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The Art of Unruliness

Saidiya Hartman’s book evokes the longings of black women once labeled “wayward.”

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The names of most of the characters in Saidiya Hartman’s book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments are not familiar. They aren’t supposed to be. History rarely pays attention to the stories of “wayward” girls born into poverty, still less to their desires and dreams. Hartman’s subjects are girls and women who were part of the mass migration of African Americans to the north after Emancipation, who tried any way they could to resist being corralled into the narrow space allotted to them and called freedom.

W.W. Norton & Company, 304 pp., $28.95

Some broke through as performers, like Billie Holiday, Ethel Waters, and the once-notorious, cross-dressing cabaret performer Gladys Bentley. But the vast majority didn’t get the chance at the kind of fame that would allow them to tell their own stories. Their names survive in court records, in the ledgers of correctional facilities, taken down by sociologists as evidence of a problem. They’re the women who make up the crowd, the chorus, the riot.

Hartman’s kaleidoscopic book foregrounds the stories of young, poor black women in New York and Philadelphia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. African Americans who fled the South in this period found that the north had its own, more insidious constraints. A woman could sit where she liked in public, but she would feel people inching away from her. There were “no visible signs on shop doors barring her entrance”; instead, she faced a constant buzz of verbal insults and rebuffs. Some landlords would rent to her, but she could expect to be charged vastly more than her substandard room was worth. Pretty much the only job open to her was domestic service, cleaning homes or clothes for white families.

The black elite was tiny, and belonging to it was a precarious business of constant behavioral monitoring. Wealth and status were no guarantee of respect: Hartman describes journalist Ida B. Wells fighting off three men who tried to forcibly remove her from the first-class train carriage she’d paid to travel in. The work of W.E.B Du Bois, whom Hartman describes here at the start of his career, a dapper Harvard-trained sociologist, provides an essential source of information on the larger swirl of semi-anonymous lives; in 1896 he spent a year and a half gathering data and stories about life in Philadelphia’s poor black community for a study aimed at identifying and understanding its particular problems, though he was disturbed by its casual sexual mores, and by the destabilizing presence of “surplus” young women, who migrated to the city and did not seem to want to settle into the safety of marriage.

Hartman’s real interest is in these young women—those who who ran away from grinding labor and resisted the trap of good behavior. In granting these forgotten women a voice, and conjuring their longing for freedom, Hartman resists the century-long diminution of their lives to social problems.

Like most of the girls in this book, 19-year-old Mamie Shepherd, also known as Mamie Sharp, was bright and beautiful. She rented a room in a house owned by two wealthy white women—Helen Parrish and Hannah Fox—in Philadelphia. Helen wanted to reform Mamie, by sending her to live in the country. But Mamie wasn’t interested. She wandered the streets, visited saloons and theaters and vaudeville shows. When Helen confronted her about reports of her adultery, she replied, “I like to go about as I please.” A few days later, Mamie’s husband James was shot in the neck, and when he recovered, the couple disappeared to New York. Mamie was only in Helen’s life for a month, but she troubled and haunted her by refusing what Helen and all of the well-meaning reformers offered—“cut-down-to-size respectable poverty.” She wanted freedom, even if that looked to them like disaster.

Hartman portrays Mamie’s hunger, her hankering for a better life, a better anything, as a form of desperate creativity, making a work of art out of your own life because it’s the only material you have. But in making this attempt, Mamie and women like her had to contend with severe laws. “Wayward Minor” laws, in force from 1882 to 1925, officially targeted women between 16 and 21 years old, but they also snatched up girls as young as twelve for the vague crime of “incorrigibility.” Their homes, neighbors, friends, lovers, appearance, and behavior in public could all be seized on as evidence of future criminality. The only authority was a magistrate, who could send them to the reformatory for up to three years (a much harsher sentence than the 60 days in a workhouse handed down for an actual prostitution conviction.)

Hartman describes how Elinora Harris, the future Billie Holiday, was arrested at the age of 14 at the “disorderly house” where she lived. She gave her name as Eleanor Fagan and her age as 21 in order to avoid the reformatory—instead, she was sentenced to four months at the Blackwell’s Island workhouse. Her sentence was a month longer than the one handed down to the man who raped her when she was eleven.

The Bedford Hills reformatory, in the middle of the bucolic Hudson Valley, was especially notorious. It sucked up young women from the Tenderloin, Harlem, and the Lower East Side and sent them to live in segregated “cottages” where they were locked in at night. In one of a series of shocking exposés, they reported being beaten and held in isolation for the same infractions that landed them there: friendship, intimacy, love, stepping across the color line. It was all, in theory, for their own protection. They resisted the only way they knew how, by making noise. They broke furniture, yelled, and banged on the walls of their cells, making “the dangerous music of open rebellion.”

Despite the harshness and unpredictability of law enforcement, the young women in Hartman’s book found ways to resist. Like Holiday, plenty of girls found their way to the stage, seeking an outlet for the performance of freedom, of femininity and sexuality: Dancing was “another elaboration of the general strike” against servitude, confinement, oppression. Mabel Hampton was a talented singer and dancer, who carved out a little space for herself through her job in a Coney Island cabaret, which afforded her three rooms in a Harlem basement. A glamorous older woman taught her about sex and love, and then broke her heart. Later, in the company of a rich white girlfriend, Mabel visited the inner sanctum of the heiress A’leila Walker, daughter of Madame C.J. Walker, whose chemical treatments and powders and hot combs all the girls used to dress their hair and lighten their skin. There among a self-consciously modern artistic elite, she took part in the carnival inversion of all social rules, parties where white folks were served chitterlings and bathtub gin while the black guests got champagne and caviar.

But Mabel got tired of dressing for men and kicking her legs on stage, and she dreamt of playing music professionally. She’d rather wear trousers, but if women wore them in the street they could still get beaten up. By the 1930s, Mabel ended up, like hundreds of other women, waiting in the crowd at what was referred to as a “slave market” in the Bronx, where white women came to find women to clean their houses, and their husbands and sons cruised the other side of the street simply to pick up women. The latter paid better; many women did both.

Because there’s so little concrete evidence about who these women were, Hartman’s book takes deliberate liberties with the usual constraints of history. She describes how it might have felt for a young girl to lose her virginity to a handsome man in a shabby boarding house; recreates the sounds and smells of a summer night on the roof of a Harlem tenement; brings to life the romance of the chorus line and the thrill of teenagers roaming the streets with their friends. She pushes beyond the effort to recover forgotten stories, in order to tell them in a deliberately poetic, evocative way. When one of her characters leans out of the window, listening to the sounds of the street, she discerns under the cacophony “a hunger so sharp it made her ache just hearing it.”

That perspective transforms the so-called slum from a place of incipient criminality into a space of intimacy, love and tenderness, for all that it coexists with violence and suffering. Woven together in this remarkable book, these stories remind us how much is lost when histories focus only on what’s visible on the surface, on the stories that come down to us polished and preserved by the powerful; they demonstrate that the best of intentions to improve other people’s lives are liable to harm as well as help, so long as the people affected are not allowed to speak for themselves. The result is an effect more usually associated with fiction than history, of inspiring a powerful imaginative empathy—not only towards characters in the distant past but towards the strangers all around us, whose humanity we share.