Review: Wayward Lives: Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman

Wayward, related to the family of words: errant, fugitive, recalcitrant, anarchic, willful, reckless, troublesome, riotous, tumultuous, rebellious and wild. To inhabit the world in ways inimical to those deemed proper and respectable, to be deeply aware of the gulf between where you stayed and how you might live. Waywardness: the avid longing for a world not ruled by master, man or the police. The errant path taken by the leaderless swarm in search of a place better than here. 

Wayward Lives: Beautiful Experiments

Summary and Thoughts

In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman examines the revolution of black intimate life that unfolded in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century. Free love, common-law and transient marriages, serial partners, cohabitation outside of wedlock, queer relations, and single motherhood were among the sweeping changes that altered the character of everyday life and challenged traditional Victorian beliefs about courtship, love, and marriage. Hartman narrates the story of this radical social transformation against the grain of the prevailing century-old argument about the crisis of the black family.

In wrestling with the question of what a free life is, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship that were indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work.


It took me a while to become accustomed to Hartman’s intimate and lengthy descriptions of her protagonists, as I’d expected a more distant third-person approach to history, however, once I adjusted, the stories of the women featured shone through the pages: their boldness, ingenuity, and resilience. Though the second half of the book was far more gripping than the first due to a sometimes unnecessary lingering on details, I overall enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it to others curious about black women in the early 20th century, their often forgotten stories that defy stereotypes and common narratives (be it on sexual freedom and sexuality, pursuing a fulfilling career, and/or refusing to be treated as inferior). Moreover, there are a plethora of incredible excerpts worth remembering. Here’s another example of one of many gems in here:

What was it that a colored woman was supposed to be? Whether they had bobbed hair or not, wore pants or dresses, had husbands or not, it didn’t seem to matter; they all fell in between the categories or failed to conform to them. There was nothing the world wouldn’t do to a colored woman. Everything they did to black men, they did to black women. Every time she read the papers she was reminded of this. Lynched them. Mutilated them. Beat them in the streets. Burned their homes. The ways you weren’t a man were just an opportunity to commit another kind of violence. Rape you and then kill you. Make your children watch, so they knew no one in the world could protect them. Hang you, and then slit your belly open like they did Mary Turner. When the baby dropped out, they killed the child. They lynched mothers with their sons. Raped little girls. Being black and female licensed every brutal act. In the face of all of this what could one do, but refuse the categories?

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