Kai Wright: This is the United States of Anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Charlene Carruthers: They never talk about the girls and the women. They only talk about the men and the boys. They don't ever talk about our daughters who are slammed by police officers.
Stella Dadzie: Somebody said to me, back in '85, "I've never seen the stories I've heard around my kitchen table told to me by my mother and my grandmother reproduced in print. I've never seen that."
Pimp C: Don't look down on the youngsters because they want to have shiny things in our genes. You know what I'm saying? We just don't all know how history.
Protester: We have been here. We have always been here. It's just we haven't been seen.
Carlina Rivera: This is a historic day for too long. New York has permitted police to target New Yorkers solely for their gender expression and frankly, for their existence.
T.S. Candii: Moments like these are what our ancestors fought for.
Kai: Welcome to the show, I'm Kai Wright. It's February and we're thinking about Black History Month. I am thinking about why I've always been such a grinch about it, despite my general obsession with learning Black history. In last week's show, we heard the origin story of Black History Month, which was a much more bold project than I understood, to be honest.
Carter G. Woodson wanted to foster a public history for Black people because at the time, and this was just 50 years after slavery, we really didn't need to be reminded that we have a history that's part of our humanity. As I learned that origin story, it also made me ask, "Who's the 'we' in that statement? A project like that, one that's meant to prove something about our worth, who's written into Black history and who's erased from it?" For this week, we called up someone who's dedicated her work to those questions.
Saidiya Hartman: I'm Saidiya Hartman and I'm a writer and a cultural historian.
Kai: Saidiya has been a MacArthur genius fellow and is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. Her most recent book has one of the most fantastic titles in print. It's called Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. She and I spoke last week and we're going to spend the whole show in the conversation I had with her. Her work is so fascinating and unconventional that when we met, I had to start by just trying to understand how she even thinks about it as an academic discipline. I've seen some debate about where your work fits in the world. How do you think of your work?
Saidiya: That's a really complex question because I think that I'm really involved in something that's more like historical poetics. Historians like to say, the ones who actually respect the work, "Oh yes, we respect that work. She really shouldn't do the thing she does, but she gets away with it. Graduate students don't do what she does." I'm an outlier who is fortunate enough to be engaged by historians, but you're right, I don't actually fit into the category.
Kai: For yourself, you don't think you fit in that category. That's not what you're aspiring to. You're aspiring to something different.
Saidiya: I think that's changed over time. I think that in wayward lives, beautiful experiments, something shifted and I crossed a boundary. I don't think there's any going back. I joke that my method is as wayward as those I write about. I think that "cultural historian" maybe now fits less well than it did in the past.
Kai: Settle in, make yourself some tea or something. We're not taking calls. We're just going to let Saidiya tell us a few stories of the wayward lives and beautiful experiments that she's discovered. She's focused on the turn of the 20th century in this book, which is the same period in which Carter G. Woodson was dreaming up Negro History Week. She's digging around in the archives, finding snippets and flashes of life, and then trying to either more fully document those lives or sometimes just imagine their worlds. For us, I asked her to begin by reading a section from one of her early chapters in which she describes this time and the people in it who have captured her mind.
Saidiya: It was an age when Negroes were the most beautiful people, and this was no less true of her. Even her detractors reluctantly admitted as much. It is hard to explain what's beautiful about a rather ordinary colored girl of no exceptional talents, a face difficult to discern in the crowd, an average chorion not destined to be a star or even the heroine of the feminist plot.
In some regard, it is to recognize the obvious, but that which is reluctantly seated. The beauty of the block, ordinary, the beauty that resides in and animates the determination to live free. The beauty that propels the experiments in living otherwise. It encompasses the extraordinary and the mundane art and everyday use. Beauty is not a luxury, rather it is a way of creating possibility in the space of enclosure, a radical art of subsistence and embrace of our terribleness, a transfiguration of the given. It is a will to adorn, a proclivity for the baroque and the love of "too much".
Kai: The love of "too much". Correct me if I'm wrong, but it's almost, you're describing a composite of the human that you are searching for in the archives in this book. Is that the case? If so, what is the origin of that? Why are you seeking out that person?
