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Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval

4.53  ·  Rating details ·  311 ratings  ·  48 reviews
A breathtaking exploration of the lives of young black women in the early twentieth century.

In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Free love, common-law and transient marriages, serial partners, cohabitation outside of
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Hardcover, 464 pages
Published February 19th 2019 by W. W. Norton & Company
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Michael
Dec 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, 2019
Lyrical and mesmerizing, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments recounts the experiments in social arrangements young black women conducted in New York and Philadelphia during the first decades of the twentieth century. The book focuses on the waves of Black youth who moved from the rural South to industrial northern cities in search of more fulfilling lives, and documents the many challenges they faced. Drawing upon extensive archival research Hartman sketches a series of moving character studies ...more
Joshunda Sanders
Apr 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This is a glorious read about Black women whose inner lives and external manifestations of those rich journeys has not been documented with such grace, context and beauty across fluid genders or sexualities. It was a delight, too, to be further educated by the extensive, lovely end notes, written by my Vassar classmate Sarah Haley, a sharp scholar and exquisite writer like Hartman. There is pain here, of course, because the history of Black women and men who did not conform to society's ...more
Katya Kazbek
It's so rare and beautiful to read a book that just oozes information and ideas that you hadn't come across before, and even though reading this was not always easy, I was in for a spectacular treat. "Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments" is a visionary journey into the defiant lives of black women during Jim Crow era / Great migration, which breaks molds and stereotypes by showing how they broke molds and stereotypes, while threatened with incarceration, poverty, homelessness and ...more
Liz Mc2
Dec 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I learned about Saidiya Hartman when she won a MacArthur Fellowship (“genius” grant) this year. This book is fascinating, focusing on young black women moving to Northern cities in the early 20th century and trying to find some freedom in their intimate lives, even as they were relentlessly policed—arrested and confined on the mere suspicion that they might be, or might become, sex workers, for instance—and the “color line” of segregation closed them in.

Hartman’s methods make the book very
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Jacob Wren
May 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A few short passages from Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments:



In a novel, he possessed the ability to transform a ruined girl who grew up in a brothel into a heroine, but achieving the same in a sociological study proved nearly impossible. Literature was better able to grapple with the role of chance in human action and to illuminate the possibility and the promise of the errant path.



The scene pivots around the breach and the wound and endeavors the impossible – to redress it. The beauty
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Katie/Doing Dewey
Mar 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Summary: A lovely, unique history that highlights the radical, innovative social lives that black women shaped for themselves during the Jim Crow era.

I was immediately drawn to the concept of this book, which tells the stories of people whose lives weren't considered worth recording in their own time. When the stories of black women were recorded at this time, it was typically by people who saw them as a social problem. The lives these women shaped for themselves included "free love, common-law
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Cavak
Nov 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
After reading Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, a sensation that I couldn't quite name resonated in me. I was moved, I was amazed. The lines were savored by me, so curious and yet so profound. Some things I learned anew, some things did not surprise me. But something more was there, and I couldn't quite say what it was.

So I put off writing this review to think about it a bit more. I wanted to clean my palate and explore why I had felt this way. Read a sociology book that I hadn't touched in
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Lalaa #ThisBlackGirlReads
Feb 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
A beautiful portrayal of black women that left me with the profound feeling that there are more stories like these that are left to be told. I loved reading about the lives of the relatively unknown black female rebels from the early 20th century. This book covered quite a lot from race riots, prostitution, and lively dance halls, all with the underlying truth of radical thinking and other ways of living.

Hartman has created a poetic picture of the black woman and her fight for freedom and her
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Marie Ainomugisha
Dec 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Saidiya Hartman is an excellent writer on black living. Everything that’s poured into the text is well-constructed, refined, and necessary to the story being told.
Cherisse
Jul 28, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Beautifully written, deeply researched, profoundly moving, sadly reminiscent of the ways that black women have always fashioned and wielded power in a world that has attempted to demoralize, control, marginalize and ignore them.
Marianne
Oct 12, 2019 rated it it was amazing
wow. this is like if a symphony were a book. or if an opera were a book. or if a book were 1,000 books in one. i try to avoid using this term, but saidiya hartman is a genius!
James Lawless
Jan 13, 2020 rated it liked it
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments which is subtitled Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, examines the lives of various oppressed black women in Harlem and Philadelphia during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of these women were part of a fugitive movement of descendants of former slaves fleeing from the plantations of the south to the city in their quest for freedom.
Hartman is a thorough researcher and she culls stories of the lives of these women from rent
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Larry
Mar 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2019
Devastatingly good. The best book I've read so far this year. Opens one's eyes to new possibilities in understanding the experiences of turn-of-the-century African Americans.
Caroline
Dec 31, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Essential work of history and narrative.
Weckea
Mar 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Hartman does it again. The absolute best scholar and thinker and writer in (all of) the academy. It's a must read for everybody.
Izetta Autumn
Saidiya Hartman was awarded the MacArthur Award for a reason. Her work is extraordinary: brilliant, profound, reflective, wholly innovative, and beautiful. Wayward Lives is simply amazing. I came to the closing line to, "hold on," and I had to pause and sit with Hartman's work: the explosion of method and methodology, the care for those she wrote about, the elegant devastations she presents, the mourning and loss, the understanding and love she conveys. It was overwhelming. I had to sit with it ...more
Hailey
Feb 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I love this book!!! Stories of strong women have always been my favorite:)
Amy
Jan 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Wonderfully compelling! I couldn't put it down! Felt like I took a step back in time and had a front row seat in these women's lives. So moving!
E Frances
Oct 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This will be one of my favorite books forever! Here's what I think is one of the book's thesis statements:

