Craft Episode 9: Saidiya Hartman
By Wasafiri Editor on September 28, 2022 in
Welcome to Craft. Each month we bring you one international writer, talking about one of their works for about thirty minutes. This month, literary scholar and cultural historian Saidiya Hartman discusses her groundbreaking work, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals. The product of extensive archival research into the stories of everyday African Americans after US emancipation, Wayward Lives is dedicated to those who are largely absent from historical accounts. In this episode, Saidiya discusses how she overcame history’s silences to craft a book that commemorates those who would otherwise escape commemoration.
Keep your name out of the police register. Hold the pass at a safe distance. Forget what grown men did to girls behind closed doors.
The names and the stories rush together. The singular life of this particular girl becomes interwoven with those of other young women who crossed her path, shared her circumstances, danced with her in the chorus, stayed in the room next door in a Harlem tenement, spent sixty days together at the workhouse and made an errant path through the city.
Without a name, there is the risk that she might never escape the oblivion that is the fate of minor lives and be condemned to the pose for the rest of her existence.
Remaining a meagre figure appended to the story of a great man and relegated to item number 308 ‘African American Girl’ in the survey of his life and work.
If I knew her name, I might be able to locate her, discover if she had any siblings, if her mother was dead, if her grandmother was living in with a white family, if her father was a rack seller, or day labourer, or if he had disappeared.
A name is a luxury that she isn’t afforded.
Other sitters are unnamed, but they can be identified.
She is the only one who is anonymous.
When I started out to write the book, there’s a periodisation of the modern distribution of social life which takes place after World War One, and I thought no, that this radical transformation of the texture of everyday life begins earlier. And it begins in the slum. And it begins with young black women and queer folk. And it begins before Gatsby and before that narrative. So, I just set out to detail the character of that revolution of intimate life and the thought that animated these quotidian experiments.
I chose to read this passage from ‘A Minor Figure’ because this is where the book began. I encountered a photograph of a young Negro girl taking in the classic pose of the odalisque at the end of the nineteenth century, and I was so surprised and arrested by that figure. I was familiar with the other photographs of the artist, the American painter Thomas Eakins, and if you looked at the other photographs, which are very homoerotic and Whitmanesque of these kinds of lovely, young male bodies frolicking in the nude. But then I encountered the photograph of the young Negro girl, and all the taxonomies of race and gender and class and commodification seemed to fix her in place. And I wondered about her life and the life of other girls and young Black women in northern cities at the end of the nineteenth century, in the beginning of the twentieth century.
And so, the quest to produce a context for that photograph really catapulted the book. And in trying to understand her life, I reread W. E. B. DuBois’ The Philadelphia Negro. Rereading that, I thought I have to create the space of an encounter between these two figures, because, in some sense, she represented everything DuBois feared about Black life and the dangers and the violation and the sexual immorality that threatened it. And representing the girl, I didn’t want to cast her as a victim. And what I tried to do, and this is something that certainly we understand now— that sexual violence, sexual assault is not the exception, it’s the norm, and yet most of us still try to have sexual and erotic lives in the wake of certain kinds of violences. So, for me, it was also about thinking about the intimate lives of these young Black women who I describe as ‘sexual modernists’, ‘revolutionaries’, ‘erotic dreamers’, despite the very brutal order of racism, and sexism, and violence that contextualised their lives.
And someone like Gayatri Spivak will say that patriarchy is the universal condition. And so what that does is really make the lives of women and girls vulnerable, disposable, transactable, and wanting both to inhabit that structural condition, and to attend to all the ways people fight and refuse, but also attempt to escape that enclosure, that structure of confinement.
