Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, ft Saidiya Hartman

Saidiya Hartman speaks about her latest book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, and the beauty, autonomy, anarchy, fugitivity, queerness, and errancy in forms of Black sociality — what she calls waywardness. We also discuss how to interrupt the state’s apparatus of capture and the new social formations that emerge as people flee from predatory state forms.

Image credit: Haiku (swarm) by Barbara Bartos.

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Welcome to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, my name is Alejo. In this episode, we speak with Saidiya Hartman about her latest book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. She shares with us the beauty, autonomy, anarchy, fugitivity, queerness, and errancy in forms of Black sociality — what she calls waywardness. Hartman also reads us a fragment of her latest book, from a chapter titled “Riot and Refrain,” which tells the story of a prison strike in Bedford, New York, staged by a riotous ensemble of colored girls in the second decade of the 20th century.

But before we begin, here’s Kaif Syed with some movement news you have missed.


On April 12th, protests erupted outside of the Dekalb County Jail in Dekalb County, Georgia. The rally was called to protest the jail’s mistreatment of inmates and poor living conditions; grievances included moldy food, mildew, and violence. Earlier in the week, photos were leaked onto instagram of inmates calling for support  Around 50 demonstrators showed up in solidarity with those being held captive by the state. The protests left four protesters arrested and two officers injured. According to Anarchist Black Cross, the abuse and repression inside Dekalb County Jail continues.

On March 26th, 9 inmates at Racine and Columbia correctional institutions in Wisconsin began a hunger strike demanding an end to indefinite solitary confinement. The hunger strike was coordinated among two prisons, with six of the prisoners located in Racine and three in Columbia. Outside supporters organized a call-in campaign in order to support the inside action.

On March 30th, more than 60 Japanese Americans, many of whom are former detainees of internment camps during the second world war, took part in a protest against the mass incarceration of immigrants at the Texas border. The coalition took part in a memorial service in Crystal City, Texas — where many Japanese Americans were imprisoned –and then traveled 45 miles to protest in front of the South Texas Residential Family Center, where many immigrants are currently detained.


Alejo: I’m Alejo Stark and you’re listening to Rustbelt Abolition Radio, an abolitionist media and movement building project based in Detroit, Michigan. Today we have the extraordinary opportunity to speak with Saidiya Hartman, professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University and author of three books: “Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in 19th Century America”, “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route”, and the recently released “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval”. Welcome and thank you for joining us Saidiya.

Saidiya Hartman: Thank you for having me. It’s great to be here.

Alejo: So we wanted to start by asking you about your recently published book, “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments”. Your writing, it seems to me –in particular the fragments from the book that you shared with us yesterday at your talk– inhabit the problematic of the long continuum between the plantation, the ghetto and the prison, which is to say, the anti-blackness that constitutes political antagonisms to this day. But in these fragments, you also laid bare the beauty, autonomy, anarchy, fugitivity, queerness and errency in forms of black sociality and what you called a black woman’s intimate revolution in the early 20th century. “Waywardness”, as it were. Can you tell us how you encountered the sense of waywardness, what it’s meant by it?

Saidiya Hartman: In thinking about the period in the aftermath of not only slavery, but in the aftermath of the failure of reconstruction, I really wanted to think about the ways people tried to enact a practice of freedom on the ground and a freedom in the space of this new racialized enclosure which was coming into being, and that shift from the plantation to the ghetto as an open air prison. And so what’s also taking place is that these practices of freedom –in some ways the only way to articulate that practice is through the sheer ability to move; unregulated movement and the rush to the next place, that one hope is better than the place you’re in– articulated what’s also so striking for me about this period between 1890 and 1935 and the way in which these practices come to be criminalized.

Saidiya Hartman: So, the classic instruments used against the propertyless, like vagrancy laws are used to criminalize forms of noncompliance. The refusal to work becomes criminalized and all of these become essential elements of building this formation that is the ghetto. I think I was so amazed and taken by how consistent and multiple the forms of resistance were. The forms of refusal to that targeting, the refusal to be trained and regulated for poorly paid labor that couldn’t ensure the most minimal forms of social reproduction. And so what we see is young women and others forming these collective living situations where people work minimally but pool their resources, or just the desire to have a beautiful life, the desire to try to make a beautiful life. I mean, I think that for me, what I’m looking at are the very quotidian and daily practices through which people try to refuse the anti-blackness that is the normative condition, and one motive that refusal is: what does it mean to love what is not loved? All right. I think I’ve always been interested in everyday –the practice of the multitude, the mass, the ensemble– and the, I would say: the revolutionary spirit that resides there. Trying to narrate an account of that collective activity, that collective longing and dreaming.

