“Inside the Circle”

Saidiya Hartman’s most recent offering, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, stopped me dead in my tracks, or a better way to put it– it opened a portal to my writing I felt the pandemic had closed. For several weeks, the pandemic had arrested my words, locked them up inside me in a place I could not access. I even tweeted about it.

Hartman’s description of the subject and purpose of the book captured me: “At the turn of the twentieth century, young black women were in open rebellion. They struggled to create autonomous and beautiful lives, to escape the new forms of servitude awaiting them, and to live as if they were free. This book recreates the radical imagination and wayward practices of these young women by describing the world through their eyes. It is a narrative written from nowhere, from the nowhere of the ghetto and the nowhere of utopia.” (A Note on Method, xiii) Hartman focuses on New York city and Philadelphia from the ~1890s-1930s.

But, I am moving too fast…

I knew Hartman had published this new book, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet, hadn’t even ordered it yet. Then, the African American Intellectual History Society and the Journal of African American History announced a round table on the book. Without first reading Wayward Lives, I read some of the round table entries because some of my favorite historians were participating. I especially appreciated LaShawn Harris’ contribution. [Harris’s own book, Sex Workers, Psychics, and Numbers Runners Black Women in New York City’s Underground Economy, also explores Black working women in New York City.] Harris wrote that one of Hartman’s major contributions is “to ongoing scholarly discussions concerning the collection and documentation of histories on the everyday lives of the unexceptional, unnamed, and well-known.” After reading Harris’ essay, I stopped, ordered the book and read it over a long weekend.

The first sentence that stopped me dead in my tracks, forcing me to underline AND dog ear the page was this one:

This story is told from inside the circle.

(Hartman, A Note on Method, xiv)

What did Hartman mean that the story would be told from “inside the circle”? How was she going to do this? I am trained as a historian and one of the major features of my early disciplining was adherence to “objectivity.” As a way to undiscipline and heal myself, I worked hard to trouble the meaning of objectivity, knowing that objectivity is impossible, and that the requirement of objectivity has been weaponized against scholars of color who dare decide to engage in research too “close” to home, especially if that home is somehow related to their identity.

Inside the circle


How does one get inside?

Hartman gets inside by culling through hundreds of pages of primary sources and engaging in methods, both literary and historical. Hartman presses at limits, speculates, imagines, amplifies, attends to, spending years paying attention to photographs, records,and fragments related to ordinary, unknown Black girls and women, careful not to inflict damage of her own from their future.

Getting inside–that is what I wrestle with my own work on everyday Black working women striving to actualize their economic Black freedom dreams in the urban Midwest. Part of me feels like I am an insider because this is the story of my mother, my grandmother, my great aunties. These women who came before me were working class, (mostly) single mothers, who butted up against a Jim Crow Job System in Chicago that devalued them as workers, limited their economic opportunities, and forced them to think of creative solutions to make a way out of no way, for themselves, their families, and their communities.

I study Milwaukee, 90 miles away from Chicago. I know the intellectual significance of Milwaukee and I write about it in the introduction to my book, but I know I also chose Milwaukee because it was NOT Chicago, it was NOT my hometown. No one in my family talked about the pain of economic struggle, and my mother did her best to shield me from it, but I saw it, I felt it, I understood it deeply. I thought that if I chose another city, I could claim objectivity, that it would not feel too close to home. I did not think I would see my family, myself, in the archives because they were far(?) away.

But, it turns out, 90 miles is closer than I thought, and even closer in the archive. In looking at Milwaukee, I saw/see my great grandmother, my grandmother, my grand aunts leaping from the texts, the articles, the records, the testimonies. And I struggle with that. I struggle with seeing scores of Black women underpaid, mistreated on the job, trying to find work that never turns up. Trying to add up the few dollars. Make it to the next day.

I have a hard time separating my personal herstory from herstory.

But the lines that open Wayward Lives open something in me: “This story is told from inside the circle.”

A portal has been opened.

I walk through.

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