When I began writing Wayward Lives, even when I had the vaguest notion of what the book was going to be, I was really interested in the experiments in freedom that were being enacted by Black people in the wake of slavery’s formal abolition. I had written two books on slavery, Scenes of Subjection, and Lose Your Mother. And in Lose Your Mother, I spend much of my psychic life trying to reconstruct, to fabulate, to imagine the condition of captive Africans. And I had to spend a lot of time in this place, psychically, that was very dark, very painful. And I thought, ‘I can’t write another book on slavery after this journey of Scenes and Lose Your Mother.’ And so, in a way, despite understanding that structural condition, I still wanted to work from another domain, and to really think about making and doing, and the practices of everyday life that are so important not just to sustaining, to survival, but trying to make another way in the context of the enclosure.
So, I was looking through a vast archive of photographs really wanting to look at Black urban life, to look at this emergent social formation. And I should just like, underscore, like, how radical that transformation of black social life was in the aftermath of slavery’s abolition, where we have this movement away from the plantation, this movement to northern cities, and also the attempt to fashion, as well as the imposition of, social forms like heterosexual nuclear family, for example, that was considered part of that narrative of progress and the deviation and the variance of black intimate life. And rather than bemoaning those variations as a problem in the way that sociologists like DuBois, and others did, to think about the experiment that was also a part of crafting these other intimacies.
So, I was looking for photographs of Black vernacular life when I encountered the Eakins photograph, and that just really gave me an unnamed figure to start the project with, and mostly the large archive of photographs that existed were of quote unquote, ‘slum photographs’ taken by reform photographers and sociologists and social workers. And it was a framing of Black life as a problem. So, I was in the search for images that I couldn’t find easily, right? And then I had to figure out Oh, so how do I remake or break open the images that I’ve actually encountered? My attempt to break the frame of those pathologising images or those images that could only represent Black life as a problem sometimes was affected by recaptioning them, and sometimes I was able to do so by focusing on a minor figure.
So, there’s one photograph early in the book and I think the caption is ‘typical Negro alley’, were these, like, alley dwellings and certainly in the UK, it’s a transatlantic discourse. So there was the same discourse about the London poor. And in fact, Octavia Hill, the British social reformer, was very central to this discourse. But in looking at that photograph of a typical Negro alley, I detected a figure peeking out from the third-floor window looking at the reformers as they’re photographing this space and [was] thinking, ‘Oh, what is the story if we narrate the photograph from that vantage, from that view?’ And then it’s like, ‘Who are these people?’ And this look, being able to contextualise what is that imperial policing gaze? And again, that was a way of breaking open the image to watch differently from inside the image.
Ekphrasis as a method is very important to my narration and to the prose experiments. So, photographs or still images from film were really critical as a way to build a narrative. And, in fact, it took me on a quest to try to retrace the life of this young girl through serial lives. She is the figure who emerges, but she is every young woman, femme, queer person that is narrated across the course of the book.
So, I think that it was really about attending to her life and those lives that are below the grid, and imagining what I say was impossible for people to imagine and still remains, you know, difficult to imagine. To think about these young black women and queer folks as radical thinkers, as social visionaries. And I also describe them as anarchists of sorts. That was a description that was used pejoratively in the discourse. I mean, they were commonly called ‘anarchists’, or ‘living a condition of anarchy’, so I thought, oh, what does it mean to then take up that term and then to fully elaborate it? Yes, they didn’t want to be conscripted, as minimal-wage labourers; they didn’t want to be exploited; they didn’t want all of their capacity extracted in doing demeaning, socially productive labour. And in figuring out a way to try to convey her existence in these many existences because she’s a single figure, but she’s always a part of the chorus or the ensemble.
I had to do an incredible amount of archival research. This is the era when the welfare, or therapeutic, state emerges. And as we know from Foucault, what they did was to create this incredibly detailed archive of the life of the working classes. So, looking at just like thousands of the slum photographs, so I could imagine what the place was like where she lived, or studies that were as detailed as the amount of cubic feet of air in the average slum dwelling.
In ‘Venus in Two Acts’, I raise a question in that essay about what does it mean to maintain a fidelity to the limits of the archive and what are the costs of that fidelity? And there I talk about this method of critical fabulation was a way of both trying to maintain a fidelity to the limits of the archive, but still push against its limits. And in Wayward Lives, I pushed even more against those limits. And I really utilised a wide range of sources to exceed the limits of what the case file could in fact tell me about someone’s life.