Alejo: Could you perhaps share with us a fragment of this collective, ensemble, multitude, this anarchic fugitive force and these everyday acts of refusal, as you mentioned?

Saidiya Hartman: Yes, I’ll read a snippet from it. While there’s the kind of the open air prison, which is the ghetto, I think what’s also interesting about this period, even in this early period, we see the continuities between the prison and the ghetto. And I guess the book takes for granted –so it’s not a book about the “the emergence” of the prison– but it just takes for granted the carceral landscape in which black life unfolds. So I’ll read from a chapter called “Riot and Refrain”.

Saidiya Hartman: It was the dangerous music of open rebellion. En masse they announced what had been endured, what they wanted, what they intended to destroy. Bawling, screaming, cursing, and stomping made the cottage tremble and corralled them together into one large, pulsing formation, an ensemble reveling in the beauty of the strike. Young women hung out of the windows, crowded at the doors, and huddled on shared beds sounded a complete revolution, a break with the given, an undoing and remaking of values, which called property and law and social order into crisis. They sought out of here, out of now, out of the cell, out of the hold. The call and the appeal transformed them from prisoners into strikers, from faceless abstractions secured by a string of numbers affixed to a cotton jumper into a collective body, a riotous gathering, even if only for thirteen hours. In the discordant assembly, they found a hearing in one another.

The black noise emanating from Lowell Cottage expressed their rage and their longing. It made manifest the latent rebellion simmering beneath the surface of things. It provided the language in which “they lamented their lot and what they called the injustice of their keepers at the top of their voices.” Sonic upheaval was a tactic, a creative resource of the riot, in December and January, and again in July, when a clash erupted in the laundry room between a group of mostly black girls, including their white friends and lovers, and a group of white girls who hated the nigger lovers as much as they hated the black girls. When the police and state troopers arrived, the battle shifted and the girls fought them. The state authorities and the journalists were eager to label the clash as a race riot, but even so, they described the sound of the struggle against the state in the terms of black music. To those outside the circle it was a din without melody or center. The New York Times had trouble deciding which among the sensational headlines it should use for the article, so it went with three: “Devil’s Chorus Sung By Girl Rioters.” “Bedford Hears Mingled Shrieks and Squeals, Suggesting Inferno Set to Jaz(z).” “Outbreak Purely Vocal.” What exactly did Dante’s Inferno sound like when transposed into a jazz suite? For the reporters, jazz was a synonym for primal sound, unrestrained impulse, savage modernism. It was raw energy and excitement, nonsense and jargon, empty talk, excess, carnal desire. It was slang for copulation and conjured social disorder and free love. Perhaps this was an oblique reference to the sexual dimension of the riot. Improvisation—the aesthetic possibilities that resided in the unforeseen, collaboration in the space of enclosure, the secondary rhythms of social life capable of creating an opening where there was none—exceeded the interpretive grid of the state authorities and the journalists.

Sonic tumult and upheaval—it was resistance as music. It was a noise strike. In the most basic sense, the sounds emanating from Lowell were the free music of those in captivity, the abolition philosophy expressed within the circle, the shout and speech song of struggle. If freedom and mutual creation characterized the music, it too defined the strike and riot waged by the prisoners of Lowell. “The Reformatory Blues,” a facile label coined by the daily papers to describe the collective refusal of prison conditions, was Dante filtered through Ma Rainey and Buddy Bolden. (The sonic upheaval of Lowell Cottage echoed and sampled the long history of black sound—whoops and hollers, shrieks and squawks, sorrow songs and blues.)

The chants and cries escaped the confines of the prison even if their bodies did not: “Almost every window [of the cottage] was crowded with negro women who were shouting, crying and laughing hysterically.” Few outside the circle understood the deep sources of this hue and cry. The aesthetic inheritance of “jargon and nonsense” was nothing if not a philosophy of freedom that reached back to slave songs and circle dances—the sonic gifts of struggle and flight, death and refusal, became music or moanin’ or joyful noise or discordant sound.

