Author: Saidiya V. Hartman
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 and transient marriages, serial partners, cohabitation outside of wedlock, queer relations, and single motherhood.” At the time, these choices were seen as a threat to social order that needed to be controlled or eliminated. This books shows the bravery and beauty of those revolutionary choices, driven by a desire to live freely and expansively despite social constraints that made mere survival a challenge.
The structure of this book was something truly unique. At first, its mix of history, speculation, philosophy, and poetry felt a little too artsy to me. I was nervous about distinguishing facts from the author’s speculations. After checking enough endnotes though, I began to trust that the author had confirmed the facts of each story she was telling. It was still difficult to know if the women she wrote about had talked about the philosophy guiding their lives. I’m guessing that the philosophical bits were all the author’s voice. Overall though, I ended up loving the way the author used the basic framework of the facts to talk about why these women’s lives mattered and what their choices meant in their social context. I also loved how poetic her tone was, capturing the feeling of each scene.
I found this a challenging read for many of the same reasons I admired it. The author is clearly incredibly familiar with the academic literature discussing black women, culture, and the treatment of black bodies in the Jim Crow era. This text converses with these earlier works with apparent ease. The author uses citations to support claims too expansive to explore fully here and even incorporates evocative phrases from earlier texts . In some cases, this meant that I could only grasp what the author was saying with the help of endnotes about the references. As I got into a rhythm, reading the endnotes along with the text, the stories started to flow more easily.
Another challenging but awesome aspect of this book was the poetic language. Some of the essays I found most beautiful and moving were short, lyrical pieces. I think a lot of their power came from the work the author did telling us stories first. This gave me, with my lack of prior knowledge, the background needed to understand a less literal essay on this topic. Throughout, I loved the opportunity to learn something new. The author does an incredible job juxtaposing multiple stories or pictures with stories to both have an emotional impact and to support her conclusions.
I really admired the black women she described for refusing to live in a constrained way. Despite access to only the most menial jobs at low pay and to the worst apartments atthe highest rents, these women insisted on having full lives. Despite the threat of being arrested essentially at random, they pursued the relationships they wanted; wore what they wanted; did the work they wanted; and created communities. Their pursuit of lives that pushed the boundaries of what was considered socially acceptable was truly revolutionary. It also made sense given the many forces preventing them from following more traditional paths! And there is a clear relationship between the freedoms they demanded and the freedoms women have today.
I highly recommend this book and I plan to read it again myself. It is beautiful, emotional, educational, and truly unique. I don’t feel certain I’ve done it justice, so I’d recommend checking out goodreads for some more reviews.