An Untold History of Wayward Black Women

Mattie Nelson. Esther Brown. May Enoch. 

You won’t find these names on any list of notable African Americans. Yet, they are some of the women whose lives scholar Saidiya Hartman excavates in “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” The Global Women’s Caucus Books Abroad book choice for Black History Month. 

Why would a book group devoted to feminist literature select a book about women who seem to be, at best, unremarkable; and at worst, societal deviants, misfits, juvenile deliquents? After all, there are so many other books about noteworthy women to read this February in the historic year of the election of the first woman of color as Vice President of the U.S, in the year following the most profound struggle for Black lives in recent times.

Women’s stories are often omitted from history, and where there is a lack of women’s stories there is a dearth of stories about Black women. Where there are stories, the narratives are frequently told by men. Women are either portrayed as minor figures or depicted as larger-than-life, ultra-human titans, to the effect of erasing the full breadth of their humanity. This is not to suggest that the great African American women usually celebrated during Black History Month should not be so honored; however, there are women who were not accomplished in the way we typically define it, yet who were instrumental in shaping American culture. 

Before the second wave feminist movement, which came to define the tenets of feminism most recognizable in the popular imagination, young African American women who migrated from the American South to Philadelphia and New York (among other urban centers, where upwards of 6 million African Americans re-located at the turn of the century) were a part of shaping new ways of imagining American womanhood. Saidiya Hartman calls them wayward. They eschewed social norms and expectations of respectability. They refused domestic labor, they lived with romantic partners (men and women) unmarried, they claimed marriage and gave themselves new names as they saw fit, and they rejected do-gooder white people who tried to “improve” their lives. They dressed as men and had wives. They were radical.

As Sam Huber wrote in The Nation, they ‘inaugurated modernity before Gatsby,’ before blues singers like Bessie Smith were captured on phonograph, and before Alain Locke heralded a “New Negro” in the arts.’ 

Had these women been white men, they would have inspired novels, movies, music.  

History has not completely ignored them all. Gladys Bentley was famous when she was alive, and Edna Thomas was the personal secretary of Madame C.J. Walker. But they have never been written about quite like this.  

There is another reason why this book is so timely. Because the historical accounts are sparse, Hartman uses a genre-defying style to tell the stories. The work is deeply researched -  she makes use of private diary entries, medical records, receipts, and small press journal and newspaper articles, among other sources - but bits of dialogue and narrative have been imagined by Hartman herself. 

Work that recounts history with a different lens has been under heat in recent years, like Nikole Hannah Jones’s 1619 Project for The New York Times Magazine. But works like these are more important than ever. If the narrative has erased or undersold stories by and about women, then scholarly, journalistic, and artistic work that seek to undo these omissions are in order. 

Hartman posits that these women lived lives of great imagination and will. Though state- mandated oppression sought to strip them of free will at every turn, their will to live on their own terms is what makes them notable. In a time when social and systemic norms are (thankfully, in some cases) being undone, imagination, defiance, and intuition are tools to re-create the world as we know it are necessary. They are tools women have always used to survive. The relatively unknown African American women centered in “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments” knew this. They haven’t been recognized or written about in all of their glory until now. We’re reading. 

Books Abroad Reads: Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

Sunday February 21, 2021 @ 2pm CET - 4pm CET

Join us on Sunday Feb 21st at 2pm CET for an engaging discussion of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman.

A unique, genre-bending book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments explores the revolution of Black intimate life in Philadelphia and New York at the beginning of the twentieth century by examining the untold history of women who led “wayward” lives and rejected conventionality in response to being denied access to the American Dream.