Saidiya Hartman

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Saidiya Hartman
Born1961 (age 57–58)
Occupationwriter, academic
Known forMacArthur Fellow

Saidiya Hartman is an American writer and academic, who is a professor at Columbia University specializing in African-American literature and history.[1] She grew up in Brooklyn and received her B.A. from Wesleyan University and Ph.D. from Yale University.[2] Hartman was one of the 26 individuals chosen to be a MacArthur Fellow in 2019.[3]

Fields of interest[edit]

Hartman's major fields of interest are African-American and American literature and cultural history, slavery, law and literature, gender studies, and performance studies.[4] She is on the editorial board of the journal Callaloo. Hartman has been a Fulbright, Rockefeller, Whitney Oates, and University of California President's Fellow and was awarded the 2007 Narrative Prize from Narrative Magazine and the Gustav Myers Award for Human Rights.[5][6] She is the author of Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-making in Nineteenth Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997), Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (W. W. Norton, 2019).[7] Hartman's "essays have been widely published and anthologized."[2][8]

Theoretical concepts[edit]

Hartman introduces the idea of "critical fabulation" in her article "Venus in Two Acts", although she could be said to be engaged in the practice in both of her full-length books, Scenes of Subjection and Lose Your Mother.[9] The term "critical fabulation" signifies a writing methodology that combines historical and archival research with critical theory and fictional narrative. Critical fabulation is a tool that Hartman uses in her scholarly practice to make productive sense of the gaps and silences in the archive of trans-Atlantic slavery that absent the voices of enslaved women.

Hartman also theorizes the "afterlife of slavery"[10] in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. The "afterlife of slavery" can be characterized by the enduring presence of slavery's racialized violence still present in contemporary society. Hartman outlines slavery's imprint on all sectors of society as evidenced in historical archives that may or may not exist. Hence, the archive lives on through the social structure of the society and its citizens. Hartman describes this process in detail in Lose Your Mother: "I wanted to engage the past, knowing that its perils and dangers still threatened and that even now lives hung in the balance. Slavery had established a measure of man and a ranking of life and worth that has yet to be undone. If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. I, too, am the afterlife of slavery."[10] Hartman went back to Africa to learn more about slavery and came back having learned more about herself.

Hartman further fleshes out the afterlives of slavery through the ways in which photographic capture and enclosure spills into domestic spaces. Hartman exposes the limits of such capture as she describes the hallway as a regulative, yet intimate space. She writes, “It is inside but public…The hallway is a space uneasy with expectation and tense with force of unmet desire. It is the liminal zone between the inside and outside for the one who stays in the ghetto; the reformer documenting the habitat of the poor passes through without noticing it, failing to see what can be created in cramped space, if not an overture, a desecration, or to regard our beautiful flaws and terrible ornaments." [11]

Contributions to the understanding of slavery[edit]

Hartman has made literary and theoretical contributions to the understanding of slavery.[12] Her first book, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, is an examination of, among other topics, the intersection of slavery, gender, and the development of progressivism in the United States through the exploration of blank genealogies, memory, and the lingering effects of racism. Working through a variety of cultural materials –- diaries, journals, legal texts, slave and other narratives, and historical song and dance—Hartman explores the precarious institution of slave power. Her second book, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, confronts the troubled relationships among memory, narratives, and representation. She concentrates on the "non-history" of the slave, the manner in which slavery "erased any conventional modality for writing an intelligible past".[1] By weaving her own biography into a historical construction, "she [also] explores and evokes the non-spaces of black experience—the experience through which the African captive became a slave, became a non-person, became alienated from personhood.[1] Through these experiences, came the title: "Because of the slave trade you lose your mother, if you know your history, you know where you come from. To lose your mother was to be denied your kin, country and identity. To lose your mother was to forget your past" (85).[13]

Hartman's contributions to understanding slavery caught the attention of UC Irvine's Frank B. Wilderson III, well known for setting groundwork and coining the phrase "Afro-pessimism". This criticism examines unflinching paradigmatic analysis on the structures of modernity produced by slavery and genocide. While he considers her Scenes of Subjection as Afro-pessimist scholarship,[14] Hartman herself has not called it so.[15]

Contributions to historical archiving[edit]

Hartman has contributed insight into the forms and functions of the historical archive, providing both pointed critiques of and methodological guides to approaching the archive in scholarly work. In both Scenes of Subjection and Lose Your Mother, Hartman accesses and critically interrogates the historical archive. In the case of the latter, much of this is done through the combined re-reading of historical narratives of slavery and through the connection of these narratives to the physical location of Ghana. Hartman, who centers much of her interrogation of slavery's archive on Elmina Castle, inserts her own voice as one way to counter the silences surrounding forgotten slaves.[16]

The difficulty of this excavation process is revealed partly in the continued tension between Hartman's interest in slavery and the rejection of this interest on the part of Ghanaians, who are depicted as ostracizing Hartman in a number of instances in the text.[10] In addition, and though she draws from "plantation journals and documents, newspaper accounts, missionary tracts, travel writing ... government reports, et cetera," Hartman recognizes that "these documents are ‘not free from barbarism.'"[17] Arguably all of Hartman's work is guided by "the impossibility of fully recovering the experience of the enslaved and the emancipated" from these written accounts, and she reads them "against the grain", knowing that in her use of these "official" records, she runs "the risk of reinforcing the authority of these documents even as I try to use them for contrary purposes".[17]

