Recovering the Lives of City Women

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

Photo: Two women sit in the doorway of an empty storefront Harlem, New York City, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library.

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is and should be read as a historic and contemporary text that excavates the untold life projects and struggles of individuals confined to the lower rungs of America’s socioeconomic and political ladders. In poetic fashion, the book forcefully intervenes on scholarly conversations focused on urban working-class Black women and girls. A brilliantly written serial biography, Hartman builds on the pioneering and innovative historical scholarship of Kali Gross, Cheryl Hicks, Cynthia Blair, Mireille Miller-Young, Shannon King, and other scholars whose works illuminate the complex intersections of northern Black migration and labor, crime and punishment, and city amusements. Recently published monographs’ riveting narratives, scholarly renderings, and archival discoveries of outlaw women, unrespectable women, thieving and murderous women, and ordinary women boldly “snatching liberty” for themselves are the foundations upon which Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiences is built on. While examining a familiar cast of historical characters, Hartman’s eloquent narrative contributes to ongoing scholarly discussions concerning the collection and documentation of histories on the everyday lives of the unexceptional, unnamed, and well-known. At the same time, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Lives offers distinct and creative ways of visualizing and interpreting urban Black women, those far reaching beyond their prescribed and preordained stations in life. Part of the book’s originality lies in Hartman’s partnering of archival sources with that of fictionalized and speculative dialogue and interjections, allowing audiences to read, interpret, and imagine women’s words, actions, and movements.

Situated in New York City and Philadelphia during the nadir period in Black American life, Hartman’s text is a “moving picture of the wayward,” those whom many social reformers, municipal officials, anti-vice investigators, and ordinary city dwellers identified as castoffs, reckless, disreputable, and, to borrow from scholar Claire Sears, “problem bodies.” Because of women’s affiliations with illegal and disreputable labor and leisure activities and their desire to engage in varying intimate and sexual relationships, they were deemed morally lax and a threat to urban civilization, and often targeted for state intervention and legal confinement. “Problem bodies” complicated Progressive Era campaigns invested in promoting and advancing Victorian ideas about labor, domesticity and respectability, and marriage, love, and sexuality.

Partygoers, window shoppers, domestics, confidence artists, and ordinary working-class women were certainly more than the social and political constructions mapped on their bodies. They lived by a different set of rules, refusing to be governed by individuals who cared little about their dreams, desires, and ideas about freedom. A rich primary source collection including prison case files, newspapers, court documents, photographic images, and moral crusaders’ memoirs and investigative reports facilitates Hartman’s exercise in demonstrating that the “wayward,” those she views as free lovers, anarchists, sexual modernists, and radical thinkers and dreamers, were at the forefront of a cultural revolution that significantly altered the urban American landscape. At the same time, archival records hardly bound Hartman’s depictions of Black women and urban geographies. Similar to arguments conveyed in Scenes of Subjection, Lose Your Mother, and “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman acknowledges the archival limitations in tracing working-class women’s public and private lives. Challenging the widely-accepted view that the archive is the authoritative source of the past, she innovatively reads against archival documents; those produced by state violence and surveillance and those that privilege the narratives and voices of the urban elite. Moreover, Hartman employs critical fabulation to unearth single mothers’, queer and cross-dressing women’s, combative and gossip talking domestics’, and pleasure-seeking teenage girls’ defiant words and actions against reformist rhetoric and practices, as well as their aspirations and wide-ranging visions of freedom.

This “counter narrative liberated from the judgement and classification that subjected young black women to surveillance, arrest, punishment, and confinement offers an account that attends to beautiful experiments” (xiv). Hartman’s methodology allows readers to observe and experience Black women and girls as “fully visible, fully legible, fully human,” as well as deeply “vulnerable, damaged, and flawed.”

Central to this “fugitive text of the wayward” are women’s articulations, pursuits, and expressions of freedom. What is freedom? What does a free life look like, particularly within the context of race, gender, and class discrimination, unemployment and under-employment, carceral violence and surveillance, community policing, material deprivation, and inadequate housing conditions? How does one express freedom in the face of exclusionary systems and practices designed to deny self-determination, humanity, and bodily autonomy? In a similar vein to Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison, Hartman imagines: “What would [Black women] be doing or thinking if there was no gaze or hand to stop you?” In addressing some of these inquiries, Hartman broadens scholarly conversations about Black women’s ideas and pursuits of freedom. She situates ordinary working-class women, many of whom were not involved in race, gender, or class based civil rights organizations and movements, at the center of early twentieth century Black freedom and radical movements. Hartman also considers that African American women’s public and private discussions about freedom were not primarily centered on contesting de jure and de facto segregation or adhering to urban elites’ ideas about respectability politics. Nor was freedom primarily bound to putting race or family first. Social visionaries and innovators “struggled for ways to “‘frame their own reality’ under circumstances where segregation proposed to frame it comprehensively for them.” Black women and girls like Harlem sex workers and performers Billie Holiday, Cecilia Sargent, and Gladys Bentley envisioned and fiercely fought for autonomous lives; ones that challenged the “afterlife of slavery” and social reformers’ visions of modernity and ones that did not “require [them] to take all the shit that no one else would accept and pretend to be grateful” (8). For them, freedom was rooted in the individual and collective creation of alternative urban landscapes, lifestyles, kinships, sexualities, and identities. And to secure long-awaited dreams of freedom, the women in Hartman’s work were willing to resist prescribed race, gender, and sex norms and behaviors while embracing danger, risk, and unanticipated consequences of surveillance, confinement, and emotional loss and heartbreak. They were willing to take a chance on themselves, viewing themselves as their own salvation.

