July 12, 2020

Interview with Saidiya Hartman

From The White Review

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.

Q

The White Review

— Looking back to when you first started out on your journey as an academic, as someone interested in storytelling, in archives, did you have a clear vision of what you wanted to achieve back then?

A

Saidiya Hartman

— I think one thing that I accepted from early on was the sense that I was a wailer. Partly in the Bob Marley and the Wailers sense of what it means to offer witness, to recognise yourself as involved in the project of remembering what the world has chosen to forget and to write about black people with the rigour and depth commensurate with our experience. It is a very feminised labour of trying to express and to hold this collective affect of black folks; to witness and not to pretend that things aren’t bad, that we aren’t in this seemingly interminable struggle, and that we have not been living this dispossession so long. I had that desire when I wrote my first poem as a middle-schooler. I wanted to be a witness.

Q

The White Review

— One of the things I think about a lot is the question of how we care for ourselves whilst doing archival work. We are not merely engaging with information, but human lives, and attempting to respectfully bring these lives into the light. I wonder about the effects that this has on us as black artists, writers and thinkers. How have you navigated this in your work?

A

Saidiya Hartman

— I agree with you that it is really difficult work, and it does take a toll psychically. I remember what may have been my first or second reading of Lose Your Mother, and I was reading with a South African novelist, Yvette Christiansë, who had written a novel about slavery and infanticide. I was reading from ‘So Many Dungeons’ – that chapter in the book about being in the dungeon of the slave castle – and suddenly I just lost it. I found myself in tears publicly, and I hadn’t anticipated that. It was as if there was this huge, huge wave of grief that I was carrying and that I was obviously processing in the writing, but clearly hadn’t processed. There was that residue. After the reading, these three older black women – I think of them as the three old crones – came up to me, and they said you can leave the hold now. If you’re really present, then what is undeniable is the devastation and loss and genocide. All the death and destruction for the purposes of capital accumulation – trade – still structures our lives. We are living in the world created by the transatlantic slave trade.

I began Wayward Lives, a book about freedom and beauty, with the simple feeling that I can’t write another book about slavery. I couldn’t bear another decade in the archive of slavery. I do actually have another small set of essays that are about slavery, but I just needed to put them down.

Q

The White Review

— It’s conflicting because there’s no wish to be wounded – more so than we already are – by these realities, but the scale of what we’re looking at is so heavy that it wouldn’t be right not to be changed by it.

A

Saidiya Hartman

— Especially because the world largely has denied the violence that was absolutely necessary for the trade to unfold and develop. Black thinkers and writers have been absolutely central to transforming our understanding of the Atlantic slave trade by acknowledging the scope and depth of its violence, its terror. It’s been absolutely necessary work.

Q

The White Review

Lose Your Mother maps your experience of being in Ghana – a location significantly affected by the transatlantic slave trade – and searching for traces left by those who were captured and transported to the Americas. How did you come to write it?

A

Saidiya Hartman

— In a way it was a strange thing that I even wrote Lose Your Mother. I do say, explicitly, that it wasn’t a ‘back-to-my-roots’ journey, but nonetheless I was on the trail of the dispossessed: those who had been made captives and exchanged in the trade. The character of the archive in Ghana at the time was not textual but one of landscape, it was an archive of the unsaid – and I really didn’t know how to work with that. I was on a Fulbright fellowship and I thought oh my God, I don’t have a book to write after all this. Kofi Anyidoho, a professor at the University of Ghana, encouraged me to fold my own personal experience into the encounter, which was really the last thing I wanted to do because I’m a very private person. But I think that what he saw, that I didn’t – at the time – was how deep the resonance of emotion was around this history, and how deeply marked diasporic subjects are by it. Even beyond our own awareness, you know? So I thought, OK, can I actually do this? And then it just became necessary to write the book

Q

The White Review

— You were there in the late nineties?

A

Saidiya Hartman

— I was there in 1997-98. That was a radically different world. I feel that as a result of those diasporic encounters there is a very different discourse on the ground today.

Q

The White Review

— I was 7 in 1998, so I can’t speak to that moment but as a Ghanaian in the diaspora today it does seem to have become important to make that connection to the African continent. It feels very much in vogue.