So, for example, in the chapter ‘An Intimate History of Slavery and Freedom’, I focus on a young woman, Mattie Jackson. And, really I’m imagining her journey to New York City from Virginia. Although there’s no details about that journey in the case file, there are the stories of other people. And I, you know, read about the steamship, and the arrangement of cabins and all that, because it seemed like I had to capture the desire that I knew was so much a part of her journey to New York City, and that expectancy, even as there was no trace of that in the state’s file of her life. To weave together a story of all these conflicted statements about her own intimacies in sexual practice. ‘I shouldn’t have done it, I went wrong, I wanted to do it, I kept doing it.’ So, again, it seems that she had a very complex, rich, contradictory rendering of her sexual practices. And I wanted to honour that and to amplify all of those contradictions.
I think that’s almost about like decolonising knowledge production, etcetera, etcetera. What are we assuming? What hierarchies do we continue to recreate in the context of our work? What does it mean to attend to the broad field of possibility and potentiality, even in terms of our notion of something like the radical imagination.
There have been a number of really important books on the Black radical imagination and in many of those books, there’s hardly a female figure or thinker who appears. And so it just felt like how can we actually produce histories of Black radicalism, where women and femmes are so minor or absent? And that was about imagining, sociality differently. I mean, in the Hollywood biopic, there would be the great man giving a speech on the podium and the camera would be focused on him. And I was thinking, but ‘Oh, he cannot even speak unless there is the crowd, the chorus, the mass there to receive those words.’ That in fact, they provide the conditions that make utterance possible. So really just shifting those dynamics, and I want to be freer and freer in the work, and I think in Wayward Lives, I was also in the company of all of these wayward, queer, troublesome young figures who, you know, who also encouraged me and one of the things that I suspected and was really happy to find was about the show girls, who would always be on the corner of 135th Street and Lennox and listening to all the socialists, right, so that they’re stepping out the terms of one’s scripts, because they’re open to the possibilities of a radically transformed world.
And this bringing together those wayward, reckless, queer elements and thinking let’s actually amplify and give voice to their radical vision of the possible.
I did definitely decide in Wayward Lives that I was going to be involved in a much more radical experiment around thought. As much as I was involved in mining as much archival material as possible to tell her life, I still had to accept that there was so much that I couldn’t say. And for me, I’m always really working to push more and more the limit of what can be said, and also working a certain border between, like, nonfiction and the creative imagination, right? So how much can be imagined, how much can be done to produce a richer story? And I think in Wayward Lives, I talk about myself being involved in this speculative historiography, right? a speculative historical practice.
Now, I would probably even revise that and think of what I do as a kind of historical poetics, and that I’m working with historical and archival material to make and create other stories. And I have a piece of prose, which is like a manifesto called ‘The Manual for General Housework’, and it exists as like a two-and-a-half page text in Wayward Lives. That chapter began as a thirty-five-page chapter, looking at the discourse on domestic labour and voluntary servitude, I went through various legal theorists about the contract and the way domestic labour was like servitude. I read all of these sociological reports, really only to say that this is a master-servant relationship. That’s really not the relationship of a worker to an employer, and even liberal reformers said that it’s basically slavery in all but name. And so when I finished that chapter, I thought, ‘So who am I trying to convince of this?’ Certainly, for those who were conscripted as domestic workers and general house workers, they knew this. So what about if I just simply started from what they knew? And how might they say it, and that radically changed it.
So, I put the thirty-five-page chapter down, and I produced a very different kind of document. And, for me, that’s not only about another way of telling, it’s also about trying to challenge the hierarchy of knowledge production, right? And it’s about not privileging this fiction of quote unquote, ‘the general reader’, and being involved in that relationship of explanation and pedagogy for the general reader.
