The Beautiful Struggle

A meditative syllabus on Saidiya Hartman’s book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval

An edited version of the Barnard Center for Research on Women’s event “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: A Salon in Honor of Saidiya Hartman” on March 4, 2019, featuring Hartman with Daphne Brooks, Aimee Meredith Cox, Macarena Gomez-Barris, and Alexander G. Weheliye, and moderated by Tina Campt.


Be with me, here at the table, in the box, with gloves off, holding the withered photograph, the dog-eared pamphlet, the crumbling letter, the fragile diary. Be with me huddling, squinting, poring, back aching, neck spasming, knees stiffening, your body carrying what others have given up. We ask questions—How did it feel? What did they want? Why did they go rather than where?—respecting their right to disappear as well as the structures of violence that accompanied this disappearance (as Jack Halberstam once put it to me). How might we handle the document differently (as we stay wary of the atrocities of the manual), move with it, fight with it, care for the people entangled in its web?

We make plans on how and when to break the glass. What are the other ways we might tell this story? What kind of preparation or study do we need to be able to embrace this “anticipatory readiness” (as Danielle Goldman might say), to play against the grain? Maybe it’s dance lessons to feel the way your own body curves along the lines of those girls in the hall who mapped it out for themselves? Maybe it’s notes on a cityscape to absorb the rugged, unpredictable geography of this location where the “forgotten but not gone” reside.

Maybe it’s a questioning of your own whole experience—the things that make you feel the fullness of life—savoring a decadent meal, swaying on the overcrowded dance floor to a deejay’s infinite beat, finding solace in the richness of art—the novels and poetry that give voice to your inner demons and utmost desires; indulging in the sumptuous objects wrought by capital; surrendering to the micropleasures of making love and how said pleasures lay claim to you, lure you into the space of alterity, push the limits of how you define your own freedom. How to square that with those who came before?

Open yourself up wide to the event, the opaque figure, the exquisite collective as far as you dare—but be all the time mindful that any quest to know, to touch, to inhabit is not only impossible but perhaps the wrong way to honor the questions that hover around and shroud the lost, the dispossessed, the disavowed. Expect to fail and then write yourself through the failure, write about it and draw truths from the conundrums.

Write with the invigorating humility that you are not alone, that you are the conduit, the surrogate, the effigy for the multitudes. You are not sovereign but nor do you to prescribe to the stark white “death of the author.”

1. Toni Morrison, Jazz (New York: Knopf, 1992).
2. Lynn Nottage, Intimate Apparel and Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2006).
3. Farah Jasmine Griffin, Harlem Nocturne: Women Artists and Progressive Politics During World War II (New York: Basic Civitas, 2013).
4. Jackie Kay, Bessie Smith (Bath, England: Absolute Press, 1997).
5. Tina Campt, Listening to Images (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).

You are writing of and for and toward the chorus, but you are also composed of it, instilled with the rhythms and luminous narrative might of a Morrisonian Jazz suite;1 buoyed up by the urgent riddle as to what Nottage’s Intimate Apparel feels like as it drapes an invisible brown woman’s skin;2 infused with the insurgent possibility of the “too-too girls” who lurk at the edges of photographs and in the fore of police blotters in Griffin’s Harlem Nocturne;3 intoxicated by the discovery of Bessie Smith’s “lost trunk,” which dazzles Kay’s imagination.4 You look out onto the vistas, across the carnage of history, surveying the scene like Carrie Mae. You see what happened and you choose to write through and beyond the cries.

6. Roderick A. Ferguson, “The Bookshop of the Black Queer Diaspora” (talk, Yale University, New Haven, CT, February 14, 2018).
7. Brent Hayes Edwards, Epistrophies: Jazz and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).
8. Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).
9. Tavia Nyong’o, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (New York: New York University Press, 2018).
10. Elizabeth Alexander, The Venus Hottentot (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990).
11. Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2010).
12. Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
13. Jack Halberstam, Female Masculinity (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998); In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press, 2005); The Queer Art of Failure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
14. Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Black and Blur (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017); The Universal Machine (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018); Stolen Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).
You turn speculation into an epistemological maelstrom, into the righteous beauty of the never accounted for, just as Campt reattunes us to another kind of grammar of the photograph that eludes the constrictions of the state;5 just as Ferguson conjures up a queer black bookshop, the place where black girl sexual radicals might read about the Other Hansberry;6 just as Edwards beckons us to tarry in the so-called “minutia,” the “minor” history of a jazz-genius matriarch’s quotidian receipts;7 just as Stewart takes us into the Micheaux picture show to locate the pleasure and joy of black movie fans;8 just as Nyong’o weaves together the Afro-fabulist angularity of black social life;9 just as Alexander climbs the scaffolding to stand beside Sarah Baartman so as to pick up her interiority on other frequencies;10 just as Wilkerson gets in the car with a black migrant fugitive and surveys the landscape of Jim Crow ruin;11 just as Smallwood breaks open the ledgers so as to illuminate the opacities of the terrible journey;12 just as Halberstam disturbs the categories of social legibility that perpetually eclipse the queer rule-breaker, the speakeasy “deviant”—first to be arrested and first to be forgotten by a history that has no place for them.13

