Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments | Saidiya Hartman

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments | Saidiya Hartman

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Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals

464 pages | W. W. Norton & Company

In wrestling with the question, "What is a free life?" 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. Beautifully written, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments narrates the story of this radical transformation of black intimate and social life. It re-creates the experience of young black women who desired an existence qualitatively different than the one that had been scripted for them, and, for the first time, credits them with shaping a cultural movement that transformed the urban landscape. Through a melding of history and literary imagination, Wayward Lives seeks to recover the radical aspirations and insurgent desires of these young women.


"Saidiya Hartman's Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is poetic history—she excavates the lives of Black women living in cities at the beginning of the 20th century, women seen in just fragments in archival documents, and elaborates their interior lives. The women are all real women, but their full stories are lost because of the ways in which histories of African Americans so often focus on repeating narratives of "deviance" and dysfunction. Hartman reveals these women living riotous lives which push against expectations of race, gender, and sexuality. This is a beautiful and hypnotic book—asking and rewarding your attention. We meet individual women and as the book builds they come together into a final chorus of voices which insist on being heard. A treasure!"
—J. Brendan, friend of Bookspace