Saidiya: I think that you're right. As I began to do the research for this book, I had this encounter with a photograph by Thomas Eakins. In the photograph, it was a nude photograph of a young, Black girl, maybe nine, 10, 11 years old. I thought, "Who is she? How did she wind up in the studio? Under what conditions did she find herself naked and being photographed by Eakins and his team?"
That figure initiated the quest. In some sense, the book is about the impossible search for this figure, and it traces her through the lives of a number of young women and young genderqueer folk. It is a serial portrait. All of those who I write about are this young girl and none of them are.
Kai: You said, "an impossible search," because the point is that these are people who appear in the archives, but only in flashes.
Saidiya: Yes and often that is how Black girls and women appear in historical archives, whether in the archive of slavery, stripped of names, and any identity. Here she's denied even a first name. That seems really exemplary of the problem of history and its proper subjects. We think about these representative figures, these exceptional figures, these notable figures. How does one write an account of a nameless figure?
Rather than that being a deterrent to finding out about her life for me, it's the incitement. I'm like, "What was her journey through the streets of the city? Where might she have lived? Who were all the other girls who were like her, who crossed paths with her?" I think that a central question is who's fit to be a historical subject? Who's imagined as being capable of transforming history, transforming social relations? Certainly not poor Black girls.
Kai: That passage begins, "It was an age when Negroes were the most beautiful people." What is this age? Why do you describe it that way?
Saidiya: If we think of just early 20th century, American literature, if we think by the time that there's the advent of the jazz age, there's something about Black maternity or young Black men and women in the city cutting too fine a figure, too much in love with beauty, which is considered dangerous and wasteful and transgressive, but yet no one can deny it. Even the white reformers who would eradicate the behavior acknowledged, "My God, they look really good."
There's a suspicion that's connected with the inexpensive, but beautiful clothes, the too many ribbons, the flash, and the style, or the leader and intellectual Alexander Crummell, who actually delivered sermons about the dangers of aesthetical Negroes. I love that. The fact that it sounds like the name of the [crosstalk]
Kai: Aesthetical Negroes.
Saidiya: Aesthetical Negroes.
Again, that "aesthetical", it's not aesthetic it's aesthetical and the aesthetical is precisely about the "too much".
Kai: May we all be aesthetical Negroes.
Saidiya: Exactly. Zora Neale Hurston, in her essay, the Characteristics of Negro Expression, she provides a formal language for this "too much". She talks about all of these things that are considered excessive, baroque, but those are so wonderful. As I watch these aesthetical Negroes move through the city and create lives, I just thought, "Yes," and I just wanted to be in that moment of possibility with them.
Kai: Tell me the story of May Enoch and Arthur Harris.
Saidiya: May Enoch and Arthur Harris were the young working-class Black people who were entering the city. They entered New York City in 1900. There was a way in which they weren't welcomed by, old Negroes of New York because, in all of these cities, this is also true of Philadelphia, there's a small presence of Black folks, and many of those people are respectable Black folks. They're not identified as a problem in the city. We're beginning to see these waves of new migrants. There's a fear of their presence by the white establishment. The Negro establishment is only slightly less unwelcoming.
You have just May and Arthur out in the world in the summer. Arthur is in the bar having drinks with his friend, May is waiting for him outside, and she's calling, "Arthur, come on, I'm waiting out here too long." While she's waiting for him, a police officer who's not wearing a uniform simply grabs her and pulls her up the street, of course mistaking her for a prostitute, which is how the racialized gaze saw Black women who were occupying public space. They were prostitutes. In the case of Arthur, he responds and he gets in a brawl with this white man who they later find out is a police officer.
Kai: This is 1900 there in the Tenderloin in New York. Can you just say a few words about the scene in the Tenderloin?
Saidiya: The Tenderloin was the vice district of the city. It extended between 20th and 53rd streets, west of sixth Avenue, and running along the waterfront. What was interesting in terms of the racial organization of the Tenderloin is that the avenues were ethnic. They were Italian and Irish and Jewish, and then the side streets were Black. It was called Tenderloin because the corruption was so great that the police officers received the biggest payments there. They would say that the tenderest and juiciest part of the graph to be taken was from the Tenderloin.