A

Saidiya Hartman

— Now it’s very much in vogue, and today there are so many individuals, from the US and the Caribbean, travelling to Ghana with questions about slavery and who are engaged in a dialogue and exchange with Ghanaians. But back then I was surprised by how seemingly out of sort my questions were to Ghanaians. The questions that I was raising about those who were lost into the trade were met with resistance, or hostility, or indifference, or unknowing. And yet African novelists had been dealing with these things forever

Q

The White Review

— Forever!

A

Saidiya Hartman

— So that was just so interesting. It was like, wait – but this is the home of Ayi Kwei Armah and Ama Atta Aidoo. There was Yambo Ologuem and Ben Okri, you know? All these African novelists. Lose Your Mother is about disenchanting a certain myth of belonging, of roots, to actually try to find another language of connection. I think there are people who never get to the last chapter, ‘Fugitive Dreams’, so they never understand that.

Q

The White Review

— And you have to get there—

A

Saidiya Hartman

— You have to get there! Because it does happen, but it’s a journey. I realised that people weren’t getting there. I was doing readings and I’d read the last chapter and so many people said they had no memory of that last chapter. I think they thought that I gave up. I also think that they didn’t understand the impact of African writers on my work, even though I titled one of the chapters ‘The Famished Road’ – that’s a clear homage. I include traces of Ayi Kwei Armah, Achille Mbembe… so there’s the presence of that influence.

Q

The White Review

— I can only imagine what a strange feeling it must have been to notice that among your readers. It’s almost as though they haven’t read the book that you wrote.

A

Saidiya Hartman

— At a certain moment – and this is very recently – people got to the end of the book; I think they did so as a result of the readings I was doing. Also people began to read it in relation to NourbeSe Philip’s Zong and Dionne Brand’s Map to the Door of No Return. Only then did people start to mention this other language of relation that I was writing about – one that’s not about origins but about reversals of history and the aspirations and struggles that we share. The political scientist James Scott has done all this work on the anarchist traditions of South Asian peasants, and I would say there’s also a history of radical struggle that has its origins on the African continent. One of the things I wanted to ask was, ‘what are the histories of struggle against these predatory state formations, and do they shape and inform a diasporic imagination?’ That too, is part of the language of Black Radicalism. It’s about our fugitive dreams.

Q

The White Review

— Which is to say that the site of union is not so much the wound but the dream. Maintaining that awareness of our variously common and distinct struggles or origins as black people, whilst focusing on the question: what is the dream, and where are we going?

A

Saidiya Hartman

— Exactly.

Q

The White Review

— How would you describe your process?

A

Saidiya Hartman

— I research and write in separate stages. I read widely and takes tons and tons of notes, and then I begin writing. I rarely consult the notes, but simply begin writing. What I recall most clearly – or the details that emerge from the file or document – are the beginnings of the story or narrative. What I remember and where I start is with the detail that is the equivalent of the punctum, the moment of a life, the shape of an object, the darkness of a room, that solicits me, most often because it represents an opening or a detour.

Q

The White Review

— Your work serves as a guide for writing into the empty spaces of archives and memory, particularly your methodology of ‘critical fabulation’ – a way of imagining one’s route through voids. I am also thinking of Christina Sharpe’s recent writing around ‘wake work’ – her framing this work as an expression of care – which is also such a brilliant term for these explorations.

A

Saidiya Hartman

— One of the things that I really love about Christina’s book (In the Wake: On Blackness and Being) which I don’t think would have been possible, a decade ago, is its engagement with the Atlantic in relation to the Mediterranean and its capacious account of the black experience across Europe, Africa and the Americas. I’m sure you feel this personally – you’re black in a way that your Ghanaian parents never were. What does blackness mean for the experience of African migrants and their brutal racialisation, and also what does it mean for first, second and third generation black Europeans to be considered outsiders within their national contexts? It’s so much about time and place. Thinking blackness in these terms had no resonance whatsoever in Ghana when I was there. Sharpe is able to expand our thinking in this comparative and nuanced way because the language of blackness has become shared and universalised.

Q

The White Review

— Here in the UK, our histories of black radicalism have faced a lot of erasure – perhaps one reason why we’re still searching for ways to articulate the specificities of our being here.

