Intimate Historical Practice

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

Photo: Ada (Aida) Overton Walker 1907, Wikimedia Commons

Saidiya Hartman has stacked archival documents neatly across multiple rooms. 1 There are few signs of annotation; few if any tabs or folders, just paper, hundreds of pages neatly assembled, and which represent only a fragment of the news articles, case files, photographs, recorded histories, sociological tracts, and journals of rent collectors that comprise her archive; an archive that is both abundant and austere. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval is in one way a meditation on the tense, violent, and generative relationship between archival deluge and dearth. Although the stacks appear uncatalogued, it soon becomes clear that they are sharply indexed in her memory. She recalls the various sentiments and ideas of members of the chorus (the crowd, the ensemble, the multitude, the dispossessed, the creators of beauty, the minor, the wayward), not in paraphrase or by general contours of experience (this happened and then this happened), but by their words, exactly, verbatim, splintered as they were in a broader landscape of historical erasure. Intimate history. Perhaps the genre of historiographic beauty—at once her own invention and a collective creation of the chorus she has assembled—requires such exacting and expansive, photographic and sonic memory; maybe the ability to recall in an instant the exact statements of so many women buried in history makes the erased and eradicated testimony more resonant. In any event, it seems the author has found her people, and she knows their songs by heart. 2

Mattie Jackson is among the librettists who contribute to Hartman’s long form historiographic song. Her search for “something else” is the subject of the chapter, “An Intimate History of Slavery and Freedom.” Hartman finds her “on the threshold of want” and, quite relatedly, “at the center of the revolution in a minor key” stubbornly desiring new forms of life beyond the bounds of law and suffocations of patriarchy and domestic servitude (Hartman, 59). In Wayward Lives “want,” “stubborn desire,” vision, rhythms, dreaminess, imagination, and practice are terms of order and history. These categories of narration and analysis contest, exceed, and derange the ditto ditto of violent details accumulated in the archive produced by sociologists, social workers, and prison authorities. Accordingly, although Mattie’s story is based upon meticulous archival research, it also must begin before the stretch of time that is delineated in verified documents such as her prison case file and it necessarily continues through modes of presentation, annotation, and narration that exceed traditional regimes of substantiation.

Many have rightly interrogated how speculative history and critical fabulation (the writing practice Hartman elaborates in her major work, “Venus in Two Acts”) serve as encounters with absence and erasure in the archive. It is true, Hartman’s work has powerfully theorized the formidable, permanent, mortal problem of archival absence. But grappling with the undisclosed is not the extent of intimate history. In the second chapter of Book One of Wayward Lives, Hartman introduces us to a young girl who, unnamed, is subjected to violent photographic capture.

“The only thing I knew for sure was that she did have a name and a life that exceeded the frame in which she was captured” (Hartman, 15).  

The statement above at once reveals the magnitude of the unknown and reflects the consequential character of a certainty that grounds Hartman’s narration and analysis: the only thing I knew for sure. If the founding violence of the archive is obliteration, the founding truth of the speculative and close narrative forms is that there is more; we might call it life, interiority, vision, imagination, desire (see above) that exceeds archival documentation and that this more is a legitimate subject of history and scholarly writing. This conviction both requires deep archival excavation and scratches at the archive’s hubristic limits; intimate history demands a public and scholarly consideration of the historical import of the more/excess that has often been rendered inconsequential or impossible, deemed exorbitant (adj.: wandering from the subject, irrelevant). It espouses statements beyond the “statement of the girl” (Hartman, 366).

Intimate history and close narration challenge the “manufactured certainties” of those who have constructed the archive and reveal the historiographic significance of another certitude. 3 This is perhaps why close narration emerges in Wayward Lives as the description of Hartman’s practice, one that appears to have developed with but is not identical to critical fabulation. Critical fabulation and close narration both “strain” or “press” at the limits of the archive; both practices amplify archival power and paucity, and both present history from divergent points of view. Yet reading Wayward Lives after “Venus” allows one to linger even further in the definiteness of what is beyond archival accounting. Guided by Hartman’s intent listening process, Wayward Lives immerses the readers in an otherwise repository of history, knowledge, and sociality.

The stakes of this project are high and extend Hartman’s longstanding, core concerns about the character of slavery. From Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route:

“The most universal definition of the slave is a stranger.”

Close narration—the vivid rendering of violation, intimacy, care, closeness, assembly, mutuality, and mutual aid that entangles the author’s voice with direct quotation and the speculative account—resists modes of estrangement and alienation upon which the afterlife of slavery depends. The purposefully beautiful, even sublime, endlessly precise, and historically rigorous narrative is a constitutive feature of this fully loaded cost accounting of intimacy as a rejoinder to the production of the slave. Its narrative location (“a story told from inside the circle”) is necessary in order to grapple with how estrangement manifests as a definitional feature of slavery and its afterlife. The intimate historical practice also reorients us toward the realm of reproduction and social reproduction; this extends her previous work (including her essay “Belly of the World” and her book, Scenes of Subjection) as well as a body of Black feminist work too voluminous to name here but acknowledged in the book’s text and notes. Wayward Lives takes readers to sites of social reproduction and reproduction (the bedroom, the clothesline, the kitchen and kitchenette), arguing that these spaces of enclosure also contain the vision and practice for their remaking.