Public and private spaces were essential to working-class women’s freedom projects and experiments. Housing and labor discrimination, white violence, and race and gender exclusion complicated Black women’s visions of the American city. At the same time, Black women understood that urban environments were replete with limitations and possibilities. As city residents, they witnessed, and experienced the multiplicity of segregated urban spaces, appreciating the fascinating character of city landscapes, particular Black interior spaces. They valued the possibilities of congregating, making community, and plotting insurrections in spaces designed to limit their creativity and socioeconomic and political opportunities. New York and Philadelphia rooming houses, kitchenette apartments, building stoops and roofs, fire escapes, hallways, and bustling street corners and thoroughfares became gathering sites for passionate conversations and debates about freedom and its potential manifestations. Moreover, such urban geographies, according to Hartman, inspired “thought and action, study and vandalism, [and] love and trouble” (23). Intimate life and dreams of economic stability, love, pleasure, and freedom unfolded and came alive in these spaces. Sex workers assaulted male and female clients in tenement hallways; churchgoing women hosted sex parties in rented rooms; pushcart women like Lillian “Pig Foot Mary” Harris Dean sold chitterlings, boiled pigs’ feet, and other southern foods on well-known thoroughfares; teenage girls sat on building stoops with their significant others; and Black women intellectuals like Harlem communist Elizabeth Hendrickson delivered fiery speeches on popular street-corners.

Hartman combed through archival collections searching for photographic evidence that offered glimpses and untold stories of Black women’s lives as laborers, hustlers, pleasure-seekers, and as urban citizens. She “searched for photographs exemplary of the beautiful and possibility cultivated in the lives of ordinary black girls and young women and that stoked dreams of what might be possible if you could escape the house of bondage” (17). Examining thousands of “slum” photographs captured by studio photographers, social reformers and intellectuals, and charitable organizations left Hartman feeling “cold.” Photographs did not embody, what Hartman and other scholars of the urban Black urban experience hope to discover in the archives: “the beautiful struggle to survive, glimpses of the alternative mode of life, or the mutual aid and communal wealth of the slum” (19-20). Instead, photograph collections revealed how  Progressive Era reformers, intellectuals, and social scientists observed, interpreted, and captioned urban Black life. These “visual clichés of damnation and salvation” and surveillance documented ugliness, disorder, helplessness, and poverty, reducing their subjects to “clients and types” and “examples and human excrescence of social law and slum ecology” (19-20). Hartman sees beyond photographic frames presented in “slum images.” She rightfully questions and challenges iconic visual stills of urban poor women and Black interior spaces, venturing beyond reformers’ and intellectuals’ one-dimensional frames and captions. She reclaims these images, envisioning resistance, multi-layered representations and descriptions, and alternative ways of reading photographs that “extended an optic of visibility and surveillance that had its origins in slavery and the administered logic of the plantation” (21). Where photographic frames identified poor housing structures as “ Home-One-Room Negro: Moral Hazard” or “Damaged Goods,” Hartman observed the material beauty that eluded the frames: flowerpots, Bibles, family mementos, and other personal items that made a house a home. When Black women and girls appeared in social reformers’ “slum pictures” or police mugshots, Hartman noticed their subtle resistance and moments of defiance; the diverse ways in which they refused the terms of visibility imposed on them. Young women “averted their gaze; they clustered at the edge of the phones, they looked out the windows, peered out of doorways, and turned their back to the camera” (18) Critical photographic analysis is useful for documenting Black women’s history. This exercise raises new questions and presents more nuance histories, leaves room for creative narration, and highlights scholars’ “commitment to doing more with less.”

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval is a must-read. Hartman’s gripping stories of survival, pleasure, and disappointment and loss remind readers of several important lessons about the excavation of Black life and thought. This account signals the complexities and beauty of Black interior spaces and material culture; the importance of employing interdisciplinary and methodological approaches as a way to fill archival gaps and silences; and that the rendering of Black women’s interior worlds and spaces requires patience, care, and imagination.

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