BOOK REVIEW: ‘Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments’ defies our usual notions of a book

In so many ways, “Wayward Lives” is a gift offered at the perfect time when, finally, the nation is engaged in a compelling conversation about race and racism.

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals
Saidiya Hartman
W. W. Norton & Company
Copyright © 2019 by Saidiya Hartman

Amidst COVID-19 and the extraordinary multiracial, multigenerational so-long-overdue response to systemic racism and state violence against people of color, I was treated to the revelation that is Saidiya Hartman’s “Wayward Lives,” which defies in so many ways our usual, pedestrian notions of a book, and our reductionist divisions of fiction and non.

“Wayward Lives” is so unrelentingly heartbreaking, such a terribly painful corrective to the mythology white folks have been treated to: our supposed exceptionalism, page by page offering up what life was really like for poor black women during the early days of the last century. What Saidiya Hartman does is to put names and faces and experiences to disabuse us of the nonsense we’ve wanted to believe was history while providing the opportunity to acknowledge how little black lives mattered then.

“Wayward Lives” is never easy. We all have our soft spots. And I’ll own mine. For me, Hartman’s unsparing but never malicious rendition of W. E. B. Du Bois was a great challenge. I had spent a year or two reading Du Bois, then helped craft a play about him for high school students. It took a bit to appreciate the critical difference between my white male understanding and hers, a combination of the great benefit of the doubt I had conferred and my own unconsciousness. Hartman, understandably, had no time for any of those excuses, for her story is indeed the story of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, a group of women the austere, perfectly put-together young brilliant black intellectual couldn’t help but find disturbing. Sadly, almost all of us are limited by time and place, and where and how we’ve been shaped. It turns out that Hartman makes an important point: If someone as bright and curious as Du Bois had trouble coming to terms with the unrelenting victimization of poor black women and the unexpected, always challenging ways they confronted that reality, imagine the failures of others. “Wayward Lives” is insistent that we see and appreciate these women. They transcend the page; they come alive, speak to us, as much theater as book, breaking the barriers between actor and audience.

Still, in many ways, “Wayward Lives” builds upon W.E.B. Du Bois’ landmark studies, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to America” (1896) and “The Philadelphia Negro” (1899). In the first, Du Bois utilized “national, State, and colonial statutes, Congressional documents, reports of societies, personal narratives, etc.” to demonstrate beyond any reasonable doubt how slavery was inextricably embedded in the very fabric of early American history, our legacy. Du Bois demonstrated: “That the slave-trade was the very life of the colonies had, by 1700, become an almost unquestioned axiom in British practical economics. The colonists themselves declared slaves ‘the strength and sinews of this western world,’ and the lack of them ‘the grand obstruction’ here, as the settlements ‘cannot subsist without supplies of them.’”

About “The Philadelphia Negro,” Hartman writes: “In the 835 hours of conversation with five thousand people in the ward … He learned far more about the Negro problem from them than he had imagined possible … In interview after interview, black folks made it clear they wanted more and deserved better than they had received … No one had ever asked them how they managed to scrape together a living, or what they wanted for their children, or what were their experiences with the white world or the difficulties they faced in trying to find a place to live or why so many lived in so few rooms …”

Two girls sitting in stairwell — Lombard Street, Cellar Living (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, Penn.

“He pored over histories of Philadelphia, reviewed three centuries of state law, consulted surveys of London and New York and Chicago, and compiled statistics about birth rates, age of marriage, births out-of-wedlock, crime, divorce, and death … He translated the stories of the ward into statistics and graphs, muting the voices and aggregating the lives of those he interviewed into a grand sociological pattern, rendering the dire conditions of everyday existence into numerical tables …”

Hartman, too, is a brilliant investigator, transforming facts and data into a three-dimensional living history. Hartman expands upon “archival documents so they might yield a richer picture of the social upheaval that transformed black social life in the twentieth century.” Using this material to make real: “The wild idea … that young black women were radical thinkers who tirelessly imagined other ways to live and never failed to consider how the world might be otherwise.” She succeeds beyond her wildest imagination, offering the opportunity to walk a block or two in their shoes.

According to the Code of Criminal Procedure, the wayward was: “Any person between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one who (1) ‘habitually associates with dissolute persons,’ or (2) ‘is found of his or her own free will and knowledge in a house of prostitution, assignation, or ill-fame, or habitually associates with thieves, prostitutes, pimps or procurers, or disorderly persons,’ or (3) ‘is willfully disobedient to the reasonable and lawful commands of parent, guardian or other custodian and is morally depraved or is in danger of becoming morally depraved,’ or (4) ‘… without just cause and without the consent of parents, guardians, or other custodians, deserts his or her home or place of abode, and is morally depraved or is in danger of becoming morally depraved,’ or (5) ‘… so deports himself or herself as to willfully injure or endanger the morals of herself and others.’”