The scene that they would be a part of would be just the densely packed life. It was hot so everyone was in the street. It was two o'clock in the morning. The streets were packed. The tenement is hot. People are sleeping on fire escapes. People are sleeping on the front steps. People are sleeping in the foyers. It's that public aliveness and that proximity of city life and there's an excitement about that. If Black folks can make a way for themselves anywhere, certainly it's got to be New York. It's that nascent sense of possibility that they embody.
Kai: When this altercation happens, Arthur kills the white man in the end. He stabs him and the man dies in the street, and it turns out that he's a cop. Just describe what happens from there.
Saidiya: Basically there is a search for Arthur Harris, but at the funeral, two days later for Thorpe, the police officer, a woman at the wake, sees a young Black man walking down the street and says, "Oh, there's a Black person. Let's kill him." She didn't use the term "Black person". Then that incites this mob action that engulfs the city, and basically every Negro is targeted.
Women are pulled off streetcars and beaten, children are beaten, white neighbors turn on their black neighbors. Violence engulfs the city for all of those days, and the riot also becomes a factor, then in the migration of Black folks, out of the Tenderloin and uptown to Harlem.
Kai: Coming back to May and Arthur, and that fateful night, the part of their story where they're in the bar and they're leaving the bar, when the officer grabs them, it seems like it doesn't occur to them that this is about to be a problem. They're just in a moment of such joy.
Saidiya: It doesn't occur to them. I think it's also just the assumption of the equality of Northern space. Arthur is like, "What are you doing with your hands on my partner?" He's ready to defend her and to confront a white man in the street. I think that that sense of defiance is also something that characterizes the new Negro. It's something that the white mob reacted to. Literally, the description is "Who are these Negroes moving through the streets with so much swagger and attitude? They don't know their place." That's what the city represents, the possibility of no longer having to be confined to a place.
Kai: What really struck me in reading this particular story in the book is how it ends because, in that era, Black thinkers and organizers, we are trying to record our own facts about this violence. There's community journalism that's going on, there's public history that's going on, so the community does in fact chronicle this story. When the story is written, when we write, when Black people write this story, May Enoch is entirely absent from it. It choked me up to say it.
Saidiya: There's a strategy for achieving Negro rights and equality and that's about the politics of respectability. Black people, if we can consistently present our best face, if we demonstrate that we share the same values, that we ascribe to the same moral norms, well then maybe eventually white folks will recognize that and we will be granted an equal footing.
The likes of May and Arthur were outside that framework of respectability. They were in a marriage that "wasn't illegal marriage". It was a common law marriage. The police immediately described May as a prostitute, Arthur didn't denounce his violence. He only says in the context of the court trial, "Oh, had I known he was an officer, it would have been different."
We produced this record, but even that record has certain kinds of exclusions. We have Black intellectuals, like Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others who are saying that "These people shouldn't be migrating to the city. There are a problem." That there's a new level of conflict that's happening because this type of Black folk is entering the city and too great a number.
Kai: Coming up, Sadia explains why these Northern Black leaders were so obsessed with the lives of the young migrants who were settling in places like New York. We'll talk about W. E. B. Du Bois and his complicated early career. [music]
Kai: W. E. B. Du Bois. Here's one of those names for certainly in Black History Month, we throw around. Everybody thinks they know who W.E.B Du Bois is, but I feel like, it's also one of those names that people don't spend a lot of meaningful time thinking about his actual journey as a person and an intellectual. Who is Du Bois at this moment?
Saidiya: Du Bois is a brilliant 28-year old, who's arrived in the Seventh Ward with his new wife. Basically, he's been hired to do a study of the Black community. As he writes, he says, "There was the notion that there was a problem and Negroes were the problem. They invited me to come down and document why this was the case." Du Bois is just this brilliant bundle of contradictions. I think we need to think of him in this period as an elitist, as a Victorian, much of what he sees horrifies him. It is hard for him to look at young girls in the street and not imagine that they're prostitutes.
He is in a phase of his career where he's still very much an idealist. He thinks that "If I only describe the problem of racism well enough," that that's going to be enough to change it. He thinks that science and sociology in particular is going to provide the tools to illuminate the problems of racism and to defeat racism. A decade later, he's in a radically different position.