A

Saidiya Hartman

— Part of my own black experience is a consequence of growing up in New York City. Many of the friends I went to school with were black but we didn’t speak the same languages at home. They were from Haiti, Panama, from the Dutch-speaking Caribbean, so that blackness was already so differentiated. Blackness was never really defined by sameness. Because of my father’s family’s history of migration there were some people in the family who were never black – and there you also see the work of identification, or disidentification. Blackness doesn’t presume any unanimity of culture, or reference, you know? Even as the structural condition is shared. People who were outsiders, not from New York – it could be a white person or a black person who came from the South or the Midwest, a much more homogeneous cultural formation – would say, how can you look at someone and tell if they’re Panamanian or Haitian? I took difference for granted. I had a friend who was a southerner who moved to New York, and her landlord was Jamaican and his wife was from Grenada, and she thought that to have a Caribbean identity was to say that you were not black, because she’d grown up in a context where people were only black or white. She was a fairskinned black woman, and still the lines were solid.

Q

The White Review

— Let’s talk about the figure of the circle because it appears in all of your books. It arises when you speak about writing ‘from inside the circle’, it comes up when instances of dance occur in your texts, and it seems to me that there’s something very black about it as signifier. What are your thoughts on the circle as a symbol, as a framework, and as a mode of relation within blackness?

A

Saidiya Hartman

— You’re right in that there are these three spaces or architectures that are absolutely foundational to my work: the Atlantic, the hold, and the circle. And I think that the circle is a central figure when trying to describe black radical imaginaries and anti-slavery philosophy, from Frederick Douglass’s description of the circle as a space of sociality and radical thought, to the historian Sterling Stuckey, who looks at circle formations in African American culture, tracing them to Congo culture – specifically, the Bakongo cosmogram. So all that is to say that I think you’re right that the circle is this deep, diasporic formation that travels with us. It’s so rich with the potential of relation, possibility, care, other modes of understanding – it’s the knowledge we have and make with one another. And that’s why Douglass is so pivotal for me. It may seem like nonsense to the outside world, but in here we know it is a tome of philosophy. It resonates with Édouard Glissant’s discussion about ‘the right to opacity’. Lose Your Mother closes with a circle formation. In Gwolu, these young girls give me the possibility of another language of relation – and I think that I became aware of the gift after the fact; it wasn’t that I was trying to build or even assume a connection. In Wayward Lives there is a beautiful stark image of the Atlantic, and as I was writing, I reflected on why it was important to have this image in the book. It is one of the spaces or milieux that define blackness. Alongside the circle, the hold, the colony, the native quarter, the carceral landscape. The circle forms inside the enclosure and even in the worst circumstances, there is making and relation.

Q

The White Review

— What was the genesis story of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments?

A

Saidiya Hartman

— When I started writing the book, I had no idea of its scale and ambition. The book began with my encounter with the girl in the Thomas Eakins photograph and trying to account for her life. What was the life of a young black girl like a few decades after the legal abolition of slavery and in anticipation of the new century? The photograph was a condensation of centuries of black existence, an enduring image of captivity and commodification, and an image that raised questions about the meaning of freedom. It was an image of temporal entanglement.

Q

The White Review

— Can we talk about the word wayward? I love this word because there’s something in it that suggests going rogue, going off-course, but also finding a course; searching for one. Not just moving outside of imposed limits, but being in favour of making a new way. It seems to me to be the key word, the keystone in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. How did you arrive at it?

A

Saidiya Hartman

— Wayward was so resonant with other terms – detour, errant, fugitive – and it is a word that brings to mind this practice of variance or deviation, so it seemed richly suggestive. In the chapter ‘Wayward: A Short Entry on the Possible’, it’s connected to all of these other words like anarchy and queer and unruly, but there was something about the gendered character of it that was exactly right, it seemed both old-fashioned and absolutely contemporary. The wayward girl is the girl who won’t succumb to or obey the gender script. The challenge when describing black women’s lives, black women’s radical practices, is that they’re always subsumed or asterisked to a larger category. I just needed to say no, their practice is the category, you know? And this notion of being a footnote to everything else is what waywardness enabled me to challenge, it seemed an organic term for describing the radical and disobedient imaginary of young black women – so that’s why I liked it. How do we understand black radical imaginaries without understanding how central girls and women are to those projects?

I remember once giving a talk and people were nodding their heads like yes, yes, yes, but why not just call that queer? It’s because queer is already loaded and known; queer has also been a category that in some respects has effaced the intellectual labour and practice of black women. Few think queer as in Nella Larsen. So wayward seemed more richly suggestive, and then all of those other terms were folded in as a part of its definition.

