Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

By Saidiya V. Hartman,

Book cover of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

Book description

Beautifully written and deeply researched, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. In wrestling with the question of what a free life is, many young black women created forms of intimacy and…

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Why read it?

6 authors picked Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

When I first read this book, I thought “This is the book I’ve been waiting for!” Focused on New York and Philadelphia at the beginning of the 20th century, it explores the intimate lives of Black women who have been largely invisible in Black women’s history: girls and women who did not fit the definitions of Black “respectability.” Using sources in ways creative and thrilling, it explores how those women imagined a “free life” within a world shaped by racism, sexual abuse, single motherhood, and economic insecurity. Sometimes their new forms of intimacy involved “ordinary refusals”to follow…

I’d heard a great deal of praise of Hartman’s book from artists and other colleagues, which stoked my curiosity about its hybrid form—a blend of archival research and fictional narrative. It’s a tricky combination that Hartman manages with unerring aplomb, making it seem not only viable but essential for understanding a world lost to history. Her portraits of Black women living under fairly desperate conditions in New York and Philadelphia in the first decades of the twentieth century—of the personal and practical choices they made—are precise, vivid, rousing, And I do understand why artists love Hartman: she understands that not…

This is just simply a beautiful, powerful, unique -- poetic -- book about the lives of Black women at the beginning of the 20th century in New York and Philadelphia, women who crafted their own lives, in contexts heavy with coercions and degradations. Hartman is an extraordinary writer and a gorgeous thinker.

From Rickie's list on why we need reproductive justice.

Hartman’s work of non-fiction is lyrical, breathtaking, and brave. She tells about the lives of young black women in Harlem in early 1900, from their point of view and from a point of view of agency and empowerment. She speaks of them as having made choices, not as victims. This book gave me permission to write the book I wanted to write when I wrote The Nine. Her opening “A Note on Methods” is worth reading as its own text. She challenges the limitations of the archives for the marginalized. And she allows us to imagine our way into…

“Critical fabulation”—that’s what literary scholar Saidiya Hartmann calls this book’s weave of personal, experiential, imagined, and archival elements. The form springs from the impossibility of ever fully recovering the stories of African American women through archival records. For Hartman the archive is as much about what it doesn’t contain as what it does.“Critical fabulation” is a response to those absences, a way of telling stories that concede the limits of the known and uses the imagination as a kind of restorative justice. The focus here is on young women living in Harlem in the first decades of the 20…

From Jasmin's list on reimagining BIPOC history.

The violence of the archives challenges the retelling of the lives of Black women, whose voices were rarely judged worthy of preservation by white society. Hartman makes art of the traces of the radical lives of Black women at the turn of the twentieth century, bringing her literary imagination to break open the archival traces her subjects left behind. 

From Rachel's list on reimagining biography.

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