Kai: I'm particularly curious about the immorality piece of it, that everything about the people's lives that he's witnessing, that may be associated with poverty, maybe just associated with a different kind of life than he would live is seen as immoral, both by him and by white reformers of the times. Why is the immorality piece? Where does the moralism come from?
Saidiya: The moralism comes from this notion that was widely shared among Black thinkers, reformers, and progressive intellectuals, that slavery had been utterly damaging, and that we were, in essence, like children in the school of moral development because families had been broken under slavery. There was a sense that we had to be trained to live in accordance with those bourgeois hetero normative values.
Du Bois says something in The Philadelphia Negro that for me is so important. He says, "The Negro church is an older institution than the Black family." That's the heart of the anxiety that we have a sociality, that has a different kind of mapping. At this moment, I think that the expression of sexual desire outside of marriage is unfathomable to Du Bois because of his concerns about a certain kind of racial progress.
I also say because that's also so ingrained in the Black middle class, here he is a newlywed with his wife. They have a very unsatisfying and difficult sexual life precisely because a decent girl isn't raised to believe that that's something that she should want. Even as Nina will yield to sexuality, it's not that she has a longing or a hunger or desire. We see him really living those extremes.
Kai: Then when he steps into this world of-- where people are openly engaged in pleasure men and women alike, that is shocking to him?
Saidiya: It's shocking. There's also this reality, a part of the absence of Black male heads of household. It was simply due to the very high death rate among Black men. There were so many Black widows. Then those widows would form secondary relationships often outside the context of legal marriage or people would describe themselves as married but not having legal status. For Du Bois, it was a matter of concern and a matter to be corrected and adjusted.
Kai: One of the things you described that he can't quite take in is the way in which public and private space and intimacy in public and private space operates differently than it does in middle class society. You write with such joy, it seems like, he really quite liked the way that that space is mixed up. Can you describe that a little bit?
Saidiya: For me, that's part of the birth of the modern. It's that encounter and proximity of strangers. It's the crossing of all of these boundaries. I remember, there's one reformer who says, "Had I known people were sleeping in the foyer or on rooftops, I would have forbade it but it never occurred to me, that people who would do that." A decade or so later, it becomes fashionable among the rich to sleep on their rooftops, but basically, it's a way to escape the heat and the confinement of the tenement.
Kai: Just to interrupt, I like this part of Saidiya's writing so much. I actually asked her to read a passage from her book, in which she describes the kind of scene Du Bois would have regularly encountered in Philadelphia Seventh Ward. This is right at the corner of 7th and Lombard.
Saidiya: Slick, fresh mouth boys, calmly buxom girls, policy runners, ne'er-do-wells, petty gangsters, domestics, longshoreman and whores. The young and the striving, the old and the dissipated, gathered on the corner of 7th and Lombard. The air was thick with laughter, boasts of conquest, lies bigger than the men who told them. Idlers loud-talk one another in an orchestrated battle of words. Pimps croon, "Hey girl, send it on," to each and every woman under 30 who strolled by. Bulldaggers undress the pretty ones with a glance. Passers-by could overhear a wishful full story shared about the good things yet to come. Hard working folks and jaded pleasure seekers joked and despair.
This is the future we was waiting for? The beautiful anarchy of the corner refuse no one. It was the one place where they could quit searching and rest for a while and still believe they were moving and on the way to someplace better than this. Free association was the only rule and promiscuous social life. Its defining character. All were permitted to stay briefly, catch their breath, resist the pull of roaming, hustling, and searching. Every hour, someone remarked, "I got to go," and then lingered. Newcomers refresh the crowd. Strangers became intimates. The flow of those arriving and departing kept it alive. The same folks were always there and yet it always looked different.
It's just this hustle-bustle. It's a sensory overload. That sensory overload can be described by reformers as wretched and that sensory overload is also dazzling. Another way I like to think about it is as an aesthetic resource when I talk about the air shaft. What those air shafts in buildings mean is that you're in the fifth floor but you can hear your neighbors on the third floor arguing or making love or going through their drama. You know what the person on the second floor is cooking for dinner.