Q

The White Review

— It also seems to me that there’s an order here – a sense that queerness comes under the heading of waywardness, not vice versa.

A

Saidiya Hartman

— That’s exactly right, queerness is one articulation of a wayward project, but there’s something about the general waywardness that is blackness that I wanted to underscore. And then there’s the queer, the anarchic – all of those are attributes of waywardness. I think your question might have been better than my answer…!

Q

The White Review

— Whilst reading Wayward Lives, a poem that came to mind often was Lucille Clifton’s ‘why some people be mad at me sometimes’. She writes, ‘they ask me to remember / but they want me to remember / their memories / and i keep on remembering / mine.’ At the heart of that poem is an expression of both refusal and repetition, which resonates deeply with your book.

A

Saidiya Hartman

— I think that refusal is the everyday practice of saying no to those structures that consign us to death and to subordination, and that refusal happens on multiple scales. So one of the young women in the book, Esther Brown, is described as being not afraid to smash things up and that way of being is a response to a world that is trying to consign her to a place that’s less-than, and so she says Esther Brown won’t take that. It’s an assertion of her refusal to servitude, to subordination, and to the kind of valuelessness produced by anti-blackness. That’s one aspect of refusal, and I think that repetition – or maybe I might say, the refrain, those circulating refrains – just echo and echo across time and space and we can think of the refrain as echoing from Harriet Jacobs inside her loophole of retreat, to Assata Shakur, or to #SayHerName. There are these utterances that are recurring and they continue to animate struggle, they continue to remind us of the possible. Lucille Clifton’s work is such a resource of these refrains: why I, everyday, celebrate the act of survival, why I celebrate that something has tried to kill me and failed – surviving in a world where I’m not meant to survive. The refrains of Harriet Jacobs or Tubman or Sojourner Truth or Bessie Head resound in my words and determine how we think about our condition, and the pasts that reside in our now—

Q

The White Review

— As though we are inhabiting our own sense of time, wherein everything exists all at once—

A

Saidiya Hartman

— Everything all at once! And the way in which we are still trying to make good the proclamations of over a century ago; the struggle to be treated as if human flesh. Those patterns or statements or refrains – this collective utterance – also provide an architecture or a grounding for Wayward Lives. This collective resource of black women’s thought that is Toni Morrison and Angela Davis and Maryse Condé and all the black women thinkers and writers whose words are tools for survival.

Q

The White Review

— In the text you use italicisation rather than footnotes, and as I read I realised how truly essential this is. It imbues the text with an orality that traditional citation doesn’t achieve.

A

Saidiya Hartman

— It was exactly my intention for the text to be polyphonic, to conjure the multivocality of the chorus and the spoken character of utterance. One of the things that was really important for me to convey was the sensorium of black urban space, and that is so much about sound, right? The intimacy and proximity and overhearing of this shared utterance. I wanted to create that sense of not just a spoken text but a text that’s created by this multiplicity of utterance and that sometimes it speaks in multiple ways, like girl, you’re too much, you know? The description of the ‘too much’ of blackness or the ‘too much’ of the wayward and not wanting to be disciplined by the disciplinary apparatus. In large measure, what the practice of citation does is reproduce intellectual hierarchies. Whose words must be accounted for? Whose words are endowed with autonomy or must be treated as if valuable and private property, as opposed to the kind of taken-for-granted utterances that are credited to no one in particular. I wanted to level all of that.

Q

The White Review

— And that takes a beautiful leap of faith because not every reader will recognise every reference in italics, but there’s a chance that at some point they will. It reminds me of the use of sampling in hip-hop.

A

Saidiya Hartman

— You’re totally, absolutely right about that. And certainly, in the music, we understand that – there’s a great range of reference or resonance or sampling that comprises the work, yet you can enjoy the piece of music whether or not you know the allusions and references, but when you can hear all of it, you’re like oh my God! VèVè Clark had this lovely phrase called ‘diasporic literacy’, and she used this to describe Condé’s novel Hérémakhonon because that novel has such a wide range of diasporic reference. Condé takes for granted that sense of ok, you need to get on board – there’s a black world that is being described here and refuses to explain or instruct. So I think that’s a way of centering the within the circle formation in that it’s not about leading an unknowing reader carefully into this world, rather it’s like oh, you know what, there’s a vast range of reference and ideas in play and you’re welcome to come in – but the more you know, the more you hear.

