black man. Is it really as Hartman says: a revolution? A sexual revolution that predated the age of the Gatsbys? Hasn't there always been this rebellion, this desire and want and self discovery even during slavery? Is it a sign of a bigger societal movement? Later, I'm convinced; she's convinced me. The limits placed on black women at the time meant any small act of self-assertion needs to be celebrated as potentially radical. And it's beautiful the way Hartman writes about it. She doesn't write like a historian even though she is writing history. She writes like a poet or a novelist. It's powerful how even in the budding discovery of her wants and desires, Mattie, who is not allowed to have agency in any other part of her life, who is conscripted to the servant and whore roles, is finding out who she is through her sexuality. But I love how Hartman reminds us that it's never really as simple as that. Even in this personal realm of desire, it's not a complete liberation and empowerment. The man has nudged her into her desires. Not that she didn't have desires, but he talks dirty to her despite her telling him not to. We're perpetually wading into those shades of gray, where consent is not clear. Even here with a black man in the privacy of love, she is being dominated, she is not the one with power. Perhaps the man "trained her to want what she didn't," Hartman wonders. But within that less than ideal dynamic, or despite it, there is for her still a discovery, rebellion, liberation. Complicated, but true. I loved the way Hartman teases out these shades and subtleties of right and wrong. Of right within wrong. Of joy within poverty and servility. Of love within the hallways and doorways. Moments of life glimpsed outside of tragedy. Hartman is careful not to write a narrative that pornographies black suffering. She wants to acknowledge suffering but also acknowledge the joy, the life and human spirit that rises up despite it. That black lives were here despite being dismissed as a footnote, as minor nameless figures in photographs. It becomes more complicated: Mattie gives birth to a stillborn girl. She was a minor when they had sex, and now a social worker wants her to charge Hawkins with statutory rape. Consent "was the way to shift the burden of criminality from her shoulders to his." It made me think. On the one hand I agree that this WAS statutory rape. On the other hand, it wrenches the power from Mattie. Before, she had agency, she desired something, even if it lived in the gray regions... now in the light of the law, she never even had the right to consent to desire it. Her power had been taken from her in both situations. I focused this review on only one small chapter of this book, but it's representative of the types of quiet revolutions and acts of bold living from otherwise unheard of black women throughout this book. Impressively, Hartman teases these stories out of dry police reports and biased accounts of crime written by white people long long ago, and re-infuses them with life and the living.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Bri

    Sadiya Hartman’s writing is next level! I enjoyed everything about this book: how Hartman beautifully renders and ponders the lives of every day Black people determined to create more for themselves in the early 20th century, the focus on art and queer entertainment as an escape, a means of resistance and freedom, and the examination of state surveillance as a means of social control in the “Black Belt” during this time. Hartman really brought people’s histories to life for me, and she made some Sadiya Hartman’s writing is next level! I enjoyed everything about this book: how Hartman beautifully renders and ponders the lives of every day Black people determined to create more for themselves in the early 20th century, the focus on art and queer entertainment as an escape, a means of resistance and freedom, and the examination of state surveillance as a means of social control in the “Black Belt” during this time. Hartman really brought people’s histories to life for me, and she made some critical points about how women resisted sexual, personal, and physical exploitation when everything was designed to violate and destroy them. This book is definitely one of the best non-fic I’ve read this year. I cherish it.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Christine

    Currently there is a bunch of idiots who are protesting the teaching of Critical Race Theory in k-12 schools, where, in fact, it is not being taught at all. What these idiots who are mostly likely really racists are protesting is the teaching of American history in all its highs and lows and the inclusion of people who are not white as well as the fact that racism was and still is. Hartman’s book is part of this needed correction to how history was taught in many years. It is important to know a Currently there is a bunch of idiots who are protesting the teaching of Critical Race Theory in k-12 schools, where, in fact, it is not being taught at all. What these idiots who are mostly likely really racists are protesting is the teaching of American history in all its highs and lows and the inclusion of people who are not white as well as the fact that racism was and still is. Hartman’s book is part of this needed correction to how history was taught in many years. It is important to know and to understand how certain segments of our population were/are treated by society at large. This includes people of color, women, and the LQBITQ+ groups as well as others. It includes acknowledging that say the Kennedy experience of America is vastly different than that of say Ida B. Wells. Hartman’s recent book might not be a history book in the traditional sense of the term. Given her subject matter complete historical records are not something that would be available. In the book, Hartman reconstructs, as much as she can, the lives of Black Women, lower class black women, in NYC and Philadelphia during the early 1900s. Hartman’s focus is primarily on those women who lived outside the constricting lines that society (largely white) drew to contain them. Yet these women, in a variety of ways, rebelled against those constrictions. These are the women who because they were black, female, and poor did not make it into the history books. Yet to not the history that their lives representations is to have an incomplete picture of not only the history of Black women in America in particular, the history of women in American in general but also of racism. In her beautiful prose, Hartman chronicles the lives of women who had multiple relationships but who were not prostitutes, of women who lived as men, lesbians, those who found themselves confined to reformatory centers because of behavior deemed “immoral”. While not a history in a traditional sense, particularly in the detailing of the individual stories – take for instance the story of the naked Black girl in a Eakins photo. There is no hard proof for what Hartman speculates, though her speculation is backed by the fact of Eakins abuse of women. Her placement of women in the larger historic and social tapestry, in particular in regards to the actual numbers of women w ho were sent to reformatories or who where charged is strong enough support that her freely acknowledged suppositions most likely are correct. This book is an engrossing look at those women history wants to disregard and forget.

  26. 5 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.

  27. 4 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.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Mel

    REQUIRED. READING.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Megan

    Trigger warning: rape, racism, abuse, sexual assault, child pornography, prostitution, mentions of lynching, I really wanted to like this book, and there were sections in it that were awesome. The chapter on La Bentley sticks out to me. However, the book itself was very difficult to read for me personally. The sentences were often long and full of different clauses. Several sections seem to be more like poetry than historical writing, which makes it challenging to understand the story of what’s Trigger warning: rape, racism, abuse, sexual assault, child pornography, prostitution, mentions of lynching, I really wanted to like this book, and there were sections in it that were awesome. The chapter on La Bentley sticks out to me. However, the book itself was very difficult to read for me personally. The sentences were often long and full of different clauses. Several sections seem to be more like poetry than historical writing, which makes it challenging to understand the story of what’s going on. An example of this is on page 117, where the author says, “The arousal of the senses unrestrained by the faculty of judgement created an “aesthetic insensibility” which yielded a destructive sensuality and encouraged the appetite for greater and more intense sensory experiences, guided only by “dumb and powerful instinct” and “without awakening the imagination or the heart”.” That kind of sentence really limited my understanding of the author’s point in the book and the book is filled with them. If you can understand that kind of writing, more power to you and this is the book for you. Each chapter focuses on a different black woman from the early twentieth century, which is fascinating, but the chapters often jump around, so that the story is told out of order, which is confusing. A woman is a teenager, then an adult, then a child, then a teenager, then a slightly older adult all in the span of a single chapter. Overall, I’m not sure I would recommend this book unless you can handle academic and poetic writing.

  30. 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.

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