In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman examines the social revolution of black intimate life that occurred in the black quarters of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Free love, common-law and transient marriages, serial partners, queer relations, cohabitation outside of wedlock and single motherhood were among the sweeping changes that altered the character of everyday life. In wrestling with the question, “What is a free life?” young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship indifferent to the dictates of respectability, and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how-to-live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work. Beautifully written, Wayward Lives narrates the story of this radical transformation of black intimate and social life. It recreates the experience of young black women who wanted an existence qualitatively different than the one that had been scripted for them, and, for the first time, credits them with shaping a cultural movement that transformed the urban landscape. Through a melding of history and literary imagination, Wayward Lives recovers their radical aspirations and insurgent desires. [Hartman narrates the story of this radical transformation of black intimate and social life against the grain of the prevailing century-old argument about the crisis of the black family.]
“A masterpiece….The wayward lives and beautiful experiments in which Hartman is interested can only be described…by joining the experiment, by engaging in its hard-won freedoms, its autonomous profligacies, its shifting directions….A truly great and groundbreaking book.”
—Fred Moten, author of The Undercommons and The Feel Trio
“Ambitious, original…a beautiful experiment in its own right, to be set beside the many attempts at living free that Hartman here chronicles with a keen sense of history, imagination, and love.”
—Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts
“Wayward Lives is a startling, dazzling act of resurrection. In this stunning tapestry, Saidiya Hartman has granted these forgotten, ‘wayward’ women a new life. These remarkable black women were shamed, scorned, criminalized, studied, diagnosed and then erased from history. Yet now, Hartman challenges us to see, finally, who they really were: beautiful, complex, and multidimensional—whole people—who dared to live by their own rules, somehow making a way out of no way at all.”
—Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow
“With urgency and compassion, Hartman rescues the lives of young black women from the margins of history. Wayward Lives is a series of adventure stories that take the reader through the travails and triumphs of a multitude of black women, as they negotiate the perilous path of self-discovery at the turn of the twentieth century. In her impeccably researched new book, Hartman breathes glorious life into these true survival tales with the precision and invention of a master storyteller.”
—Lynn Nottage, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Sweat and Ruined
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