A Flash of Life and Light

*This post is part of our joint online roundtable with the Journal of African American History.

Photo: Billie Holiday at the Downbeat Club, a jazz club in New York City c. 1947, Wikimedia Commons)

How to contend with the impasse of history and Blackness? To attend to this question which animates Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, I want to spend a little time revisiting Barbara Christian’s “The Race for Theory.”

In that enduring essay from 1987, Christian, a literary theorist, argues “My folk, in other words, have always been a race for theory” (52). We might remember that Christian intends this efficient comment as a stay against the exclusion of Black women’s narratives from that decade’s discourse of high theory. To that end, Christian proclaims that “our theorizing (and I intentionally use the verb rather than the noun) is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, since dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking” (52). There is much to love in the way that Christian’s glosses the conceptual praxes of Black women’s writing, including how the first-person parenthetical exemplifies her argument about the dynamism of narrative. Indeed, in our glib reading of “The Race for Theory” we sometimes forget that the essay is not against theory, but wants to expand the view of what might be considered theoretical.

Revisiting “The Race for Theory,” I am struck by Christian’s insistence that Black women’s aesthetic practices could be described by their “[v]ariety, multiplicity, [and] eroticism” (59); as well as her claim for literary criticism as phenomenological and epistemological:

For me literature is a way of knowing that I am not hallucinating, that whatever I feel/know is. It is an affirmation that sensuality is intelligence, that sensual language is language that makes sense.” (61 emphasis in original)

This lushness invites us to behold the living work in Black arts, where abstraction and creativity are essential to any attempt to render Black life. Christian’s is a critical practice that wants to bear—to appreciate—the Black world imaginary instantiated by Black narrative practices.

I think of Christian’s framing as one way to apprehend what Hartman undertakes in Wayward Lives, especially in the book’s attention to the theoretical meaningfulness found in the everyday material doings of Black women and girls. Hartman highlights the astuteness of her subjects’s appraisal of the social world, especially the balance between such a world and their wild human willfulness. (In this praxis, Hartman has peers in Aimee Meredith Cox, Ruth Nicole Brown, Marcia Chatelain, Lakisha Simmons, among others.) 1 This is philosophy made of the minor, the intimate, the erotic, and it parallels the case Christian makes for “theorizing . . . in riddles and proverbs” (52), theorizing powered by narrative fluency and ambivalence. Such doing constitutes the ethical foundation of Hartman’s historiographical practice, especially following her argument for method in “Venus in Two Acts”:

How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know? . . . Or is narration its own gift and its own end, that is, all that is realizable when overcoming the past and redeeming the dead are not?” (3)

These questions reject the ideal of history as objective (a posteriori) and revels in disciplinary transgression “to write a romance that exceeded the fictions of history” (9 emphases added). Said another way, Hartman makes a call for voluptuousness which she enacts through narrative strategies (the subjunctive, fabulation, romance). In Wayward, this ethos is extended beautifully in “A Note on Method”:

This book recreates the radical imagination and wayward practices of these young women by describing the world through their eyes. It is a narrative written from nowhere, from the nowhere of the ghetto and the nowhere of utopia. . . .” (xiii)

To me, Hartman theorizes in a Barbara Christian way, where the conceptual claim doesn’t presume to contain the life that is its referent, where the life referenced is big enough to sustain a claim. She mobilizes the anecdotal—and here I mean the anecdote as a nearly trivial, nearly casual fleck that radiates differently than a full proper telling—as a location of “wayward” intellection. The evidence is there in Wayward’s many examples: fifteen-year-old Mattie Nelson “on the threshold of want” who leaves Virginia for New York (61); Esther Brown who refuses to be grateful to cook and clean for white people, who “preferred strolling along Harlem’s wide avenues” (234); or the vital slim cameos that Billie Holiday (as Eleanor Fagan) and W.E.B. DuBois make, how lively their being appears through anecdotal wisps rather than through grand public offices. 2

Hartman’s is a book of the anecdotal, choreographed scenes of the ordinary, 3 poetic ecstasy of breath, but finally and most of all, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, in its inclination toward aesthetic dynamism, is a strikingly rendered historical novel. It enacts what Toni Morrison, our now-gone giant thinker, said about narrative in her Nobel Lecture, in that moment when the young children, frustrated with the old woman’s silence, demand that she mobilize story as a stay against the terrible:

Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem full of vitamins, no history connected to experience that you can pass along to help us start strong? [. . .] Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.” (205-6 emphasis added)

“Narrative is radical,” Morrison always seems to tell us and Hartman takes her at that word as Wayward swells with aesthetic abundance: like anaphora that threads one sentence to the next 4 or that does its compounding within a single line; 5 like the way Hartman’s prose integrates iconic epigrammatic phrases from Black women’s literary canon. 6 The writing here is luminous, efficient in its intelligence, though intelligence is not its single aim; no, Wayward is after the glimpse of Black girl/female life as alive, living, lived—as still alive, even in the midst of tender peril and perilous tenderness.