Between 1882-1925, it was only young women who were charged: “The intent of the legislation was to police and regulate sexual offenses without the ‘stigma of the conviction of crime.’ Young women’s sexual activity, it was believed, led ‘directly to the entrance of the minor upon a career of prostitution.’ Yet such ‘protective measures’ served only to criminalize young black women and make them even more vulnerable to state violence.”

And so great numbers of them found themselves imprisoned. “The paradox was that minor infractions and statutory offenses were subject to more severe forms of punishment than actual crimes. A girl convicted as a wayward minor might receive an indeterminate sentence of three years, while a woman convicted of prostitution might receive sixty days at the workhouse.”

Real women, real stories revealing the unrelenting violence of daily life and the inhumanity of incarceration: “When the young Billie Holiday appeared before the Women’s Court after being arrested in a disorderly house, the fourteen-year-old Elinora Harris gave her name as Eleanor Fagan, which was her grandmother’s surname, and pretended she was twenty-one in order to avoid a custodial sentence of three years at the reformatory in favor of a short stint at the workhouse. As she had hoped, the judge (Jean Norris) sentenced her to four months in the workhouse at Blackwell’s Island. This sentence was a month longer than the sentence received by the neighbor who raped her when she was eleven.”

Eleanor Fagen (Billie Holiday) arrest card. 3×5 index card; Committee of Fourteen Records, Rare Books and Manuscripts, New York Public Library

“Billie Holiday described the 1920s as an awful decade for this reason: “Those were rotten days. Women like Mom who worked as maids, cleaned office buildings, were picked up on the street on their way home from work and charged with prostitution. If they could pay, they got off. If they couldn’t they went to court, where it was the word of some dirty grafting cop against theirs …” (Emphasis added.)

Saidiya Hartman makes clear the dreadful costs of being deemed wayward while demonstrating that waywardness was such a natural response to the arbitrary, inhumane treatment that marked daily life for black people. How could any feeling young black woman who still harbored hope not chafe and ultimately fight back against the injustice of systemic racial abuse?

Hartman writes: “At the turn of the twentieth century, young black women were in open rebellion. They struggled to create autonomous and beautiful lives, to escape the new forms of servitude awaiting them, and to live as if they were free. This book recreates the radical imagination and wayward practices of these young women by describing the world through their eyes. It is a narrative written from nowhere, from the nowhere of the ghetto and the nowhere of utopia … I have made use of a vast range of archival materials to represent the everyday experience and restless character of life in the city. I recreate the voices and use the words of these young women when possible and inhabit the intimate dimensions of their lives. The aim is to convey the sensory experience of the city and to capture the rich landscape of black social life.” (Emphasis added.)

And like Billie Holiday and the best of jazz musicians, her prose transcends the expected and usual: “If it wasn’t possible in Harlem, then it wasn’t possible anywhere. This city-within-the-city provided necessary refuge for dreamers, artists, strikers, migrants, socialists, landless peasants, anarchists, idlers, faggots, communists, lady lovers, and all others determined to fashion a life not brutally constrained by the color line, not broken by servitude, not cowed by white violence, not dominated by a man …”

I’ll share a few excerpts from some of the remarkable stories “Wayward Lives” offers: “Mabel delighted in not having to take care of anyone but herself, not having to defend herself from uncles and stepfathers. She had cast off the starched white maid’s uniform forever and entered a world where all the beautiful people were Negroes. Her apartment was on 122nd Street between Seventh and Lenox, and she paid ten dollars a week, which was a few dollars less than her weekly wages as a dancer. Black Broadway, which was what everyone called Seventh Avenue, was right outside her door. It was a street ‘teeming with life and blazing with color,’ and where the energy pulsing through the streets exemplified the vitality of the ordinary. The tenement blocks of Harlem were the most densely populated in the city and its population would triple by 1930. Five years later everything would explode.

“Lenox Avenue was a grand thoroughfare in which every element could be seen — fast women, petty thieves, itinerant preachers, hawkers and elevator boys, cooks and domestics, painters, writers, socialists, and black nationalists; and the dicties: the black elite, the entrepreneurs and professionals. Every hue of black folk paraded down the avenue — from eight-rock (blackest black) to the barely discernible Negroes, or, as W. E. B. Du Bois described them, whites with Negro blood … This was the multitude: the small players, anonymous members of the ensemble, common folk whose tears and laughter defined the vitality of the Black Belt, the heart and soul of the beauty and the disappointment that was Harlem. Walking down Seventh Avenue, Mabel delighted in getting lost in the crowd, in being carried away by the rush of black, brown, and tan bodies, in being one among the chorus.”