Both Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters, they talk explicitly about the air shaft as a side of their creative inspiration. Ethel Waters said, "I would hear an argument and then I would write the lyrics to a song." [music] Duke Ellington talks about building compositions on that beautiful cacophony of tenement life. [music] That is for me, the experiment and living otherwise. It's not simply that working class and poor folks fail to meet some bourgeois standard, but there's another set of standards and values that are work.
Reformers were so intent on creating a visual order that they actually misrepresented urban space. We see this in the photographs of the Seventh Ward in Philadelphia. Even when you have communities, you have Black folks who are living next door to Russian Jews, who are living down the street from the Italians. The caption of the photo will say, "Negro Quarter." Even as you see the Russian Jewish boys, two houses away sitting on their steps, when they take a picture of that community, they gather all the Negro children and take a photo of them and then they gather all the Jewish children and take a photo of them.
When I was looking through the archive, there's one photo where there's a Negro girl, who's standing on the edge of the frame of the photo of the Jewish children. I was like, "Oh my God, this is literally the same neighborhood, but they've chosen to order space in that way."
Kai: Trying to impose this new order on what was happening organically there. That is so-
Saidiya: There's nothing that's natural about segregation as a way of living. It's an imposition. It's created through law in the Southern context, but in places like Philadelphia and New York, it was largely created through philanthropists, reformers, and committees of the rich who thought interracial sociality was the danger so they utilized all of these extra-legal means to prevent it.
Kai: With Black life contained to a ghetto and defined as immoral, liberal reformers have developed new legal means to police the life choices made inside those ghettos. That's next.
Hey, there, this episode is part of a few we're doing about Black History Month itself. We're calling it the Future of Black History. After you finished this episode, back up one in the feed and check out the episode called the Origins of Black History Month. That's the first in this series. We started with a party like a literal party where we're thinking about Black History Month's purpose in our lives now and into the future, then we take a deep dive into the backstory of this annual commemoration. It's a much more radical project than I had realized honestly, so check it out. Always check the show or any episode for suggestions of companion listening from our archives. Enjoy.
It's February and we're thinking about Black History Month on the show. For this week, I reached out to author, Saidiya Hartman because her work has helped me understand my own struggle with Black History Month in the way it just so often focuses on exceptional figures because too often that focus has obscured everybody else, and a lot of times has actually demeaned those of us whose lives undermined the political project of proving Black people could be just as proper as white people.
I asked Saidiya to tell us some stories from her most recent book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. One important metaphor in that book is the so-called, chorus girl. I asked Saidiya to read a passage in which she uses on the women in the chorus. First, she explained why this metaphor is such a big deal for her.
Saidiya: The chorus speaks to the multitude that really shapes the course of our history and while we often focus on the charismatic male leader or the speaker at the podium that's what the movement is. That multitude provides the audience for the speaker, animates those ideas, takes it up. For me, the sense of how the multitude moves was embodied by the figure of the chorus.
Dancing and singing fuel the radical hope of living otherwise. In this way, choreography was just another kind of movement for freedom, another opportunity to escape service, another elaboration of the general strike. Joining the chorus encompass much more than the sequence of steps or the arrangement of dances on the stage of a music hall or the floor of a cabaret.
Like the flight from the plantation, the escape from slavery, the migration from the South, the rush into the city or the stroll down Lenox Avenue choreography was an art, a practice of moving even when there was nowhere else to go, no place left to run. It was an arrangement of the body to elude capture, an effort to make the uninhabitable livable, to escape the confinement of a four-cornered world, a tight airless room, tumult, upheaval flight. It was the articulation of living free or at the very least trying to. It was the way to insist, "I am unavailable for servitude. I refuse it."
Kai: Saidiya is interested in the ways in which this refusal led young Black women who were living inside these new racial ghettos to start making radically different life choices than those of mainstream society. She's also interested in the ways that liberal reformers, white and Black alike came up with new ways to police those life choices. One of which is still with us today, the idea of a status crime.
Saidiya: A status crime is something that is-- it is only a crime when certain people do it. It's not against the law to have sex, but if you're underage, then being sexually active can become a status crime. It's a crime depending on what your status is. If you are a poor person in Harlem drinking a bottle of wine on the corner, you can be arrested by the police. If you're sitting outside on the patio of a restaurant, drinking bottles of champagne, you won't be arrested.