I’m friends with the poet Dionne Brand, and we have this running discussion about narrative, and she always says ‘Ah, too much explanation, too much explanation’. And for her there’s a certain kind of politics of explanation that’s all about coloniality, what are we explaining to whom? So, I think that my aim in Wayward Lives, and just generally in the work, is to become freer and freer, and really to let go some of that training, to let go certain modes of scholarly argumentation and evidence. I make a kind of compromise in Wayward Lives. In the form of the narrative and the prose, that’s absolutely the case, but yet I have like one hundred pages of notes. So clearly, I’m still committed to a certain kind of scholarly training: I didn’t issue the notes! And for some readers, the notes are everything. Other readers could care less.
My writing process is very intuitive. I stumble in the dark a lot and my writing practice is characterised by much failure. I produce things that do not work. And I can struggle for two or three years to figure out how to do something. When I am in a book project, I try to be at the desk at least five or six days a week. And will say, ‘Okay, see if you can work two or three hours a day.’ And then, some days I’m at the desk, like, eleven hours and I’m like, ‘Get up and walk!’, or some days I’m there, you know, an hour, and I’m just like, ‘Oh, this is so hard.’
I learn so much also about the limits of my own thinking through writing. Like, I’m working on a project now that I’ve had a lot of difficulty trying to figure out how to tell this story. And in writing, I finally discovered, ‘Oh, my framework has been totally wrong.’ And it’s not as if that framework is casual. It’s come through so much reading, and research, and reading secondary literature. But it was just wrong because it was not generative; it was actually acting as an impediment from me getting to know the figures that I’m actually trying to write about.
I had been working with DuBois, and with the journals of the rent collector, Helen Parish, and it’s always much easier to write about those who leave behind a textual trail. So, it was much easier to start with those figures, but yet those figures didn’t help me figure out the architecture of the book. And that only happened when I figured out how to tell Maddie Jackson’s story, how to render it. And, you know, I share work in progress with friends. And they were like, ‘Nope, this doesn’t work! Nope, it doesn’t work!’
And I think it because what I tried to do is to work on many levels. So, it’s not that it’s, you know, I’m simply producing short stories based upon archival sources, but really to blend the voice. So, I talk about close narration or free indirect style, like, how do I blend – or to blend this collective voicing – so that we always have story and narrative; there’s always the voice of the collective, there’s a kind of theoretical and meta-narrative voice. So, figuring out how to do that, but in a way that was still seemingly storied, it took a long time before I arrived at something that I thought, ‘Ah, this works, and this is it.’
I wish I could say that I began a project, I was like, ‘Oh, here’s my outline!’ And I just execute it. Because even if I have an outline, knowing how to execute it, figuring out what form is organic to this mode of thought, like, I mean, in some sense, like, ‘The Manual for General Housework’ it’s a critique of the command of Black women’s socially reproductive labour. I mean, one form of that could just simply be a critique, a Marxist-feminist critique, a Black-radical critique. It could be, you know, a history of domestic and constructed labour. And the form that I settled on was more like a dictionary entry, a manifesto, and a poetic utterance, and that captured something about the sociality and the critical modality that I was most committed to. So this is a long way of saying trial and error, you know?
Craft is brought to you by Wasafiri magazine and Queen Mary University of London, with funding from Arts Council England. Our theme music is by Josh Winiberg. Our logo is by Alaa Alsaraji. Emma Barnaby does our production, editing, and sound design. And the interviews and the introduction were done by me, Malachi McIntosh.
This episode is the last of our pilot season. If you enjoyed the show, do please rate and review us on your favourite podcasting app. If you’re new to us, please do explore past episodes with writers from all over the world. And, of course, check out the latest in international poetry, fiction, essays, reviews and everything else, including writing from many people featured on the show, at Wasafiri magazine. They can be found at www.wasafiri.org. That’s www.wasafiri.org. We’re all deeply indebted to all of the writers who have appeared on the show this season, to everyone who’s worked behind the scenes across all nine episodes to make the show a reality, and indebted also to you for listening. We hope to see you soon.