Hartman introduces the concept of narrative restraint in her article "Venus in Two Acts" to delay an archival impulse to continually register as "a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body". In this article, she returns to the slaver Recovery for an exploration that began in Lose Your Mother. Unable to write about the girl named Venus owing to her brief appearance in the archive, Hartman's attempts to resuscitate possible narratives for her ultimately lead to failure. She explains, "But in the end I was forced to admit that I wanted to console myself and to escape the slave hold with a vision of something other than the bodies of two girls settling on the floor of the Atlantic." Hartman ultimately restrains her desire to imaginatively recreate Venus's final days, her passages in Lose Your Mother only briefly mentioning Venus's fate. Her inclusion in "Venus" of the narratives omitted in Lose Your Mother, with the caveat that such narratives push beyond the boundaries of the archive, leads to the concept of narrative restraint, "the refusal to fill in the gaps and provide closure." While she excavates the historical archive in her attempt to understand the possibilities for subjectivity for the black slave (in Scenes of Subjection), the possibilities for African Diasporic community (in Lose Your Mother), a question she in her article "Venus in Two Acts" serves as a guiding principle and a lesson on archival method: "If it is no longer sufficient to expose the scandal, then how might it be possible to generate a different set of descriptions from this archive?"[18]


Hartman's most recent work, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, explores the lives of various Black women in Harlem and Philadelphia during the 1890s. Hartman describes the boundaries of Black life and womanhood through both interracial and intra-racial relationships and examines how Black women's sexuality was policed and constructed within an ideology of criminality at the turn of the twentieth century. These "deviant" behaviors are referred to as "wayward" and illustrate how Black women navigate society under surveillance, violence, and partial or conditional citizenship. The social life of Black women under surveillance results in these wayward movements being characterized as "illegal". These movements serve as an act of resistance against not only the state, but the examination of Black life under the guise of policy researchers, sociologists, and reformers aiming to improve Black women in New York and Philadelphia. Hartman asks how to imagine Black womanhood outside of the archive and "the sociological imagination that could only ever recognize her as a problem," invoking DuBois' famed question in The Souls of Black Folk: "How does it feel to be a problem?" Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval critiques the pathologization of Black women's lives by constructing a social space of freedom and "waywardness" as acts of world-making and possibility. [19]


  1. ^ a b c "Saidiya V. Hartman". Institute for Research on Women & Gender at Columbia University. Retrieved 2013-03-19.
  2. ^ a b "Saidiya Hartman". Narrative Magazine. Retrieved 2013-03-19.
  3. ^ Joan Gralla (2019-09-25). "LIer a 2019 MacArthur 'genius' grant recipient". Newsday. Retrieved 2019-09-29. Six geniuses live in New York City: theater artist Annie Dorsen, 45; Mary Halvorson, 38, a jazz and rock guitarist and composer; Saidiya Hartman, 58, a Columbia University professor who traced "the aftermath of slavery in modern American life"; contemporary dance choreographer Sarah Michelson, 55; artist Cameron Rowland, 30, for portraying systemic racism; and neuroscientist Vanessa Ruta, 45, who explores stimuli that affect neural circuits and behaviors, the foundation said.
  4. ^ "Saidiya Hartman", Tavis Smiley. Archived June 26, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ "Narrative Prize Winners". Narrative Magazine. 2007. Retrieved 2013-03-19.
  6. ^ "Institute for Research on Women & Gender" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on June 27, 2010. Retrieved 2013-03-19.
  7. ^ Hartman, Saidiya V. Wayward lives, beautiful experiments : intimate histories of social upheaval. ISBN 9780393285673. OCLC 1084731046.
  8. ^ "'Lose Your Mother' Author Finds Heritage in Africa". NPR. January 23, 2007. Retrieved 2013-03-19.
  9. ^ Hartman, Saidiya (2008-07-17). "Venus in Two Acts". Small Axe. 12 (2): 1–14. ISSN 1534-6714.
  10. ^ a b c Hartman. Lose Your Mother, pp. 6.
  11. ^ Hartman, Saidiya V. Wayward lives, beautiful experiments : intimate histories of social upheaval. ISBN 9780393285680. OCLC 1086608932.
  12. ^ Neptune, Harvey (Spring 2008). "Loving Through Loss: Reading Saidiya Hartman's History of Black Hurt". Anthurium. 6 (1). ISSN 1547-7150. Retrieved 2013-03-19.
  13. ^ 8
  14. ^ Wilderson, Frank. "Afro Pessimism". Retrieved March 16, 2013.
  15. ^ Hartman, Saidiya; Frank Wilderson (2003). "The Position of the Unthought". Qui Parle. 13 (2): 183–201. JSTOR 20686156.
  16. ^ Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 116.
  17. ^ a b Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 10.
  18. ^ "Venus in Two Acts," Small Axe 26 (June 2008): 1–14. p. 7.
  19. ^ Hartman, Saidiya V. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments : Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (First ed.). New York. ISBN 9780393285673. OCLC 1037810804.