It took me some time to understand what Hartman was creating with this book; to understand that she was building it in layers, immersing the reader slowly into a reality, first from the outside and then, from the center. From the perspective of a broad social issue and problem to the interior of individual lives. From a misunderstood generalization of people assumed destined to depravity to intimacy with their story: biography. 

I was not sure I was going to make it through this book. I was feeling very upset by what I was learning. I didn’t know that in the time period Hartman covers in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (1880-1935), police were allowed to enter into women’s homes, stop and capture them while walking down the street or forcibly remove them from public gatherings at the mere suspicion that they may be prostitutes or that they may become prostitutes someday or, more simply, that they were leaning in the direction of what others characterized as immoral. These suspicions were enough to get one taken away and locked up in the New York State Reformatory for Women at Bedford Hills.  

After serving time, the victims were forced into servitude in white households, kept a close watch on and, should the slightest suspicion of waywardness arise again, they were back in lock up. This place they were sent to in Bedford was not a nice place. 

These women, pre-teens, teens to older, were mostly black. They were victims of the Wayward Minor Laws.
A Wayward Minor, as defined by the Code of Criminal Procedure, was:

“Any person between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one who (1) ‘habitually associates with dissolute persons,’or (2) ‘is found of his or her own free will and knowledge in a house of prostitution, assignation, or ill-fame, or habitually associates with thieves, prostitutes, pimps or procurers, or disorderly persons,’ or (3) ‘is willfully disobedient to the reasonable and lawful commands of parent, guardian or other custodian and is morally depraved or is in danger of becoming morally depraved,’ or (4) ‘. . .without just cause and without consent of parents, guardians, or other custodians, deserts his or her home or place of abode, and is morally depraved or is in danger of becoming morally depraved,”or (5) ‘ . . .so deports himself or herself as to willfully injure or endanger the morals of herself and others.’

Only young women were adjudged wayward under these statues (between the years 1882-1925)”(222).

Arrested under these laws at age 14,

“Billie Holiday described the 1920s as an awful decade for this reason: ‘Those were rotten days. Women like Mom who worked as maids, cleaned office buildings, were picked up on the street and charged with prostitution. If they could pay, they got off. If they couldn’t they went to court where it was the word of some dirty grafting cop against theirs’”(254).

Slowly as Hartman begins to develop more of the world around these women in the places that were being ghettoized— the neighborhoods black people were being squeezed and pushed into—when she begins to show the many different meanings and facets of true waywardness; Queerness, music, dancing, and radical black scholarship arising within the community as movement toward freedom, the freedom they had been promised, the freedom they believed in, when she begins to fill the text with the wholeness of what was happening at the time, I felt I could catch my breath and continue reading. 

There are many definitions of wayward that Hartman explores in the text. I will include these from Miriam Webster here:

1following one’s own capricious, wanton, or depraved inclinations UNGOVERNABLE
2following no clear principle or law UNPREDICTABLE
3opposite to what is desired or expected UNTOWARD

The book explores common women who were victims of an all-out assault on their freedoms by being labeled wayward, as well as  women who had some agency who were being deliberately wayward as protest and out of revolutionary inclination. All of this was happening at once, mixed up together and arising from the same impulse: the desire to be free to choose their lives, loves and  futures.


Once I understood that this was a movement put down, that there were gleamings of beauty and hope in this narrative, then I could stick with it. We were going to get to something— somewhere of hope—together and Hartman was going to lead the way. Once again, though the path may be brutal and difficult, I knew I could trust her. But first, we must upend the narrative, break down the walls of assumption, qualification and definition, to see the truth attempting to reveal itself.

“The violence was a major catalyst in the making of Harlem. After being attacked by their white neighbors, black New Yorkers sought protection by huddling with their own. The daily radical assaults and clashes in downtown, coupled with the availability of housing in Harlem, spurred this migration within the city. By 1915 at least eighty percent of black New Yorkers lived in Harlem. The numbers steadily increased despite the attempt of “The Save Harlem Committee” organized by Anglo Saxon Realty to stanch the flood of black folks”(174).

But the undercurrent of the story— the implication that the waywardness portrayed, described, criminalized and pathologized (to this day) was that attempt at freedom, that expectation of true liberation, that dream deferred* revealing itself, only to be smacked down again—is a hard and bitter pill. 

In my last post about Hartman, a woman writer I believe to be doing some of the most important thinking right now on the planet, and her book, Lose Your Mother, I wrote: What’s next? What now? How to move forward? Start with Saidiya Hartman and consider yourself in good hands.

