Monday, March 1, 2021
McClain Reviews Hartman's Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval
Linda C. McClain (BU) has reviewed Saidiya Hartman's Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019) in JOTWELL:
Saidiya Hartman opens her powerful and lyrical Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval with an epigraph from Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen’s Quicksand: “She was, she knew, in a queer indefinite way, a disturbing factor.” As I read Hartman’s brilliant narrative recreation of the voices, words, and intimate lives of “young black women,” at the turn of the twentieth century, as they sought “to create autonomous and beautiful lives, to escape the new forms of servitude awaiting them, and to live as if they were free” (P. xiii), another Harlem Renaissance novel came to mind: Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral (1929). The desire to live free also preoccupies Angela Murray, the young Black woman whose own intimate history and experiments in living are at the center of Plum Bun. While Murray has more economic and family resources and class privilege than the young Black women whose lives Hartman makes palpably and poignantly real to readers, this fictional heroine and these women alike perceive the bar that “the color line” poses—at every turn— to living “as if” free. “Freedom!” is the most frequent “note” in the “melody of living” of which Angela dreams, and she perceives that “[c]olour or rather the lack of it seemed . . . the one absolute prerequisite” to that dream life and to the “difference between freedom and fetters.” (Fauset 13, 137.)
As a family law scholar, I found sobering how Progressive-era social reformers in Northern cities viewed maintaining segregation and preventing “interracial intimacy or even proximity” as necessary for public health and morals: “the Girl problem and the Negro problem reared their heads” together, finding “a common target in the sexual freedom of young women.” (P. 20.) Further, vice commissions diagnosed interracial association as “disorderly” even when the purpose was “to undo the color line.” (P. 249.)
The book is a tour de force in its richly and vividly imagined narratives, which allow these young Black women hitherto “credited with nothing” and “deemed unfit for history” to emerge with agency and vision—as “radical thinkers who tirelessly imagined other ways to live and never failed to consider how the world might be otherwise.” (P. xv.) Part of that quest, Hartman persuasively shows, is the desire for aesthetic beauty and pleasure. As Professor Eddie Bruce-Jones observes, in showing “why beauty is a vital component of the narrative,” Hartman has also “created a beautiful experiment of her own.”
“The beauty of the chorus” is a phrase Hartman uses skillfully to portray the goals of women like Mabel Hampton, who left domestic service – the expected employment for young Black women – to pursue romance and adventure through joining a chorus line and dancing in cabarets, where she could shake off (however briefly) the “assault of racism.” (P. 307.) Mabel’s intimate experiments in loving other women also dared to cross the color line. Hartman places Mabel amidst a “glamorous world” of other Black women, such as Gladys Bentley, Jackie Mabley, and Ethel Waters, whose artistic lives defied gender and sexuality conventions. Mabel’s chorus line did not lead to the concert career she sought; instead, in middle age, Mabel faced the fate she evaded as a teen: entering the “Bronx slave market” for day laborers, “settled on a crate among the group of domestics as they waited for housewives from Yonkers and Westchester.” (P. 343.)
Read more here.