You wring lyricism out of the condition of blackness in all its variations, modalities, structures of feeling so as to transduce the Motenian philosophies of ontological revolution and object resistance into dense, epic storytelling of another order.14
Alongside of and in deep concert with all this intellectual and artistic labor comes a work that folds together the voices of the marginal, the ones in the margins who sing in a minor key of revolution and sociocultural undoing. This act of critical Butlerian assembly, told in epic sweep and in intensely candid, brutally frank, majestically erotic prose is an execution of the ensemblic, a suturing together of archival and speculative connective tissue. It is a symphony of our collective study, an invitation to activate our mindfulness of the evidence of things not seen, and an alluring proposition to search for and locate the insistent romance, the poignant delicacy, the stubborn grace and preciousness of lifeworlds framed by the long arm of the hold.

You encourage us to aspire to make music out of the fragments: to revel in the refrain as formalistic and analytic invention—that which repeats, as Kara Keeling has noted, and that which, by virtue of repetition, the critical difference resounds. You make analytic art out of the melismatic run that piles image upon image, figure upon figure, Harlem world character alongside Philly-based antihero (the latter of whom receives both your intimate sympathy and your withering critiques). In this odyssey, you highlight anonymity here and press upon the specificity, the punctum of a seemingly familiar individual’s errant path there. You swing cinematically across the Ellisonian masses standing on the train platform in the grooves of history, swooping down to highlight an intimate struggle, a stolen pleasure, a prolonged quest. You experiment with choreography that alights from the standard program recital, that takes flight and revels in the whimsy of the unspeakably sensual. You examine the meaning of performing oneself at odds with state narrative and the cruel constrictions of the proper.

Out of all of this you bequeath to us a new genre, new methods that require us to take great care, to ask five different questions of the thing that (as Morrison said to us at the Nobel podium) we “have in our hands.” At every step, this planning, this project, this old new thing requires risk and abandon, humility (which we too often lack in academia), fearless imagination, the willingness to be vulnerable, the willingness “to not know” (as Alex Vazquez would put it), to get close and to also respect the impossible, the improbable, as well as the unfathomable distance between our time and that which we took for granted that lurks in the crucible of past, present, and future.

15. Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008); Christina Sharpe, In The Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016); Sarah Haley, No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
16. Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” Small Axe 26 (2008).
17. Kara Keeling, “Looking for M—: Queer Temporality, Black Political Possibility, and Poetry from the Future,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 15, no. 4 (2009).
Before the Wayward in its fullest incarnation, you had been creating the conditions for a different kind of thinking, writing, performing, and being from within as well as beyond the confines of the academy—from the wretched Scenes that you limned for new and necessary truths to the requiem for the ones In the Wake, the ones with No Mercy Here on the chain gang.15 Because of what you’ve already put out into the world, we have Sharpe’s ways of thinking about the long event of mournfulness for which there is no language. We have Haley’s account of sisters doing time and improvising ways to undo the tyranny of their temporality.

And the questions that you posed, arising out of the two acts that bring to the fore the crisis of Venus, have been hovering about our worlds, animating our discussions, stoking our would-be creativity as scholars, and even shaping a universe for the appearance of unruly musicians for some time now.16 Keeling’s call, for instance, to stage a “circumvention” rather than a “search” for elusive figures in her black queer feminist archive, her resolution to “look after” rather than to try and “redeem” those who remain out of sight is wholly and openly indebted to the lexicon that you shared with us in that radical meditation.17

Let me say too that without that work as well as this new gift given to us, it would be impossible for me to write about and toward the so-called “problem” of “lost” blues women in the white collectors’ archive. It would be impossible to contemplate the impulses and desire, the condition of the sister who “hoards” her 78s as a totally disregarded figure in the history of the blues. It would be impossible for me to write for and about my mother and Professor Morrison’s generation of sisters who loved music and found their way into the listening booth at the record shop as a ludic counterframework for their Jim Crow teen years.

