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Saidiya Hartman’s Ways of Seeing

Groundbreaking writer and historian coming to Anderson Ranch for Recognition Week


IF YOU GO …

What: Literary Reading with Saidiya Hartman

Where: Soldner Ceramics Studio, Anderson Ranch Arts Center

When: Friday, July 16, 12:30 p.m.

How much: Free

Registration and more info: andersonranch.org

Imagination and invention are not the usual tools of the historian. But Saidiya Hartman is not your usual historian.

Her electrifying brand of narrative nonfiction embraces the use of imagination to fill in the gaps of the historical record in order to depict and portray the Black lives that have been erased by those writing and recording our past.

The literary scholar, cultural historian and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient’s 2019 book “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments” brings to life a society of young Black women at the turn of the 20th century in Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere in the Northeast who were living radically free. Hartman — a Columbia University professor who won a Nationa Book Critics Circle Award for “Wayward Lives” — finds ways into the interior lives of “riotous black girls, troublesome women, and queer radicals” who broke the mold years before “The Great Gatsby” and roared louder than the Roaring ‘20s we know of. The flappers remembered in pop culture, Hartman argues are “a pale imitation of the ghetto girl.”



To tell this story she applies the tactics of a skilled novelist and a responsible historian, gathering all of the facts and evidence she can and then making it come alive.

“’Wayward Lives’ elaborates, augments, transposes, and breaks open archival documents so they might yield a richer picture of the social upheaval that transformed black social life in the twentieth century,” she writes in a preface on her unique methods. “The goal is to understand and experience the world as these young women did, to learn from what they know.”




What has gone unrecorded, she argues, is not unknowable. Their correspondence and journals were not saved and archived, if they kept any. Their lifestyles weren’t covered by the press or by many of the novelists of the day, because of their class and color. But what Hartman calls “the authority of the archive” is not the final authority, she argues.

“This book recreates the radical imagination and wayward practices of these young women by describing the world through their eyes,” she writes. “It is a narrative written from nowhere, from the nowhere of the ghetto and the nowhere of utopia.”

Discovering this forgotten and erased counterculture with Hartman is a surprisingly visual experience. The author includes photos throughout the text and uses them as launchpads for immersive stretches of the book that leap from a single candid image of a woman in an alley to a neighborhood-wide portrait of a vibrant neighborhood crackling with the possibilities of social revolution.

IF YOU WATCH …

What: Artist Simone Leigh in conversation with Saidiya Hartman

Where: Livestream at andersonranch.org

When: Thursday, July 15, noon

How much: Free

More info: The in-person event at Schermer Meeting Hall is registered to capacity.

The official records Hartman used include police reports, court records, accounts from social workers and psychiatrists – all sketchy sources here.

Photography, we find here, is less biased than the rest of the historical record, less easily erased or skewed. And Hartman has a one-of-a-kind gift for finding narrative in an image. This relationship with the visual is among the reasons for her visit this week to Anderson Ranch Arts Center, where she will hold a public conversation with the artist Simone Leigh, the Ranch’s 2019 International Artist Honoree. Hartman’s mind processes images differently, she’s found whole lives and worlds in them through her research. What might she see in Leigh’s work?

In the empowered and liberated women of “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” she found a narrative of freedom where none had been told before.

“I have crafted a counter-narrative liberated from the judgment and classification that subjected young black women to surveillance, arrest, punishment and confinement,” she writes, “and offer an account that attends to beautiful experiments — to make living an art — undertaken by those often described as promiscuous, reckless, wild, and wayward.”


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