May 26, 2019

An Exhilarating Work of History About Daring Adventures in Love

An Exhilarating Work of History About Daring Adventures in Love

And how they leap off the page. The cast of characters includes A’lelia Walker, whose mother, Madame C.J. Walker, was one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire. Tall, imposing, terrifically rich and fond of carrying a riding crop at all times, A’lelia was notorious for soigné sex parties. There is Edna Thomas, a stage and screen actress who, at one such sex party, met Lady Olivia Wyndham, a distant cousin of Oscar Wilde, and memorable in her own right — she once cut her herself on the head and then flung herself down a flight of stairs in order to be looked after by a particularly adored nurse. (How reasonable I suddenly appear to myself.) Thomas and Wyndham lived together in Harlem, famously content for decades; newspaper articles praised their “firm friendship.”

Saidiya HartmanCreditSteven Gregory

We meet communists and chorines, anonymous women gazing into shop windows. There are the female inmates at Bedford, abused to the point of torture, who initiated a strike with the only tools they had: their voices. They sang and screamed for months in 1919, and again the following year. We see the anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells as a young woman refusing to give up her seat in a first-class train car, and a 14-year-old picked up for prostitution who called herself Eleanora Fagan (after her grandmother) and who would later be known as Billie Holiday.

“Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments” is a rich resurrection of a forgotten history, which is Hartman’s specialty. Her work has always examined the great erasures and silences — the lost and suppressed stories of the Middle Passage, of slavery and its long reverberations.

Her rigor and restraint give her writing its distinctive electricity and tension. Hartman is a sleuth of the archive; she draws extensively from plantation documents, missionary tracts, whatever traces she can find — but she is vocal about the challenge of using such troubling documents, the risk one runs of reinscribing their authority. Similarly, she is keen to identify moments of defiance and joy in the lives of her subjects, but is wary of the “obscene” project to revise history, to insist upon autonomy where there may have been only survival, “to make the narrative of defeat into an opportunity for celebration.”

Hartman is most original in her approach to gaps in a story, which she shades in with speculation and sometimes fictional imagining — a technique she has used in all her work but never quite so fully as in this new book.

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