PRINT December 2019


Pamela M. Lee

How to model kinship when Jim Crow demands otherwise? What constitutes intimacy for the legatees of race slavery and social death? The “revolution in a minor key” of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Stories of Social Upheaval (W. W. Norton) is not led by the proper names of history—traditionally a mythomaniacal retread of a heroic actor across the world’s stage. Instead, Hartman elaborates a counternarrative centered on young black women and genderqueers living in New York and Philadelphia at the turn of the twentieth century and forging their errant paths. For her many protagonists, “minor” figures all—Mattie Jackson, Mamie Sharp, Gladys Bentley, Jackie Mabley, Mabel Hampton, Marvel Cooke, and so many others—love is indivisible from survival. Their ways of being create new social arrangements; sexualities and genders play out in cabarets, rented rooms, studios, tenements, train cars, and dance halls. Collectively, their everyday lives amount to radical politics, upending the protocols of respectability elsewhere controlling black women.

The profundity of such experiments is matched in kind by Hartman’s extraordinary prose. Rent collectors’ journals, sociologists’ logs, court cases, prison files, and anonymous photos of young black women and girls comprise a dissolute archive that is both wrenching in its documenting of those treated as less than and “triumphant” for the stealth navigations of acceptability enacted by Hartman’s subjects. To be faithful to such stories requires an equally stealthy methodology. As one of our most brilliant thinkers, Hartman deploys critical confabulation and gives us poetry in the process. Wayward, experimental, beautiful, indeed.

Pamela M. Lee is Carnegie Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at Yale University.