Black History Month Spotlight: Saidiya Hartman

02 October 2020

For Black History Month, we’re flooding our news feed with profiles of our black authors, past and present. Check back in for updates over the next few weeks. In the first of the series, Senior Marketing Manager Flora Willis writes about the incredible Saidiya Hartman.


‘Few, then or now, recognized young black women as sexual modernists, free lovers, radicals, and anarchists, or realized that the flapper was a pale imitation of the ghetto girl.’

In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, literary scholar and historian Saidiya Hartman reimagines the lives of black women in America at the turn of the century. Emancipated but limited by what white society deemed acceptable, Hartman’s women are trailblazers for a new way of living.

While the author’s archive is shockingly small, her characters and their lives – built out of sociological surveys, tenement photographs, reformatory case files, and other sources – are rich and whole. It is engrossing reading: with each character a new world, and throughout, the pages alive with chatter echoing in tenement block stairwells, underwear fluttering on clotheslines, the low-lit clubs of Harlem where queer poets and singers take to the stage, cramped rooms where couples fall in and out of love; awful and all too frequent slashes of police violence.

In October last year we attended Hartman’s event at Birkbeck University in London. We knew it would be great. But we couldn’t have anticipated the breathless silence as Hartman walked on stage, the air of awe and reverence and the prolonged standing ovation. When she read, you could have heard a pin drop. You can listen to her talk as a podcast.

Since we published Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Hartman has been awarded a MacArthur Genius grant. They said: ‘By addressing gaps and omissions in accounts of trans-Atlantic slavery and its aftermath, Hartman has influenced an entire generation of scholars and afforded readers a proximity to the past that would otherwise be foreclosed.’

We are thrilled to be publishing Lose Your Mother, a remarkable meditation on slavery, history and kin, in June 2021.

Buy your copy of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments from your local independent bookshop or:

Waterstones | Amazon | Hive

wayward lives


If it is possible to imagine Mattie and other young black women as innovators and radical thinkers, then the transformations of sexuality, intimacy, affiliation, and kinship taking place in the black quarter of northern cities might be labeled the revolution before Gatsby.Before the queer men and lady lovers and pansies congregated at the Ubangi Club, or the Garden of Joy or the Clam House, before the Harlem Renaissance, before white folks journeyed uptown to get a taste of the other, before F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Radclyffe Halland Henry Miller, before black communists and socialists preaching on Harlem street corners noticed girls like Mattie, eager as any to hear news of a future world— this reconstruction of intimate life commenced.After the slave ship and the plantation, the third revolution of black intimate life unfolded in the city. The hallway, bedroom, stoop, rooftop, airshaft, and kitchenette provided the space of experiment. The tenement and the rooming house furnished the social laboratory of the black working class and the poor. The bedroom was a domain of thought in deed and a site for enacting, exceeding, undoing, and remaking relations of power. Unfortunately, the police and the sociologists were there also, ready and waiting, for Mattie Nelson on the threshold of want.