For those within this circle, every groan and cry, curse and shout insisted slavery time was over. They were tired of being abused and confined; they wanted to be free. Aaron had written almost those exact words in one of his letters: “I tell you Miss Cobb, it is no slave time with colored people now.” So had Mattie’s mother. All of them might well have shouted, No slave time now. Abolition now. In the surreal, utopian nonsense of it all, and at the heart of riot, was the anarchy of colored girls: treason en masse, tumult, gathering together, the mutual collaboration required to confront the prison authorities and the police, the willingness to lose oneself and become something greater—a chorus, swarm, ensemble, mutual aid society. In lieu of an explanation or an appeal, they shouted and screamed. How else were they to express the longing to be free? How else were they to make plain their refusal to be governed? It was the soundtrack to a history that hurt.

Alejo: Thank you for sharing that with us. These sort of fragments, what you called “excavating the beauty of a wrong turn” beyond, of course, this logic of the fall and repentance which saturates a lot of the narratives that we hear from those that are being held captive by the state inside prisons and jails and detention centers, the logic of recognition and so on… You’ve traced these errant paths, these riotous gatherings and the kinds of life also that are maybe lived in our freedom, right?

Alejo: One of the questions that we always grapple with in the show is: we feature narratives and communiques from comrades and those being held captive by the state today and these words, their words –in a way their sounds, their written word and their spoken word– attempt to register precisely those practices of freedom today, as well; that interrupt the state’s apparatus of capture. But nonetheless, they also perhaps circulate within an anti-black libidinal economy of pain and suffering, but also pleasure. And this gives us pause, right? So you have grappled with this question of course as it relates to the historical archives which subvert in these narratives, and for us as abolitionist media makers, we grapple with this sort of infinite responsibility of attempting to interrupt the state’s narrative while also not putting in circulation these sounds and words within this anti-black libidinal economy. So we know you grapple this question again and again in your writing. Can you tell us more about this and what might it entail to think about an abolitionist ethic, an abolitionist aesthetic — how you’ve dealt with this in your own form, in writing as well.

Saidiya Hartman: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, I think that from Scenes, where I question what does it mean to mobilize the black body in pain for white liberal abolitionist cause; you know, the reproductive labor that they’re forced to perform. I mean, I think that here, when we look at this state archive of prison records, we’re talking about the advent of the progressive state, and these liberal reformers who are literally the children of those great white abolitionists. So I think the terms of address are really key, so that it’s not a politics that’s translated through a framework of recognition. If I make claims in this way, if I can explain the case to the state in this way, then perhaps I will get a hearing. I mean, I think that the paradox of this violence is that it is the kind of the plan and the instrument of progressive reformers who are trying to protect and “care” for these girls.

Saidiya Hartman: I think that there’s a struggle around the most fundamental terms of life in order. And I think one of the ways I think about this everyday anarchy is thinking about the radical practices of subsistence. So how do people make a way when their wage labor doesn’t actually require them to kind of reproduce the minimal conditions of social existence. So in that formula, there’s certain things that are facts, like rent is a fact. And so why is rent a fact? Why is it a fact to charge the propertyless for shelter? Because we’re so –in a liberal spectrum, at least– we’re taking for granted the rightness of property. Right? And I think that what happens with these young women — and it is only registered as criminality, as irresponsibility, just the kind of contestation around all of those organized terms of social existence. Well, why is one required to labor in this way when even liberal legal reformers understand domestic work to be a form of involuntary servitude? I mean, liberal legal thinkers are talking about it as a kind of feudalism. So why wouldn’t they refuse it?

Saidiya Hartman: I kind of think about this as a continuation of the general strike. I mean, one of the things that Rosa Luxemburg says in the mass strike, which I love, is that a strike can go on for decades, right? And I think that… that strike against a plantation as not only about the flight from the south and the plantation, but the refusal of those conditions and everyone is trying to say, “No, this is the responsible path. This is what is there for you in the world and your responsibility is to be the dutiful poor”, right? “And to demonstrate your worthiness for a certain kind of second-class citizenship”. And their actions and their thoughts in every way are saying “no” to that project. The consequences of that “no” are great, and the price that they’re forced to pay for that refusal are great, but they’re astute social analysts. They know that there’s no future in that.

