Southwest Washington, D.C. was “redeveloped” as the 1950s turned into the 1960s. In pursuit of this goal, the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency displaced 12,000 people, the vast majority of them Black, from their homes. Like all massive bureaucracies, the RLA kept track of itself, and in the mid-1960s published a report on their “Community Services and Family Relocation” efforts. One anonymous Black woman told investigators at a public forum that her search for new housing had been largely futile. When she finally got to speak to RLA officials she asked, “do you expect me to take my children out and drown them?”1
The implication of her question is emotionally, and therefore conceptually, devastating. It devastates the boundaries of liberal political discourse, which assumes that aggrieved citizens have already secured a Natural Right to live. Her question also exceeds the bounds of academic history– a discipline principally concerned with marking the discreet beginning and ending of things. When, though, is the historical turning point, the identifiable moment, when Black women have not been asked to make similar impossible choices?
Given Toni Morrison’s recent passing, readers may already be associating between my question, the one asked by the displaced Black mother, and Sethe’s answer in Beloved, a character based upon Margaret Garner, who killed her own children rather than see them live as slaves. Whether you made that association, or are making it now, you’ve stepped out of historicist time, and joined me in the moment when I encountered this record in the archive. And now that we’re here, what now? What can historians of Black thought do with records wherein historical actors precisely distill both the consequence of administrative policy in a given historical moment, and a transhistorical anti-Blackness which does not “change over time.”
Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives offers, if we dare follow her lead, a way forward. Relegating the sociological and administrative archive to the margin, Hartman narrates the lives of young Black women in Philadelphia and New York who confronted the irreconcilable paradox of Black womanhood and being in the west, with joy, laughter, rage and apathy. Thanks to a recent wave of Black feminist urban histories, we can know something of Black women’s experience in these years, but Hartman asks a more challenging question: have we felt these histories?
When Joe Trotter published Black Milwaukee—one of the first social histories of Black life written by a Black author—he announced a new impetus for Black historicist production. Namely, to demonstrate, through the social scientific method, the verifiable conditions for Black community formation. Even as Black social history has evolved from Trotter’s concern with proletarianization to today’s interest in political and cultural agency, historians continue to approach the archive as a means of making historicist arguments about Black life. In pursuit of verifiability and reproducibility, traditional social historical methods often incorporate a clinical detachment into the doing of Black history. Clinical detachment, though, comes with other risks. Namely, it risks excluding those historical actors whose behavior incites shame, a shame we explain away by saying their actions, like Sethe’s, do not “make sense.” Behavior which shocks and eludes us can easily be categorized as “not representative,” and therefore not suitable within the historical laboratory. Our social histories are filled with Black strategists, whether bent towards political power or survival. And as Hartman points out, when we do make space for acting out, we do so for Black revolutionary men, not women.
Transforming her text into an illustration of theory, Hartman presents ideas about the centrality of young urban Black womens’ experience to the history of anarchism, socialism and free love, but her text does not render those experiences as illustration of “a” or “her” thesis. Instead, she deploys literary narratives and invites us—as Toni Morrison so often did—to navigate our own connections and resonances between these stories and the “A Note on Method,” which opens the book. As she writes in that section, the “album” she has “assembled” creates an “unexpected story” that “emerges.” These terms refuse the colonialist rhetoric of “discovery” and “intervention” that underpin traditional historicism. In refusing to direct our reading via historical argumentation over the “truth” of Black behavior, Hartman gives the Black scholar permission to release his/her/their/our anxiety that readers will exploit representations of Black hedonism to further anti-Black political agendas.
Most importantly, Wayward Lives acknowledges emotion, however irrational, and however impossible to capture within the traditional archive, as a force of history. As she writes about a set of Black women prisoners who rioted in and against Bedford prison, “Love was their anchor—not a deed to a house, not property…not a mortgage…of five scrappy acres in Virginia” (269). How can this be proven? Of course it cannot be. Can it be proven that the woman quoted in the D.C. RLA report on relocation services genuinely considered drowning her children? Of course it cannot. But in posing the question, in forcing RLA investigators and historical researchers to consider her question, she forces us to contend with love as a structure which could compel a riot, drive the pursuit of fair housing, or incite behavior that we may call “self-destructive.”
In these ways, and so many others, Wayward Lives takes methodological lessons from the young Black women chronicled in the text. Hartman describes young Black women whose lives could not be categorized by sociology, criminology or anthropology, but who were captured by those disciplinary forces, and mangled in the process. Wayward Lives liberates her interlocutors from disciplinary hegemony, and invites all of us to produce historicist work that attends to the ineffable and unverifiable.
Hartman’s ambivalent relationship to historical argument invites us to consider that the distinction between the historical and the literary only represents one semantic representation of a binary we could call “the scientific” and the “fantastic” or “the verifiable” and “the rumored” or “the rational” and “the irrational,” or—my personal favorite—“the certain” and “the uncertain.” In Wayward Lives, Hartman neither indulges our desire for the certainty offered by “the scientific,” or the “verifiable,” nor accepts the premise that we can discern, grasp or historicize the supposed boundary that separates “certain” and “uncertain.” She acknowledges her use of records produced by Progressive Era urban experts, but discounts the notion that those experts actually knew anything about the young Black women they studied. In her implicit rejection of the urban clinic—itself a feature of the turn of the century city—Hartman makes it possible to see Black women’s emotional experiences as a structure of history, one that propels Black subjectivity past the paradoxes created by slavery’s associative afterlife.
- District of Columbia Redevelopment Land Agency, Community Services and Family Relocation; the Report of a Demonstration Project Carried Out Under the Provisions of the Housing Act of 1954 (Washington, 1964) 35. ↩