pp. 236-237
"What the law designated as crime were the forms of life created by young black women in the city. The modes of intimacy and affiliation being fashioned, the refusal to labor, the ordinary forms of gathering and assembly, the practices of subsistence and making do were under surveillance and targeted not only by the police but also by the sociologists [such as W.E.B. Du Bois] and
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Katie
Nov 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book took me a LONG time to finish, but I'm glad I stuck with it. The style won't be for everyone- it's a blend of verifiable history and imagined history, but Hartman is so good at making the archives sing. (She won a MacArthur grant this year.) Recommend for anyone interested in the history of Black americans at the turn of the 20th century - and by history, I mean lived lives, not as written by white men. If history is written by the victor, then Hartman is a victor in that she is proof ...more
Shannon
Jun 07, 2019 rated it liked it
"Tumult, upheaval, flight--it was the articulation of living free, or at the least trying to, it was the way to insist I am unavailable for service. I refuse it.. "

Hrm, so this is one that I didn't enjoy - exactly - but deeply, deeply appreciated, which is to say the writing is gorgeous, the message is potent, but the organization of the narratives drove me a a bit nuts. Anyway, what I liked:

1. Hartman's entire thesis just kicks white-saviordom and its jollies in the ass. The black women she
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S.
Aug 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
It took me a long time to get through this book because I read it slowly and sat with every chapter and section for several days. As archivists, we're told explicitly to not put together our materials in a way that leads researchers to conclusions. Hartman inquisitively, exquisitely, and lovingly filled in the gaps in our archival records to speculate on the alternative realities and "beautiful experiments" of black people--specifically black women--living in northern ghettos at the turn of the ...more
Bean
I'm in tears. This book makes use of complexity, the unknown, visionary imagination, and relentlessly critical research in ways that I've never encountered, and uplifts queer and transgressive Black "minor figures" from underneath the erasure of Jim Crow.

Endnotes are everywhere in the text, but (like searching for the radicals who turned their backs to sociologists' surveys and "social betterment" photographers -- the predecessors of the nonprofit industrial complex) you have to sense as a
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Lizzie
This book was so unlike any other nonfiction or historical fiction book I've read.

It explores the lives of black and queer people living in Harlem between 1880s and 1930s. The chapters range from sociological studies to vignettes to poetic muses on words and ideas.

Through pictures and archival materials ranging from photography exhibits to prison or jail records to journals, and everything in between, she weaves a more accurate portrait of what it was like in this era.

Unlike a traditional white
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James
Jan 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an unusual book about African-American women making lives in the urban metropolis of the early 20th century. I would describe the style as literary nonfiction. She tells stories of real women she discovered in archives, court records, photographs, etc. She shows how racism, sexism, and elitism converge to disparage, condemn, and ghettoize them, yet she extols their imagination and exuberance in confronting these challenges. She is creative in writing about their thoughts, ideas, hopes, ...more
Jess
Mar 03, 2019 rated it it was ok
I loved the first few sections of Wayward Lives and the way Hartman describes her project. I soon found the repetition and lack of citations for easily sourced stats frustrating. The terms wayward and beautiful were used consistently throughout the beginning of the text then they disappear for more than a hundred pages only to return almost out of context. The book became disjointed and was more list-like than analysis or narrative. I also found it frustrating that the photographs sometimes had ...more
Mahvish Ahmad
Nov 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
So this is an important book, in this moment. It builds on Hartman’s project of writing the lives of people who never or rarely got to write their own. She talks about “critical fabulation” as a method to deal with silence in the archive, and in a conversation I had with her, she said she would fill the erasures with the hum of the earth. The book itself chronicles the textures of black women’s lives at the turn of the century US. It felt like reading fiction. That’s both the strength and ...more
Natsumi Paxton
Aug 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Wow. Simply incredible, and I recommend this to absolutely everyone.
Hartman narrativizes the lives of young black women in Philadelphia and NYC navigating the limited and precarious options allowed for them in the early twentieth century. Young black women who existed unambiguously outside the limits of respectability- the ones who rejected the drudgery and exhaustion of domestic work, who had different romantic and sexual partners and/or were queer, who had kids out of wedlock- are actually
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Grete Howland
Oct 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Reading this book felt like the most extraordinary and humbling privilege. Then again, one doesn't just read this book--one listens to it, watches it, receives it, like receiving the presence of a person or multiple people. I don't know that I've ever been witness to history communicated (portrayed) in book form with such love, daring, and creativity. Hartman channels something here; you get the incredible, deep research, yes, but also something beyond the material facts. Almost supernaturally, ...more
Katie
Apr 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
Beautifully written and poignant, though I did sometimes stumble a little on the genre-bending aspects of this book. It fills gaps in the archival record with some speculative, or seemingly speculative passages and I was occasionally confused about what content came from where; I think Imani Perry modelled how to do this with more precision in her biography of Lorraine Hansberry. There were also a lot of fascinating pictures in this book but they were uncaptioned and not always directly ...more
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Saidiya Hartman is the author of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, and Scenes of Subjection. She a Guggenheim Fellow and has been a Cullman Fellow and Fulbright Scholar. She is a professor at Columbia University and lives in New York.
“No, Kropotkin never described black women's mutual aid societies or the chorus in Mutual Aid, although he imagined animal society in its rich varieties & the forms of cooperation & mutuality found among ants, monkeys & ruminants. Impossible, recalcitrant domestics weren't yet in his view or anyone else's.” 0 likes
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