Posts tagged ‘Saidiya Hartman’

October 13, 2021

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts by Rebecca Hall

by Team Riverside

Hardback, Particular Books, £20, out now

Rebecca Hall Wake

This new graphic novel and memoir charts historian Rebecca Hall’s search for women rebel slave leaders in archives in the UK and US.  It is gripping, moving, and compelling.

Formerly a social justice lawyer, Hall’s work starts in New York in 1999, and Hugo Martínez’s illustrations show the slaving past literally reflected in the city as Hall walks through it.  It’s a brilliant way of showing how the past is inescapable in the present.  The graphic novel format lends itself to this so well, literally illustrating the similarities in some behaviour and surroundings between then and now. A smartly dressed white man barges into Hall without seeing her, and in a window reflection a white man in a tricorn hat pushes past another Black woman.

There are newly found stories of women-led revolts here, showing that her exhaustive work has paid off, and they are told with deep humanity.

As with Saidiya Hartman’s work on transforming and disrupting the archive, Hall does the work of interrogating why archives are as they are (anyone who loved Wayward Lives and Lose Your Mother will find this essential reading – see https://riversidebookshop.co.uk/2020/09/23/wayward-lives-beautiful-experiments-by-saidiya-hartman/).  The realisation that current racism and sexism have some of their roots in slavery is manifest. The historian as human is very present – “This work I’m doing is hard, and it hurts.”

Wake gives a vivid account of the difficulty of finding people in official archives when their voices are not recorded, being considered of no importance, or when their only seeming presence is as property.  She is also explicit about the UK archives which barred her from access, and those which felt they held nothing about slavery.

Hall describes herself as being haunted by slavery.  This really is a haunting book, necessarily violent and painful, showing that hard and committed work by historians can be revolutionary. 

Review by Bethan

September 23, 2020

Wayward Lives Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman

by Team Riverside

Paperback, Serpent’s Tail, £17.99, out now        

Wayward Lives book cover

This is an extraordinary and moving book, finding women’s hidden histories in the archives.  Hartman makes the invisible visible, in many cases literally with vivid images that will stick in your mind long after you’ve finished reading.  Photos, newspaper clippings, and contemporary documents let you see for yourself the stories of women refusing to live like slaves, and striving for freedom and joy.

Focussing on young black women in America in the early twentieth century, Hartman uses a vast range of archival material, and draws out the words and voices of those women wherever she can.  Her approach is creative and hugely engaging, and you can tell it’s going to be something different from the cast of characters listed at the start of the book.  Included are “Mabel Hampton: Chorine, lesbian, working-class intellectual, and aspiring concert singer” and “The Chorus: All the unnamed young women of the city trying to find a way to live and in search of beauty”.  Some of the content is inevitably quite distressing. There is deprivation and glamour, imprisonment and rebellion, servitude and love.

The book’s subtitle is Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, and the lives of the women we encounter reveal the personal cost of social injustice and change.  In an interview about writing the book, Hartman said she asked herself: “What is it like to imagine a radically different world, or to try to make a beautiful life in a situation of brutal constraint?” (https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/saidiya-hartman-on-working-with-archives/). It’s not like anything else I’ve ever read.  The closest thing I’ve found (and also excellent) for revealing hidden women in the archive is Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive by Marisa J. Fuentes (https://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15502.html).  

Michelle Alexander, author of the seminal book The New Jim Crow, rightly calls Wayward Lives “… a startling, dazzling act of resurrection”.  This is exactly what it is.  Stunning.

Review by Bethan