I like to think of the 21st century as a time when more and more people are creating their own life paths rather than following the standard scripts for what to do and how to live. In a new book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, Columbia University Professor Saidiya Hartman makes the case that in the opening years of the 20th century, young black women who had left the south for cities in the north were doing much the same. Of course, they were doing so under tremendously more trying circumstances.
The women – girls, really, when many of them first arrived – were mostly ordinary people. Historians and other social scientists typically ignored or derided them. In their everyday lives, with slavery just a few generations behind them, they were often subject to cruelty, violence, and incarceration. The paths open to them were extraordinarily limited, ranging not very far beyond cleaning the homes of white people. Professor Hartman showed that they dreamed of much more.
My corner of the social sciences is social psychology, not history, so I did something I rarely do when writing about a book. I looked to see what other reviewers had said rather than going only by my own reading. At the New York Times, Parul Sehgal said that the young women in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments:
“tossed out the narrow scripts they had been given. They claimed sexual freedom, serial partners, single motherhood – or opted out of motherhood entirely. They quit their demeaning jobs and went out dancing instead. They fell in love with each other.”
At The Nation, Sam Huber noted:
“Curious about the everyday experiences of urban black women at the turn of the 20th century, Hartman went in search of “photographs unequivocal in their representation of what it meant to live free for the second and third generations born after the official end of slavery.” She looked for “the beauty and possibility” that she imagined such women to have cultivated in defiance of poverty, policing, and the proscriptions of progressive reformers. Instead, she found “visual clichés of damnation and salvation,” thousands of images of supposed profligacy and slum privation, punctuated by the occasional good example of modest two-parent households.”
A striking example was a black and white photo, shown in one of the early chapters, that had this stamped across it: ““Home” – One Room. Moral Hazard.” Here’s what Hartman said about those kinds of pictures:
“Some things didn’t appear in the photographs, like the three flowerpots lined up on the windowsill, the crazy quilts covering the tick mattresses, the Bibles wrapped in lace and calico, the illustrations from the mail-order catalogue affixed to the walls. The reformers and the journalists were fixated on the kitchenette. They didn’t know that the foyer, the fire escape, and the rooftop were a stretch of urban beach, not until the rich adopted the practice and sleeping on rooftops became fashionable.”
Contrary to the implications of the photographic records, Hartman argues that “how we live and where we stay is not a social problem. It is our relation to the white world that is the problem.”
“Few, then or now, recognized young black women as sexual modernists, free lovers, radicals, and anarchists, or realized that the flapper was a pale imitation of the ghetto girl. They have been credited with nothing: they remain surplus women of no significance, girls deemed unfit for history and destined to be minor figures….
“The wild idea that animates this book is that young black women were radical thinkers who tirelessly imagined other ways to live and never failed to consider how the world could be otherwise.”