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Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval

Book - 2019
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"A breathtaking exploration of the lives of young black women in the early twentieth century. In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Free love, common-law and transient marriages, serial partners, cohabitation outside of wedlock, queer relations, and single motherhood were among the sweeping changes that altered the character of everyday life and challenged traditional Victorian beliefs about courtship, love, and marriage. Hartman narrates the story of this radical social transformation against the grain of the prevailing century-old argument about the crisis of the black family. In wrestling with the question of what a free life is, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship that were 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. Beautifully written and deeply researched, Wayward Lives recreates the experience of young urban black women who desired an existence qualitatively different than the one that had been scripted for them--domestic service, second-class citizenship, and respectable poverty--and whose intimate revolution was apprehended as crime and pathology. For the first time, young black women are credited with shaping a cultural movement that transformed the urban landscape. Through a melding of history and literary imagination, Wayward Lives recovers their radical aspirations and insurgent desires."--Publisher's description
Publisher: New York, NY : W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., [2019]
Edition: First edition
Copyright Date: ©2019
ISBN: 9780393285673
Branch Call Number: 305.4889 HARTMAN
Characteristics: xxi, 441 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm


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Nov 01, 2020

NYRB review by Annette Gordon-Reed

Mar 31, 2019

I'm in tears. This book makes use of complexity, the unknown, visionary imagination, and relentlessly critical research in ways that I've never encountered, and uplifts queer and transgressive Black "minor figures" from underneath the erasure of Jim Crow.

Endnotes are everywhere in the text, but (like searching for the radicals who turned their backs to sociologists' surveys and "social betterment" photographers -- the predecessors of the nonprofit industrial complex) you have to sense as a reader when there's more context to uncover. The author doesn't indicate when to turn to the back of the book; you have to do that by instinct.

I wish that Hartman had used different language to describe sex workers' labor, because it's clear that she celebrates their autonomy, dignity, and struggles for survival. I also wonder why she uses "he" pronouns for Gladys Bentley at first (instead of the singular "they", maybe?), and then later uses "she" for Gladys at the end of the book -- not criticizing this choice, but curious.

Overall, this book is incredible and I'm still processing the people Hartman venerates, and the tactics she uses to celebrate their visionary optimism, deviance, and survival.


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