Read that post here:
Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along The Atlantic Slave Route By Woman Writer Saidiya Hartman

And so, this is what is next, to explore the questions examined and brought forth in this text, how this time period that Hartman focuses on “mostly in the Fifth and Seventh Ward of Philadelphia and the Tenderloin and Harlem”(xxi) of NYC resonates into our now. To understand that black people in this country are still unfree, even though their  dreams and imaginings from that time period remain prophetic and visionary today. The cry for freedom felt and displayed with their bodies went so far beyond what the white populace assumed they wanted and would be happy to accept at the end of the Civil War. 

No. They wanted true freedom, not merely the privilege of acting white or being accepted by the white populace as servants rather than slaves. They wanted more than the permission to adopt the ethics, standards and social norms of the white populace. They didn’t want to behave themselves according to codes of conduct they never chose for themselves. They wanted the freedom to choose how to live. 

Who could imagine or understand that they expected to truly live their own truth, whatever that was after generations of enslavement, whatever that was after “losing their mother,” whatever that was after being owned as property.

Whatever that was lurked unknown. The women’s lives that Hartman explores in Wayward Lives reach and grope toward that, experimenting, dreaming, longing and living according to what their bodies told them they wanted. 

Their dreams were not necessarily the dream of heteronormative relationships and families. They were not hoping to aspire to women are seen but not heard. They did not all particularly want to become property owners themselves after having been property.

Whatever it was that was lingering in the corners of their minds and aspirations—and  it was different for each individual—and wanted to emerge from each psyche and each body as it freed itself from the shackles of more than enslavement, as it freed itself from western patriarchy and colonization. It was a dream not yet seen or heard. It was a new dream, a dream of otherness….and it was disallowed.

“The first generation after slavery had been so in love with being free that few noticed or minded that they had been released to nothing at all. They didn’t yet know that the price of the war was to be exacted from their flesh. People were too busy dreaming of who they wanted to be and how they wanted to live and the acres they would farm, and searching for the mother they would never find, wondering what happened to their uncle, was their sister dead, and was it true that someone had seen two of their brothers as far north as Philadelphia?”(143).

Hartman honors this dream attempting to unfurl, this intention arising, the forward push by these women. She brings it to life and paints a different and alternate picture of that time, gives voice and dialogue to their reality and experience, rather than the other ones we encounter….through sociologists, social workers and reformers.

This is not to say that all the women covered in this book are “wayward” or deliberately heading toward lives of otherness but rather there was a fear of what they may attempt now that they were free, and the projection of waywardness was a way that the culture attempted to reign that in. It was cruel and abominable and made assumptions that were untrue while granting permission for law enforcement to infringe upon human beings’ rights to be free. 

All the characters in the book are real, not invented. Hartman went through photographs, documents of investigations, trial transcripts, case files surveys, notes of sociologists and then told the story “from inside the circle” (xiii)

Saidiya Hartman is a Professor at Columbia University and the author of three other books.

This is a practice that Hartman has termed “critical fabulation:” the importance of making sure the stories of the those erased, victimized, enslaved and voiceless are told from their point of view, not the point of view of those enslaving or victimizing them. She uses her well-honed research abilities to scour the historical records from all different angles and then sits inside the circle of their realities and allows their truth to emerge as story. Often a very different story than the ones we are told.

“The album assembled here is an archive of the exorbitant, a dream book for existing otherwise. By attending to these lives, a very unexpected story of the twentieth century emerges, one that offers an intimate chronicle of black radicalism, an aesthetical and riotous history of colored girls and their experiments with freedom—a revolution before Gatsby. For the most part, the history and the potentiality of their life-world has remained unthought because no one could conceive of young black women as social visionaries and innovators in the world in which these acts took place. The decades between 1890 and 1935 were decisive in determining the course of black futures. A revolution in a minor key unfolded in the city and young black women were the vehicle. This upheaval of transformation of black intimate life was the consequence of economic exclusion, material deprivation, racial enclosure, and social dispossession; yet it too, was fueled by the vision of a future world and what might be.

The wild idea that animates this book is that young black women were radical thinkers who tirelessly imagined other ways to live and never failed to consider how the world might be otherwise”(XV).

She takes us into the lives of the unknown and then she also covers the lives of  the well known: Filmaker Oscar Micheaux; sociologist and black liberation leader W.E.B. Du Bois; feminist and activist Ida B. Wells; socialist Hubert Harrison; Eleanor Fagan, aka Billie Holiday; Victoria Earle Matthews, founder of the White Rose Mission; Gladys Bentley, sculptor, gender queer entertainer of the Harlem Renaissance; Mary White Ovington, cofounder of the NAACP; actress Edna Thomas and her lover Olivia Wyndham. 

It’s a wild read, so packed full of detail, insight and waywardness, one must read it once and then pick it up and read it all over again.

Saidiya Hartman is a Nasty Woman Writer imagining new futures by reimagining the past.

© Theresa C. Dintino

*line from “Harlem,” a poem by Langston Hughes

Works cited:

Hartman, Saidiya.  Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. W.W. Norton & Co. NY, 2020