Having lived for a spell on 110th and Columbus in a New York City apartment building home to a variety of drug dealers and millions of roaches, sitting between two Harlems, I’m impressed by how Hartman captures the vitality of the ghetto, substituting veracity for judgment:

“Outsiders call the streets and alleys that comprise her world the slum. For her, it is just the place where she stays … a place defined by tumult, vulgar collectivism, and anarchy. It is a human sewer populated by the worst elements. It is a realm of excess and fabulousness. It is a wretched environment. It is the plantation extended into the city. It is a social laboratory. The ghetto is a space of encounter. The sons and daughters of the rich come in search of meaning, vitality, and pleasure. The reformers and sociologists come in search of the truly disadvantaged failing to see her and her friends as thinkers or planners, or to notice the beautiful experiments crafted by poor black girls …”

And what exactly do the tourists, the outsiders, professional and otherwise, miss? “They fail to discern the beauty and they see only the disorder, missing all the ways black folks create life and make bare need into an arena of elaboration …” (Emphasis added.)

We are in Philadelphia and New York where the North deludes itself by practicing what it imagines is a more civilized segregation: “She can sit anywhere she wants on streetcars and in theaters, even if people inch away as if she were contagious when she chooses the seat next to themIt isn’t the cradle of liberty or the free territory or even a temporary refuge, but a place where an Irish mob nearly beat her uncle to death for some other Negro’s alleged crime; where the police dragged her to jail for being riotous and disorderly when she told them go to hell, after they had grabbed her from the steps of her building and told her to move on. At Second and Bainbridge, she heard a white man shout, ‘Lynch him! Lynch him!’ after a colored man, accused of stealing a loaf of bread from the corner grocer, ran past …”

A story of Ida B. Wells: “The conductor attempted to yank her out of the comfortable upholstered chair, but when he grabbed her arm, she fastened her teeth onto the clenched hand assaulting her and bit down with all the force she could muster. She took pride in the fact that two additional men were required to assist the conductor in ousting her. She fought like a tiger. They clutched her hands and feet, dragging her through the aisle, tearing her traveling coat. She held on to the seats, scratched and kicked, but there were too many of them and only one of her. The white passengers stood on their seats and clapped when she was ejected. She was not a lady. She was not a woman. She was a Negro. The Jim Crow car had no gender designation. Ida Wells chose to exit the train rather than suffer the humiliation of the segregated coach …”

Ida B. Wells, standing left with Maurine Moss, widow of Thomas Moss, lynched in Memphis, Tennessee, March 9, 1892, with Thomas Moss, Jr. Special Collections, Research Center, University of Chicago Library

“On her way back home, she decided to hire a lawyer and fight the railway company in court … The conductor and the baggage handler might have done far worse, and the law would have permitted it. She knew first-hand the terrible things that happened to Negro women. That very day, she had read a story in the Appeal about a colored woman who had been lynched in Richmond, Virginia. Terrible things had happened in her family too … In The Free Speech, Ida Wells would write stories about the schoolgirls and domestics and teachers raped and beaten and hanged. The women of the race have not escaped the fury of the mob. She would tally the atrocities. She would make a timetable of the deaths. She would denounce mob rule, lynching, sexual violence, and the white man’s law until the death threats forced her to flee Memphis and seek exile in the north …”

And the atrocities were manifest: “Then there were the stories that made the room go silent: that woman in New Orleans murdered for living with a white man as her husband; the housekeeper lynched for stealing a Bible; the mother hanged alongside her son for the usual charge; the postmaster’s wife, Mrs. Baker, who lost her husband and infant daughter to the mob, enraged that a Negro had taken a white man’s job; the thirteen-year-old girl, Mildrey Brown, lynched in Columbia; the eight-year-old Maggie Reese raped in Nashville; Lou Stevens hanged from a railway bridge for the murder of the white paramour who had abused her; and it went on. The Red Record never ceased. More than a thousand Negroes had been murdered in six years. All the terrible things she and the other survivors would never forget no matter how hard they tried.”

