When we consider the grand scope of human existence, it becomes obvious that only a small percentage of lives go recorded in the most technical or administrative ways. A staggeringly smaller subset of those go on to be memorialized in history to any significant depth. Obviously, privilege of class, race, gender, and citizen status have affected the long arc of the historical record, affecting the ways in which immigrants, slaves, and others had their histories wiped or misrepresented due to purposeful decisions by a ruling class — perhaps none so much as poor, Black, women in the Reconstruction period, who faced a uniquely crushing array of intersectional hurdles to their basic freedom and autonomy. And yet, while the truism that history is written by the victors tends to hold, a new book by historian, author, and Guggenheim Fellow Saidiya Hartman demonstrates the way in which every writer, researcher, and curious human has choices to make when they turn their sights to revisiting history, with the intention of bringing a story back to the future.
Hartman had a very clear idea of what she was seeking when she undertook the research process that became Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval: “I searched for photographs exemplary of the beauty and possibility cultivated in the lives of ordinary black girls and young women and that stoked dreams of what might be possible if you could escape the house of bondage,” she writes, in one essay, titled “A Minor Figure.” In addition to attending to the fictionalized histories of a few specific subjects, “A Minor Figure” clearly presents Hartman’s underlying values as a researcher: that no life is insignificant, that suppressed narratives deserve daylight, that we hold within us the capacity to expand history with our imagination and shared humanity.
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Photograph of Ethel Waters, age 12, n.d. (Photographs of Prominent African Americans, James Weldon Johnson Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University)