Q

The White Review

— There’s a striking line in Wayward Lives that reads ‘everything from the first ship to the woman found hanging in her cell’. This made me think of Sarah Reed’s death at Holloway Prison in 2016 – just one example of cumulative injustices faced by black women at the hands of the British state.

A

Saidiya Hartman

— Whether it’s Sarah Reed or Sandra Bland, it’s about articulating a structural condition and it doesn’t matter if it’s 1919 or 2019. Both Korryn Gaines and Sandra Bland chronicled the threat of death that defines the lived experience of blackness. In vlogs and Facebook posts, they anticipated their deaths, understanding that any encounter with the state would place their lives in jeopardy. I think that their examples have failed to galvanise social movements in the ways that men’s deaths have. Even in the context of something like Black Lives Matter, which was started by black women, you still need to start #SayHerName to make up for that gap of significance and regard. As we know, black women are as vulnerable to these forms of state violence, yet how do we underscore that? Wayward Lives closes with this figure – who is many figures – a woman hanging in her cell. The book is about the persistence and the tenacity of the everyday struggle to live, which dovetails with Sharpe’s vision of ‘wake work’. We live in the wake of these moments, they structure our existence but they don’t blot out everything else. They don’t exhaust everything else. The book describes the as if – as if we were free, as if a beautiful life were possible. It is earned by so much loss and destruction, blood and tears. It’s not an easy celebration. It’s not a vitalist rejoicing, but an extended meditation on the impossible and the necessary: what does it mean to even imagine that life is possible and to want something like the good life when life itself cannot be taken for granted; when one lives under the threat of death; when captivity is the prevailing scheme? How does one live in that context?

Q

The White Review

— I was also reminded the phrase ‘directed by desire’, from June Jordan’s poem ‘When I or Else’. I saw it as a perfect descriptor for the women in Wayward Lives.

A

Saidiya Hartman

— Under capitalism there are so many forms of pleasure that are reproductive of the order. The forms of pleasure and joy and beauty that are also the focus here are those moments that are refusals and ruptures with the order. Again, the important question is: what does it mean to love that which can’t be loved? What does it mean to even imagine, as a poor black girl, that you might have something like a beautiful life – one that’s not about your self-annihilation, that’s not about your conformity with norms or the meagre existence to which you have been confined. That requires – is conditioned by – a certain refusal. It’s to know yourself in the world you’re a part of in radically different terms. For me that’s the miracle of everyday survival.

Q

The White Review

— What has been essential to your life as a writer?

A

Saidiya Hartman

— I feel fortunate because I have had such wonderful and brilliant teachers who have modelled so much, not only about how to write but about how to be a person of integrity in the world. I’m always thinking of my teachers. I also feel very lucky to be in the company of so many brilliant scholars of my generation. I’m constantly learning from my peers and that becomes food for me, it keeps me going. Music and quiet, those are things that are key to writing. I really do need more time to write, because when you’re young there’s a way that you can do whatever it takes – abuse yourself – to keep on writing, but I’m at this stage in life where I need to take better care of myself. Being a black woman in the world, I don’t take living a long life for granted at all. So it’s like oh, how long do I have? Do I have another decade of life? I don’t know, I hope so.

Q

The White Review

— Three final questions. 1) How do you define joy – what does joy mean to you? 2) What is your favourite colour? And lastly, a question you’re asking yourself, or something you’re telling yourself, from Saidiya to Saidiya.

A

Saidiya Hartman

— What is joy? What is joy? I tend to describe joy as this experience of transformation or release from the constraint or costume of the individual or the subject into this other form. So, for me I think it’s about floating, it’s about being nothing and being everything at the same time; this sense of the self disappearing in the context of the vastness of the earth, the ocean, the sky, the land. That kind of joy is always about self-dissolution, escape. And my favourite colour? My garden in full bloom. I’m a gardener, so I love the colours in my garden and I love just playing with colours. I’ll show you my dahlias (shows image on phone), these are from my garden. Deep purples, deep burgundies towards black. The garden’s blackest flowers. And finally, I don’t know if I would have a question or advice, but probably the advice that I would give myself would be something like ‘don’t despair’. Don’t despair.

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