So what might a young black woman might expect in life? “At Hampton Institute, bright young women and men were trained for servility. Every girl in the school received instruction in general housework. The idea of service was inculcated in every possible way

‘A Type of Negro Girl, Everyday Life at Hampton Institute’ (Hampton, VA: Hampton Institute, 1907)

Mattie had made her way to New York in search of opportunity: “None of the factories, shops, or offices would hire colored girls, especially girls as dark as Mattie. Housework and laundry were her only options … Washing, cleaning rooms, making beds, and trudging up and down the five flights of stairs in the boarding house wore her out. She hated the drudgery and boredom … After five weeks she quit the boarding house and found a new job at a Chinese laundry in Bayonne, New Jersey, which was different, but no better. The days were still long and exhausting, but now spent doubled over, pressing clothes …”

“Herman Hawkins was her first friend in New York. He worked as a waiter in a boarding house not far from where she lived with her mother. At twenty-five years old, he appeared worldly to the not yet sixteen-year-old Mattie, who, by her own admission, knew nothing at all … they were walking home through Allen Park, when Herman started talking about the things he wanted to do to her … She knew what he was saying was bad, but it also sounded thrilling …

“It is possible that Mattie experienced this opening of her desire as a refusal of all that kept her fixed in place, stuck at the laundry, chained to an ironing board, suffocating and without any possibility of change … Girls on the cusp of womanhood, young colored women like Mattie, were at the center of this revolution in a minor key … Unfortunately, the police and the sociologists were there also, ready and waiting, for Mattie Nelson on the threshold of want …

“The baby girl was born dead. He never saw his daughter. He wanted nothing to do with the child or the mother. The dead baby girl should have been the end of the business with Herman Hawkins, but because Mattie was only fifteen years old when they became lovers, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children became involved and the social worker pressured Mattie to charge him with statutory rape … For the social worker, consent was the way to shift the burden of criminality from her shoulders to his … After hearing the evidence in regard to statutory rape, the grand jury dismissed the charges against Herman Hawkins, and he walked out of the courthouse free and clear …”

But Mattie wasn’t so lucky. Another man. Another child. Another betrayal. An angry neighbor who told the police she was a prostitute: “The field investigator never found any evidence to confirm this, but the accusation exacted its damage … The sociological note appended to the case file stated: The maternal home was a poor environment. The mother did not appear to feel very keenly disgraced by daughter’s behavior. She is lax in supervising her daughter. Her immoral conduct has been repeated by her daughter. Probation officer did not believe her home would be a good place to send patient. She considered probation quite seriously because this is the girl’s first offense, but felt that the institution would be better than probation in this case. The staff agrees.

“Home”: One Room Moral Hazard (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries, Philadelphia, Penn.)

“ … had she not given birth to two children out of wedlock, had the police detective been willing to drop the charges when Aurelia Bush had a change of heart, had the probation officer not disappeared halfway through Mattie’s trial … had the superintendent of the reformatory not believed the prison a better and more nurturing environment than the average Negro home, had the officers of the court not concluded that the lives of the two Mrs. Jacksons constituted moral depravity, had Mattie Jackson been white, it is unlikely that she would have been confined to the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills for nearly three years …”

A hellish place where inmates were beaten and tortured, and any attempt to live a decent life there was regarded as insubordination: “The reporters were most interested in what happened to the white girls … Ruth [Carter ]was the first one to tell the State Prison Commission about the terrible things done to them at Bedford Hills: They were handcuffed in the cells of Rebecca Hall, they were beaten with rubber hoses and handcuffed to their cots, they were hung from the doors of their cells with their feet barely reaching the ground, they were given the ‘cold water treatment’ and their faces immersed until they could hardly breathe, they were isolated for weeks and months, confined in the cells in the Disciplinary Building … Even the State Prison Commission was forced to concede that it was cruel and unusual punishment. It was a reformatory in name only, and there was nothing modern or therapeutic about the disciplinary measures …

Alice Kennedy wearing uniform that says “4501,” case #4501 (Bedford Hills Prison Files, New York State Archive)

“When asked if hanging girls up, handcuffing them, tying them to their cots, and beating them with hoses was abusive, one matron replied: ‘If you don’t quell them or rule them with an iron hand you cannot live with these people.’ When questioned why she neglected to mention such punishments, the prison superintendent, Miss Helen Cobb, responded that she hadn’t discussed such practices because she considered them ‘treatment, not punishment’ …

“All a ‘Bedford girl’ was good for was general housework, and the demand for such labor was great. Katherine Davis, the first superintendent of the reformatory, admitted as much: ‘In placing a woman [in a reformatory] there is just one avenue open to her and that is domestic service … I usually have waiting lists for cooks, general housework girls and domestic servants of every kind’ … Serving time at Bedford made the ‘reformatory girl’ a social outcast and trained her for nothing.