If intimacy is a negation of slavery, it is a deeply intramural, pregnant, and historically contingent one. The point is not that the book somehow allows readers to know Mattie (or Eva, or Mabel, or Esther) as part of a liberal or romantic project of emancipation. Hartman’s body of work contains multiple (trenchant) cautions against the violence of empathy and identification.  Instead Wayward Lives intensifies an understanding of Mattie and others as thinkers and creators who explicate power and the meaning of desire, mutual aid, waywardness, relationality, and captivity.  If “we are still looking for an exit from the prison” Wayward Lives opens the door by elucidating and urging us toward practices of being wild rather than effectuating a transhistorical affiliation project (Hartman, 133).

“She did not create a poem or song or painting. What she created was Esther Brown. That was the offering, the bit of art, that could not come from any other. She would polish and hone that” (Hartman, 235).

Through Wayward Lives we come to know Esther Brown as art and artist and anarchist; she is part of a chorus that runs the streets and smashes things up, experiments in “cheap socialism” on the clothesline and elsewhere, and attempts to live Black feminist refusal of racial capitalism (that is, to live at the end of the world as we know it). 4

The chorus is a figure through which Wayward Lives articulates a theory of time, a historiographic framing that both elucidates and exceeds the traditional categorization of Eras. The members of the chorus, Hartman explains, have been deemed “the catalyst of nothing” (Hartman, 259). Their “notes for reconstruction jotted in the marginalia of grocery lists” are submerged in the dustbin of historical erasure and yet even in their eradication such ephemera occupy a central place in Wayward Lives (Hartman, 260, 230). For Hartman, historical contingency and historical significance are defined through the terms of the chorus’s imagination and wayward practice. 5 In addition to announcing that Black girls are at the center of a minor key revolution of Black intimate life and social upheaval, Hartman also conveys this in subtle ways. For example, rather than presenting Mattie’s physical appearance as a mere facet of personal and individual life, Hartman explains:

“It would be a decade before the thick hair tamed in braids and pinned in a bun on the top her head, prominent cheekbones, almond-shaped eyes, and wide full lips would be compared to the beauty of an African mask” (Hartman, 53).

This is one of several statements that anchor the reader in time, tethers the struggles of the chorus to historical change and continuity, and present the consequences of being too early or late in history: “Had Mattie arrived in New York a decade earlier, Victoria Earle Matthews would have been waiting for her at the pier”; “(Soon the torture and abuse would be made public. But it would be decades before anyone questioned whether young women should be incarcerated for having children out of wedlock or staying out overnight or having serial lovers or intimate relations across the color line.)”; “The ghetto was not yet a foregone conclusion. In two decades, this would no longer be true.”; “It would be a decade and a half before Ella Baker and Marvel Cooke wrote their essay, “The Bronx Slave Market,” and over two decades before Claudia Jones’s “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman.”). Through inhabitation and citation Hartman assembles a chorus of historical and political knowledge beyond the archive that includes figures in a range of positionalities such as Mattie Jackson, Mabel Hampton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, and Jennifer Morgan. In Wayward Lives, the tempo of history, often rendered in terms of Black feminist life, unites questions of intellectual production, culture, art, interiority, reform and respectability, and gendered racial capitalism.

Wayward Lives amplifies the “moments when the vision and dreams of the wayward seem possible” as well as scenes of terror exacted bluntly and relentlessly (Hartman, xiv). The Black interior is saturated with possibility that cannot be contained by the term agency, and is subject to extreme forms of brutality that are rendered through archival documentation and speculation.  Indeed, it is worth mentioning that close narration is not reserved for moments of beauty but also employed to nuance our understanding of the complexity of violation.  In other words, it is not a tool for triumphalism, but a means of historical illumination. I have read Wayward Lives to the end more than once, but in another sense I also never made it past a sentence that left me undone:

“The whole time Mattie was screaming in the background” (Hartman, 73).

 The whole time: the time of Mattie’s imprisonment, the time of Caroline’s search for her daughter, the time of the book, the time of Layleen Polanco, the time of U.S. history and the afterlife of slavery. A genre-breaking book that enacts as much as it describes the “anarchy of colored girls,” Wayward Lives offers readers a “future of abolition . . . first performed on the page.” 6

  1. The opening paragraph is a reflection from a brief time in which I was able to witness Saidiya Hartman’s annotation process.
  2. In Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, Barbara Ransby recounts that Ella Baker often asked “Now, who are your people?” in her organizing as a mode of anchoring the individual to history and community. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
  3. Stephan Palmié, Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 94, quoted in Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” small axe 26 (June 2008): 10
  4. Hartman, Wayward Lives, 70, 232. Hartman, in conversation with Denise Ferreira da Silva notes, “Black feminism is the desire for the end of the world as we know it,” 366.
  5. Importantly, this is an account of black radicalism beyond race manhood and charismatic leadership.
  6. Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts”: 10
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Sarah Haley

Sarah Haley is Associate Professor of African American Studies and Gender Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She is also the Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Women. Professor Haley’s research interests are at the intersection of prison studies, nineteenth and twentieth-century African American history, women’s and gender history, labor studies, Black feminism, and feminist theories of violence. She is the author of the award-winning book No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity (University of North Carolina Press, 2016). Her new book project explores the role of mundane and ostentatious forms of police violence and harassment executed in Black homes from the 1970s through the 1990s. In it, she analyzes the relationship between Black domesticity, carceral gendering, and carceral state expansion as well as the affective work of life-making that Black women performed in the face of ubiquitous police violence. Follow her on Twitter @sahaley.