Alejo: Just to go back to this question of the state’s own facts –the refusal also of those facts– that “no” which is also an act of freedom. You mentioned the general strike and Du Bois, the chapter on “The coming of the Lord,” not tipping your hat and not being afraid of the patrol, of being able to go and fish — these sort of everyday acts of the practices of freedom as it were, which in a way interrupt and disrupt the state’s own apparatus of capture. This trespassing between fact and fiction I think is how we think about it. For us, this sort of maybe even critical fabulation also comes into play in how we construct narratives from the narratives that people that are held captive today tell us from prison, right? We face the state’s own narratives about, for instance, the prison strike: that “nothing happened,” you know, and we sometimes find ourselves in a situation of not being able to communicate as we would like. And so there’s perhaps some need to create a story about what happened with those from inside, to conspire with them. So I would like to think about that, the ethics of that, and the political stakes of that today. What we’re thinking about as an “abolitionist ethic” or you know, even the form in which we express these narratives which are always mediated, right? As much as we simply just record somebody’s voice inside. How have you grappled with this question of form? Certainly you’ve changed in a way, you know, from Scenes of Subjection to Wayward Lives, the form of your writing, which also in a way expresses a certain ethic and aesthetic as well.

Saidiya Hartman: I mean I would just firstly echo what you say about the state’s interest in disappearing these forms of struggle and making them non-events. I mean in the case of this strike in Lowell, prison authorities would always be –and even though they were called reformatories, they are prisons in essence– they were very troubled if a journalist actually used the name of one of the prisoners because again, it was to give a kind of an embodiment and an individuality and a particularity to the faceless abstraction that the state tries to produce.

Saidiya Hartman: I mean, I think that one of the differences here is I see all of these projects, I mean I see Wayward Lives as a continuation of Scenes. I think that in Scenes, one of the things that I was kind of really arguing with was a certain kind of liberal social history of slavery and a very limited notion of what slavery was as a kind of unwaged work with cruelty, to thinking about social death and fungible life and the lasting imprint of that in the definition of anti blackness and how foundational anti-blackness is to this democratic “state project”.

Saidiya Hartman: I think here I’m narrating from what has been this longstanding space of black study and that’s the formation of the circle. And we see that whether it’s bodies assembled in the hold door, the circle formation that Douglas describes or the clearing made by fugitives and how they inhabit the landscape and that there is an address we have with and for one another. And so I think that this book is narrated from that space. And I guess it’s an encouragement really to think about the proliferation of practices and thinking about how we take up questions of survival in a multitude of ways.

Saidiya Hartman: I guess one of the other people who’s in this, someone like James C. Scott, who has written a lot about another kind of anarchy looking at peasants in South Asia and the way they try to exist at the edge of and outside of large state forms. Someone asked me about the relationship between this project and Lose Your Mother because I think that, you know the last chapter of that book is called Fugitive Dreams, and it’s about all of those new social formations that emerge as people were fleeing from predatory state forms. I mean those state forms were African, but they were nonetheless predatory state forms that created disposable lives to be involved in this transatlantic network of exchange. And I think that for me, the space of the chorus is also about the mutual aid society. What we do in the meantime, how we provide for one another.

Saidiya Hartman: And I think it’ trying to turn our attention away from certain modes of political address which are dominant, which seemed to be: always the need to explain to the same people the forms of violence and predation that make our lives just disposable with no movement. And I think that those forms of address actually underestimate the deep, deep social and psychic investment in anti-blackness as a definition of the human in this context. So it’s about turning my attention to a space where it seems really possible to imagine an elsewhere and to try to mobilize other political imaginaries.

Alejo: Well with that I just wanted to thank you for enacting precisely those other imaginaries of the possible, as you say, to the many possible abolitionist futures that I think are maybe already here in many ways.

Saidiya Hartman: Thank you for having me on.



Kaif Syed: Thanks for tuning in. You can listen to past episodes or read their transcripts on our website at www.rustbeltradio.org. This show was co-produced by the Rustbelt Abolition Radio crew: a María, Kaif Syed, and Alejo Stark. Original music by Bad Infinity.