This is mighty work. And in its might, one longs for Hartman to write the companion essay, about the method of Wayward, something that extends the brief opening to the current book. One longs for her to tarry with the decisions and ambitions that amplify the beholding she undertakes in the book. For example, I want to know more about the choice to publish—and the manner of reprinting—that image of the young Black girl on the horsehair sofa in “A Minor Figure,” especially since Hartman has declined from such presentations before. 7 Is it that the world of the book could sustain this and other tender moments, that the whole of it is a cushion of regard so that the visual and narrative apparatuses would not conjure only the pornotropic? Is there a praxis of elision, or something else, at work in this moment and other moments? Is elision not even necessary, and if so, why or how? One longs to hear from this master writer on this thinking/doing. I wonder, too, about the foreclosed poetic explication of work in the chapter “Manual.” That is, I know how Black women’s labor has languished unacknowledged and has conspired with—even constituted—violence in modern institutions, but something about these stories, something of Hartman’s own elegant doing seems to suggest other possibilities for the word “manual,” that which is of and in the hands. 8

There are no answers, surely, and if Wayward is a novel, then it can’t provide answers. It is a congregation (“chorus”) of stories that offers what stories do: a glimmer or flash of life and light, an approximation of life that is not at all life itself. Hartman’s richly contextualized telling exemplifies the erotic practice of beholding story’s intimacy, the pleasure of the literary that Barbara Christian believed in.

  1. See Aimee Meredith Cox’s Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship (Duke UP, 2015) Ruth Nicole Brown’s Hear Our Truths: The Creative Potential of Black Girlhood (University of Illinois Press, 2013), Marcia Chatelain’s South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration (Duke UP, 2015), Lakisha Simmons’s Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans (University of North Carolina Press, 2015), among others.
  2. Think of the anecdote’s whispery force in Michel Foucault’s “Lives of Infamous Men,” what he calls “flash existences (and) poem-lives” (159). In thinking about the anecdote, I am drawing especially on David Wills’s “Passionate Secrets and Democratic Dissidence,” especially pages 22-24 (Diacritics, vol. 38, nos. 1-2, Spring-Summer 2008, pp. 17-29. See also Jane Gallop’s Anecdotal Theory (Duke University Press, 2003), especially for its suggestion that the anecdote merges the literary and the real; and Joel Fineman’s essay “The History of the Anecdote,” (in The Subjectivity Effect in Western Literary Tradition: Essays toward the Release of Shakespeare’s Will, MIT Press, 1991), especially pages 61-62. (Gallop reads Christian and Fineman together but only briefly.)
  3.  I am using the term “scenes” in accord with Hartman’s conceptualization of that word as a hermeneutic; see Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010).
  4. See, for example, page four: “It is a human sewer populated by the worst elements. It is a realm of excess and fabulousness. It is a wretched environment. It is the plantation extended into the city. It is a social laboratory.”
  5. See, for example, page 109: “After he left Philadelphia for Atlanta, after Sam Hose has been mutilated and lynched and his knuckles put on exhibition at a grocery store on Mitchell Street, after Du Bois’s firstborn had died, after an epidemic or rape and lynching, after sitting on the front steps of his home in Atlanta with a Winchester cradled in his arms in anticipation of the white mob, after the Red Summer of race riots, Du Bois would be able to recognize this tumult and upheaval, this rush to the city, as a way of contesting slavery in all but name” (emphases in original).
  6. For example, Audre Lorde (22, 29, 60), Gwendolyn Brooks (23, 235), Toni Morrison (60), Lucille Clifton (236)
  7. I am thinking of the case she makes about Aunt Hester in Scenes. Notable, too, is Fred Moten’s declining to reprint the same image in chapter five of Black and Blur (Duke University Press, 2017).
  8. I am referencing, obliquely, the idiom of hands in Morrison’s “Nobel Lecture” and in the closing line of her novel Jazz (Plume, 1992).
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Kevin Quashie

Kevin Quashie is a Professor of English at Brown University and teaches Black cultural and literary studies. His most recent book, The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2012), examines quietness as a metaphor for inner Black life and as a method of expression for Black culture. He is also the author of Black Women, Identity, and Cultural Theory: (Un)Becoming the Subject (Rutgers University Press, 2004) and co-editor of New Bones: Contemporary Black Writers in America (Prentice Hall, 2000). He is currently writing a book on Black aliveness. Black feminist/women's studies has long been central to Quashie's thinking about Blackness. He also writes and teaches on Black queer studies and on aesthetics.