Saidiya Hartman on Writing & Telling Stories of Resistance and Beauty in “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments”

“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” 

-Toni Morrison


My conversation with Saidiya Hartman around the launch of her book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments at The Mount in May was one of the most powerful amplifications of the Black Woman experience that I’ve ever encountered. This feels even more significant with the recent passing of Toni Morrison. The last time I felt something resonate so deeply was when I read Morrison’s The Bluest Eye as an undergraduate. 

I have captured a few of Dr. Hartman’s ideas on writing and storytelling from my conversation with her below. As we grieve the loss of Toni Morrison and also honor the 400th anniversary of slavery in the U.S. and experience this deep sense of reverence while mourning, I believe Hartman’s words provide a powerful opportunity for reflection. Alongside each insight from Hartman that is still resonating for me, I offer a few thoughts of my own and will share a few gems from Toni Morrison as well.

1 - On writing as a debt to other thinkers… 

“The book is one way to acknowledge my debt to these other thinkers and writers, and it’s also a way of sounding the continuities of a certain kind of existence in the world.” -Saidiya Hartman

Here, Dr. Hartman goes beyond the popular idea that we all “stand on the shoulders of others.” With this reframe, Hartman redefines the Black herstory. 

This reminds me of Toni Morrison’s words: 

“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”

2 - On imagining the truth of our humanity…

“I think that there’s a way that you live through all of your characters… There’s a scene between Helen Parrish, a White upper class woman; Mamie Sharp, a young, beautiful, defiant Black girl; and Mamie’s husband/partner James. I feel like I’m all three of those people [Laughter]... 

To be close to them, I had to inhabit them. You might think I would feel closer to Grace Campbell (a would-be Black woman radical intellectual). In that way, I don’t think how I write nonfiction is different from how novelists write fiction... where you have to be able to imagine the humanity of all of your characters in order to inscribe the world from their perspective.”

As Toni Morrison said:

“The function of freedom is to free someone else.” 

I am reminded as well here of another passage from Toni Morrison from The Origin of Others,  (words that encapsulate so much of my experience of my own identity as reader, scholar, and Black woman):

“...we wrestle with the definitions of nation, state and citizenship as well as the ongoing problems of racism and race relations, and the so-called clash of cultures in our search to belong. ...African American writers are not alone in coming to terms with these problems, but they do have a long and singular history of confronting them. Of not being at home in their homeland; of being exiled in the place where they belong.”

3 - On the intimacy of honoring those Black women before us… 

“For me writing is a kind of time travel and it brings me into intimate relation with all of these other lives. I don’t have the ability to think my present as my present, so thinking about the past enables me to think more critically about our now. I do think it’s a way of honoring these lives, particularly some of these stories come from prison files and the violence of the state’s production of the life history of these girls. 

One example is of this opium addicted young poet who is described as an idiot or a moron because she scores poorly on her intelligence test and yet in her file, there’s a one act play written in verse… Or there are just really funny, witty letters that you find… So I was/am crafting a very different life history than is crafted by the State which is about producing a certain hierarchy of life and distinctions between those who are valued and those who are disposable.”

Thank you, Dr. Hartman, for that liberation! I found my own biography among these narratives of Black women’s lives. I saw liberation from the criminality of Blackness as well as the limiting analysis of Black “resilience”, and I saw intelligence exposed. In these “wayward lives,” it matters who one is trying to impress, which knowledge is being used, for whom it is being used, and through which medium. Thank you as well for the constant reminder of the intentional design of these Black women’s lives. Their value was to be set by the State, but by going back through those files offer another perspective, you show another narrative. This is invaluable. 

On writing, Toni Morrison shared:

“Writing is really a way of thinking--not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet.”

4 - On living the “beautiful experiment…”

“What Maddie defies is the classic narrative of the fallen girl. She’s the poster girl for the story of a young woman who comes to the city, makes her own terms, and is seduced, and her life is over. And instead, she is seduced, she makes her own terms, and surprise, surprise, she goes on. And she lives on to be more daring and have many, many more adventures.”

Maddie is a favorite of mine as well! Dr. Hartman and I chatted about Maddie on the ride from the train station to The Mount sharing our love for Maddie’s story and power. You just have to have your own internal knowing (as only Black women do) that your narrative is only yours to hold and others will write your story as they will. As for the precious occasion that one finds someone who will write your story with even more value than you ever knew you had… this is what Dr. Hartman has done with Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments for Black women then and even now.

In the The Origin of Others (2017), Toni Morrison wrote, 

“Narrative fiction provides a controlled wilderness, an opportunity to be and to become the Other. The stranger. With sympathy, clarity, and the risk of self-examination. In this iteration, for me the author, Beloved the girl, the haunter, is the ultimate Other. Clamoring, forever clamoring for a kiss.”

And now I’m reminded of these words of Morrison’s as well: 

Sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be.” 

5 - On amplifying the collective...

“I think of the book as being multi-voice… I don’t think when you write, there’s [only one] person at the page; there are all of those other writers who have given us so much. It seemed important because even though the book is narrated as a series of lives, what I’m trying to bring into view is the chorus, is the collective.”

Dr. Hartman is revered by her students for the authenticity she brings to her scholarship and leadership honoring Black women and Black History in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. She dissects voice, narrative, and the multiplicity of the Black woman experience in her own work and through many scholar-writers before and alongside her.

As Morrison wrote, 

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

Why do I think of Toni Morrison’s words every time I reflect on Dr. Hartman’s words? 

In my view, Dr. Hartman and Toni Morrison are two of the most powerful Black women voices of our time. By building a new narrative more reflective of the Black woman’s true story in the U.S., Morrison and Hartman model how we can navigate oppression of all shapes and sizes (and at all levels of scholarship) and also model how we can share and lift up each other’s work. The true gift and legacy of their work, I believe—for those us alive now and those who will come later who we will never meet—is the fact that we can learn from Morrison and Hartman about how we can thrive and trust each other in perpetuity.

These women in Wayward Lives had to wait a long time for their true liberation stories to be told versus the narratives we have been offered in the text books, prison archives, or even love letters left behind. These “new” narratives only come to be when we have scholars carefully studying Black women, and most importantly, who know the experience (by its institutional design) of what it is to be a Black woman in America. 

In my own work, I am often framing some of these questions for educators, professors, artists, producers and school administrators: Who is telling our history? What meaning is ascribed? Who is the victor and the one with the valor? Who gets to decide? Who has the voice

When reading Wayward Lives a third time this last year and soaking in its relevance in so many ways, I felt a sense of triumph and liberation... for Dr. Hartman, for these women she writes about, and yes, for myself. She, using her voice, is the history maker, storyteller, the one with the valor, and the victor in her own right. This feeling of liberation washes over me every time I read the book. You can’t help but feel the change happen. With this masterpiece, I have to pinch myself because the stories of downtrodden, depressed “failure” offered by our white supremacist patriarchal society and then of course the celebratory, triumphant, vibrant stories of liberation… these are the very same stories I have known of Black women. But when you pick up Wayward Lives, you have no choice but to get to really know these Black heroines in a new light: the powerful brilliant intentional way they lived their lives, bringing a whole new dimension to women, power, intention, and liberation. (For those who have not read the book yet, read one of its many reviews here and see an homage from her companion scholars here.)

Thank you Dr. Hartman for the legacy of this gift of portraits and the power of empathy in your storytelling with these new narratives of Black women. Thank you for my daughters and for the many daughters to come.

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