Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments
Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval
by Saidiya Hartman
Pub Date 19 Feb 2019
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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 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.
About the Author: Saidiya Hartman is the author of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route and Scenes of Subjection. She a Guggenheim Fellow and has been a Cullman Fellow and Fulbright Scholar. She is a professor at Columbia University and lives in New York.
“Ambitious, original…a beautiful experiment in its own right.” - Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts
“A startling, dazzling act of resurrection…Hartman has granted these forgotten, ‘wayward’ women a new life…[She] challenges us to see, finally, who they really were: beautiful, complex, and multidimensional—whole people—who dared to live by their own rules, somehow making a way out of no way at all.” - Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow
“Wayward Lives is a series of adventure stories that takes the reader through the travails and triumphs of a multitude of black women as they negotiate the perilous path of self-discovery at the turn of the twentieth century. In her impeccably researched new book, Hartman breathes glorious life into these true survival tales with the precision and invention of a master storyteller.” - Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Sweat and Ruined
“[Hartman] uses the weapons of lyric and literature to steal ‘colored women’ away from the grasp of white lawmen and the clinical gaze, and along the way gives history what it lacks and wants—black women as secret agents of destiny, deep lives from the unnamed crowd, and underground sinners as the true sponsors of social change.” - Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family
“A love song to the wayward, a riotous poem, a lyrical homage to the minor…This book changes everything.” - Jack Halberstam, author of Female Masculinity and The Queer Art of Failure
“A masterpiece…The wayward lives and beautiful experiments in which Hartman is interested can only be described…by joining the experiment, by engaging in its hard-won freedoms, its autonomous profligacies, its shifting directions…A truly great and groundbreaking book.” - Fred Moten, coauthor of The Undercommons and author of The Feel Trio
“Saidiya Hartman is a giant among American thinkers. No one else sees like she sees; her scholarly vision is uneclipsed. With the power of her mighty intellect, she creates ideas that illuminate and haunt. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is another singular, unforgettable Hartman achievement.” - Elizabeth Alexander, author of The Light of the World