Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals - book cover
  • Publisher : W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition
  • Published : 14 Jan 2020
  • Pages : 464
  • ISBN-10 : 0393357627
  • ISBN-13 : 9780393357622
  • Language : English

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

Winner of the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism
Winner of the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction
Winner of the 2020 Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction
Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir/Biography

"Exhilarating…A rich resurrection of a forgotten history." ―Parul Sehgal, New York Times

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 kinship indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work. Here, for the first time, these women are credited with shaping a cultural movement that transformed the urban landscape. Through a melding of history and literary imagination, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments recovers these women's radical aspirations and insurgent desires.

67 black and white illustrations

Editorial Reviews

"I was inspired, surprised and deeply moved.…[Hartman's] mode is intimate, radical and always alive to the details."
Leslie Jamison, The New York Times Book Review

"Revelatory.… Wayward Lives is thrilling to read because it invents a genre as deft and adventurous as the lives it chronicles."
Sam Huber, The Nation

"Hartman has influenced an entire generation of scholars and afforded readers a proximity to the past that would otherwise be foreclosed."
MacArthur Foundation

"Kaleidoscopic.… In granting these forgotten women a voice, and conjuring their longing for freedom, Hartman resists the century-long diminution of their lives to social problems.… The result is an effect more usually associated with fiction than history, of inspiring a powerful imaginative empathy―not only towards characters in the distant past but towards the strangers all around us, whose humanity we share."
Joanna Scutts, New Republic

"Genre-bending literary history.… These are dishy, illuminating, and heartbreaking stories about the knotted relationship between desire and freedom."
Kat Stoeffel, Elle

"Brilliant.… A virtuosic work of scholarship that recovers fragments of the lives of women who were supposed to be forgotten. As a result of her formidable research, stunning erudition, translucent prose and bold imagination, Saidiya Hartman reanimates their lives. Readers will not be able to forget them. They will also learn much about the social forces that enabled and constrained their struggle to live in beauty and freedom."
Cheryl A. Wall, Cheryl A. Wall

"A radical, genre-defying examination of the lives of ‘ordinary' young Black women.… As is redolent of all Hartman's work, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments offers a blistering critique of historical archives as the singular or even most authoritative source of credible knowledge.… [She] implores us to pause and consider who is inside of and outside of the archive; whose voice is heard and whose voice is silenced; whose lives matter and whose lives do not."
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Los Angeles Review of Books

"This is scholarship as art imbued with a kind of discursive simultaneity that yields both eulogy and possibility.… [A] gorgeous, heartbreaking triumph of a book."
Daphne A. Brooks, New Inquiry

"A profound and painstaking act of reconstruction that renews our understanding of an era now largely faded from public memory.… A bravely wayward, unflinchingly hybrid book, perhaps best described as halfway between the novel and documentary history, b...

Readers Top Reviews

christopher clarkAny
I've never read a book that so compellingly charts the journeys of individuals through an an environment marked by violence and social change. There are panoramic overviews of the racial turbulence engulfing early twentieth-century African Americans, but also enthralling excursion into the subjective lives of individuals, captured through diaries and observations. The whole thing is carried by a Baldwinesque evocation of mattresses on fire escapes, street corner scenes, scraps of music and the communal sounds and smells from air shafts. Hartman shows how the ghetto was, on the one hand, held together by the contempt, hatred and fear of the people outside it, and, on the other, a place of personal liberation for people of colour drawn to it from small-town communities in the south. Against the backdrop of a societal macrostructure that restricted and squashed emotions and behaviour, Hartman traces the swerving, unpredictable flights of people determined to be free in their own way. An absolutely enthralling read.
What does freedom mean and look like to Black people? "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way". Viktor Frankl "Those who dared refuse the gender norms and social conventions of sexual propriety - monogamy, heterosexuality, and marriage - or failed to abide by the script of female respectability were targeted as potential prostitutes, vagrants, deviants, and incorrigible children". Saidiya Hartman. 1890 - 1935 was an evolution, a revolution of Black intimate life. A desire to live life unrestrictive in a new world - The Ghetto. Drunk with freedom, escaping lives of forced servitude. The North became an altered version of the South. The Ghetto, the slum, the tenements is in fact the plantation extended into the city. Black Folks ran from the South to the North hoping for and expecting a form of freedom and a better way of life. There were always laws that were manipulated ad lib to continue to suppress and oppress. North and South were just directions on a map. Black life - poor Black girls unable to or the beholders unwilling to view these Beautiful Lives, these Beautiful Experiments as thinkers or having the capability to contribute anything to better their lives or society. Labeled as criminals and pathology in the eyes of racist, Black Folks would continue to live defying societal norms at every juncture.
Wayward Lives is a MUST read. As the NYT Book Review says, it's exhilarating, fascinating, and beautifully written. Amazon pairs it with Toni Morrison's newest collection, and they're a perfect combo.
Saidiya Hartman has produced a gift of deep love. Her careful attention to the lives of Black women, who society has cast as unimportant, deviant, menial, and forgettable, is both a masterful, poignant mourning and celebration of persistent freedom dreams. This soulful book offers both intimate portraits and a fuller history of the social landscape of the early twentieth-century than typically disclosed. Wayward Lives is a lush elaboration of Hartman's many meditations on what is possible to uncover when the archive is scant and violent. As a writer and student, I am thankful for this book which is a masterclass. As a Black woman, I am thankful for Hartman's commitment to seeing us, caring for us, loving us, and imagining an otherwise. Wayward Lives challenges everyone to take up the work of waywardness, to commit to freedom.
This will for me be like Toni Morrison's Songs of Solomon and Alice Walker's Temple of my Familiar a book I will read over and over and each time it will be as if the first. The writing is as dedicated to the scholarly as it is to yhe fiction. Genius in its research. In it I found my grandmother I never met, and revisited my aunt I adored, institutionalized for daring to need to be free. Unfortunately we still have vestiges of the misunderstanding of non white women who dare to be ordinary, normal. Ms Hartman has added to the books written by and about African American women that have been missing. The books we yearn to read but have not been written do we must write them ourselves. The research is aggressive and brilliant. Where there are gaps, she creates the fillers. I thank her for her descriptive prose of the beauty of the the black women then snd now.