The first time I encountered Saidiya Hartman, she was a voice in salt., an award-winning play by artist and performer Selina Thompson. Woven carefully into the play’s text, Hartman’s words guide Thompson as she embarks on a cargo ship voyage, with the intention of recharting the path of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The effect is seamless. Over the course of the production, Thompson offers excerpts from Hartman’s 2007 book Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, in which Hartman shares her own account of tracing the same history, in Ghana, years earlier.
Born and raised in New York City, a place she still calls home, Hartman is a professor at Columbia University within the department of English. Across each of her books, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997), Lose Your Mother and Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019), Hartman’s writing unpacks what she terms ‘the afterlife of slavery’. With an emphasis on the word life, Hartman is relentless in fleshing out the ongoing intricacies with which the trade formed – and persists in forming – the racialised relations of our present world.
Her mastery, however, is in how she does this, how her encounters with archival material – inventories documenting the enslaved, photographs, songs, names, or the sheer lack of them – become stimuli for a narrative technique that stories the silence of loss without speaking over it. In her 2008 essay, ‘Venus in Two Acts’, she calls this methodology ‘critical fabulation’: an ‘impossible writing that attempts to say that which resists being said’; an account of history written both ‘with and against the archive’, often bending time, rendering the past, present and future coterminous. As Chicago-based poet and vocalist Jamila Woods sings, Look what they did to my sisters, last century, last week. Over the last two decades, Hartman has made it her life’s work to gaze incredibly closely. Never with the clinical detachment of an outsider. Always, as she writes, from ‘within the circle’ of black diasporic culture and thought.
Where Scenes of Subjection and Lose Your Mother deal more intimately with the workings of enslavement, Wayward Lives, her most recent book, attends to the vibrant urban lives of black women born after emancipation. Reading as a long meditation, Wayward Lives celebrates a generation of forgotten women who chose to live freely within the cages of their cities; to love multiply, beyond the state’s oppressive dictates of gender, race and class.
I met Hartman recently when she was in London to give a talk at Birkbeck. Sitting across the table from her, as we worked our way through lunchtime sushi, Hartman had the aura of someone for whom introspection comes naturally. She is as measured and deliberate in person as she is on the page. I believe, too, that her respect for silence – by which I mean: the private doorway to deep thought that only silence can provide – is what enables her to write so fluidly into the voids and failures of history. In an age where action or thought is so often paired with a broadcast on social media, Hartman’s quietude is a needful reminder that only the work truly counts.