I’m struck too by the number of artists moving to the rhythms that you’ve set into play—whether they’ve recognized it or not: Cécile McLorin Salvant, the jazz ingenue prone to dusting off the ribald and forgotten jams, the one who is invested in singing mile-long, profane, and profligate prison songs about a sister’s queer possibility behind bars; Rhiannon Giddens, the classically trained folk troubadour who uses a mistress’s letter as a gateway to the rage of the former captive who rejects the hell of the plantation; Audra McDonald, the Broadway superstar who draws on her musical-theater dramaturgy to find the ache in the bygone stage wonder of whom little is known; Valerie June, the hippie Tennessee-by-way-of-Brooklyn blues sister who pens odes to the guitar women known to few.

The age of otherwise is upon us, and this monumental work captures the feeling as well as the rigorous queries and burning concerns that drive our being and our hereness. It is a work that asks more of us as scholars, as readers, as subjects of the longue durée, the disaster of racial capitalism that has, nonetheless, wrought things of great beauty and possibility. It asks us to think many things at once—Sula in conversation with Sport of the Gods; D. H. Lawrence in conversation with Ma Rainey; Henry Miller in conversation with sweet Aida’s Salome dance, which hovers in the background of our entrée into the theater.
This is scholarship as art imbued with a kind of discursive simultaneity that yields both eulogy and possibility. A document for the not here and never was that lives fundamentally in our vivid freedom dreams. We wonder as we wander with her, as we drift across the archive, down city alleys, through tiny courtyards and up into the cramped space of tenement flats where love, danger, desire, and disturbance move in and out of view. We travel the errant path of the archivist who holds out to us a new vocabulary, who assembles a primer, who innovates a grammar, a heuristic for how to read against the framework in which these people are “bound to appear” (as Huey Copeland would put it) and also beside those people and feelings and events that remain beyond our view. We feel her throughout remaining attentive to the exercise to get a rhythm with the surplus, with the minor. And we are invited to ride that wave with her into an infinite line of questions, into the swarm, the crowd that sings out to us, “We still here.”

So what comes after? How do we teach this text of the Muñozian then and there? How do we mentor our students to learn from its avant-garde methodologies, its riotous spirit? The very fact that I felt hailed to cite that long list of fellow travelers in my thinking about this daring, pathbreaking universe of thought, art making, and analytic interrogation says to me that we might teach Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments as an example of the highest form of ethical work that we can do as “academics” (if that’s what we should even call ourselves anymore . . . ) since it models for us the process of critical amalgamation, the suturing together of an archive of voices and strivings, a cacophony of ideas, theories, and problem sets cut, cross-faded, and mixed with the voices and beings of those who were “never meant to show up here.”

The watershed moment that is this book is also indicative of where we are at in this thing called black studies, this thing called feminist, queer, and critical gender studies, this thing called American history. It sums up why so many have sought out recourse to tell different kinds of stories in urgently different, hopefully break-all-the-rules ways through different kinds of lenses.

18. Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1980); Hortense Spillers, Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Claudia Tate, Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine’s Text at the Turn of the Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Deborah E. McDowell, “The Changing Same” Black Women’s Literature, Criticism, and Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995); Cheryl A. Wall, Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
How do we teach this book? How might we use it to build new fortresses of love in the face of ever present brutalities? Perhaps we might use it as a summoning to turn our attention back to all those books that our black feminist forebears from the late 20th century—Carby and Christian, Spillers, Tate and Fagan, Smith, McDowell, Wall, and McKay—sent out into our world so that we might look after them once more.18 We might ask different questions of the powerhouse women’s work that we know so well—the beloved literature of Wilson and Jacobs, Harper and Hopkins.

We might think more about the affective labor of their writing and their activism, the details of their whole persons as they went about the business of waging war against racial terror through art, and what the sensual and the domain of their domestic meant to them while doing all that. We might return to the lesser-known material that came back to us in the eighties, works by Hallie Quinn Brown, Elizabeth Keckley, Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, and so many others that deserve our improvisational reinterrogations.

We might stare into the chasms of the unknown about actresses like Lottie Gee and phenom entertainers like Florence Mills—not to shine a light on that which eludes us but to honor the silences and make poetry in the corners of their histories.

And of course we might remain prepared for the arrival of the ones whose names we don’t even know yet, whose names we may never know but whose presence informs the very core of our existence and permeates the privilege that we bear to sit in these halls where (to quote Wesley Morris), “we weren’t supposed to show up here, and so we show up here every day.” They ask us to dance with them. This gorgeous, heartbreaking triumph of a book lays out the moves. Time to fall in step.