“After two or three years confined in segregated housing, the black women were sent to white homes in upstate New York and forced to labor as live-in domestics … General housework was the sentence that awaited you after the first sentence had been completed. To the eyes of the conscripted domestic, the white household was an extension of the prison …”

The personal and the political: “In the twentieth century, the unregulated movement and assembly of black folks remained a matter of public safety. Gatherings that were too loud or too unruly or too queer — or venues like hotels and cabarets that welcomed black and white patrons; black-and-tan dives frequented by Chinese men and white girls or black women with Italian paramours or women who preferred dancing with each other — were deemed disorderly, promiscuous, and morally depraved …

“The Tenement House Law … took for granted the criminality of the poor and identified the diseased home as the incubator of crime. Progressive intellectuals and reformers believed that social evils emanated from the slum rather than the structural conditions of poverty, unemployment, racism, and capitalism … Any young woman residing in a tenement who invited a man into her home risked being charged with prostitution …”

By 1914, “Thirty-six percent of these convictions were of black women. They were the largest single group prosecuted under this rubric … In 1915, the criminal code was amended again to “simplify” or streamline the evidentiary requirements, making it easier to arrest and prosecute young women on suspicion of prostitution. To secure conviction, all that was required was the officer’s testimony ….”

“Wayward Lives” is a story of unrelenting state violence, but it’s also the story of rebellion. At Bedford Hills: “the inmates had grown weary of gratuitous violence and being punished for trifles, so they sought retribution in noise and destruction. They tossed their mattresses, they broke windows, they set fires. Nearly everyone in the cottage was shouting and screaming and crying out to whomever would listen. They pounded the walls with their fists, finding a shared and steady rhythm that they hoped might topple the cottage, make the walls crumble, smash the cots, destroy the reformatory so that it would never be capable of holding another ‘innocent girl in the jailhouse’ … Songs and shouts were the instruments of struggle. Terms like ‘noise strike’ and ‘vocal outbreak’ described the soundscape of rebellion and refusal … Before the riot was quashed, its force touched everyone on the grounds of the prison and as far away as the tenements, rented rooms, and ramshackle lodging houses of Harlem, Brooklyn, White Plains, and Staten Island …”

Hartman puts this in context: “The noise conveyed the defeat and aspiration, the beauty and wretchedness, which was otherwise inaudible to the ears of the world; it revealed a sensibility at odds with the institution’s brutal realism. What accounts for the utopian impulse that enabled them to believe that anyone cared about what they had to say? What convinced them that the force of their collective utterance was capable of turning anything around? What urged them to create a reservoir of living within the prison’s mandated death? What made them tireless?Who else would dare believe another world was possible, spend the good days readying for it, and the bad days shedding tears that it has not yet arrived? Who else would be reckless enough to dream a colored girl’s or a black woman’s future? …

“All of the details of the nothing special and the extraordinary brutality cohere to produce a picture of the world in all its beauty and death … The collective movement points toward what awaits us, what has yet to come into view, what they anticipate — the time and place better than here; a glimpse of the earth not owned by anyone. So everything depends on them and not the hero occupying center stage, preening and sovereign. Inside the circle it is clear that every song is really the same song, but crooned in infinite variety, every story altered and unchanging: How can I live? I want to be free. Hold on.” 

In so many ways, “Wayward Lives” is a gift offered at the perfect time when, finally, the nation is engaged in a compelling conversation about race and racism. Hartman is an accomplished archaeologist, unearthing the lives of those our historians barely notice, let alone celebrate. But these women, given a second life, tell stories we desperately need to know. And these stories make so terribly clear the price black people have paid merely because they are black, and because not being white, because not being male, was in effect a sentence, to be served sometimes by living a circumscribed life, other times in jail.

Today it’s become impossible to ignore the dangers of driving while black, jogging while black, walking in one’s neighborhood while black, sleeping in one’s room while black, the dangers of being black in a white world. “Wayward Lives” makes three-dimensional the efforts of young black women a century ago to find love, rewarding work, to endure extraordinary pain, and in spite of heartbreaking terror, to defy expectations while being smarter, more talented, more exuberant than the world imagined.

In her words: “All of the details of the nothing special and the extraordinary brutality cohere to produce a picture of the world in all its beauty and death. In the whimsical girlish tones, in the loud laughter and the back-and-forth exchange of the hallway, in the girls dancing in the stairwell is a will to unsettle, destroy, and remake that is so forceful it takes the breath away, so palpable it makes you reel with pain …”

Please read “Wayward Lives.”