That's a way in which we think about like, "Oh, it's the same behavior, drinking wine, but one is a violation because of the conditions and the status of the person who's doing it." There were a range of these status offenses which directed young women into the reformatory. Because they weren't accused of real crimes, the magistrate judges had lots of flexibility in sentencing. They were without the norms of due process because technically they hadn't committed crimes. They were status offenses.
The idea was, "Oh, if we can actually reform them at this early age, they will avoid the later pitfalls of criminality that await them seemingly just because they're sexual and desiring subjects in the world."
Kai: Who was Harriet Powell? She's one of the wayward lives, you're reanimating in this book. Tell us about her.
Saidiya: Harriet Powell is a very smart, unrepentant, too loud, Black girl.
Kai: She falls in with a young man, Charlie Hudson and they fall for each other. Can you just describe their couple of days together, a little bit?
Saidiya: Basically they meet at a dance hall, they have a sexual encounter, and then they decided, "Oh, let's hook up again." At this point, Harriet's family is upset that she's out at the dance hall and carrying on, so they say, "Oh our daughter is missing." She's on the dance floor and a police officer comes over to her as she's dancing and she's arrested for being incorrigible. Here she is, it's working. She's out. She stayed out overnight with her lover and she's on the dance floor and she's arrested.
Kai: A young woman like Harriet, who was arrested in this way would be sent to the women's court. What was the women's court? What was that?
Saidiya: The woman's court was a court that was specifically created to "protect women", and to prevent the leering and voyeurism of women being charged with prostitution and all these crimes in an open court. It was founded as a reform of the criminal justice system. These are progressive reformers trying to-- they thought that they were creating something like a boutique sentencing structure.
There was indeterminate sentencing because ideally, the reformatory would be able to gauge when a young girl was ready to return to her life in the world. What that meant in practice was that everyone received a maximum sentence of three years. Ultimately, these young women are criminalized for their sexuality. They're criminalized for having intimate lives outside of marriage and that's what the struggle is about. It's really a struggle about values.
I think that when we think of the revolution before Gatsby, so when an educated elite enacts the same forms of practice, then it is a sexual revolution than it is a revolution in values. When young working-class Black and immigrant women are doing the same thing, it's a matter of moral failure and criminality. Who can be a radical agent of change? It's easy to imagine that educated elites could do that. Are people able to imagine that poor Black girls were as devoted to forging another path for themselves?
Kai: You write about the story of Billy Holiday, who got arrested for one of these crimes as a young woman and responded to it with a savvy tape. [music] Can you tell that story?
Saidiya: Yes. Billy Holiday is arrested because the police are targeting Harlem and Black neighborhoods. They have these things called jump warrants, which I like to point out are exactly like the no-knock warrant that resulted in Brianna Taylor's death so that they could actually just enter a house without any kind of warrant. She's arrested. She lies about her age because she says, "Oh, if they think I'm an adult, it's only 60 days or 90 days on Blackwell's Island, as opposed to two or three years at the reformatory."
Kai: Let me just interrupt the conversation here because there's a beat in the story, this idea tells me here, that made me love Lady Day even more than I already do. The magistrate who sentenced her was famous because she was the first woman to have that job in New York City and Billy Holiday thought that was a missed opportunity for herself.
Saidiya: She says, "Too bad, she wasn't a lesbian because if she had then I probably would have gotten no sentence at all." Holiday is so convinced of her feminine charms and her ability to seduce, but Holiday knows exactly how the system works. Even when she's imprisoned on Blackwell's Island, she wins the affection of a lesbian guard who gives her all these kinds of favors.
Those who are experienced do that, but for Harriet Powell, then it is the beginning of a decade-long entanglement with the police in these correctional facilities because then if you come out, you're on probation and you have a violation, then you can be sent back. In that regard, it's very much like the "school to prison" pipeline that we are seeing today.
Kai: There's all these ways in which some of these laws in particular echo in today. I also wonder about the ways in which these ideas echo into today. As I read, I kept hearing the phrase at risk that we throw around today. I wonder how you feel about the way these ideas have carried into the way we think about blackness.
Saidiya: Unfortunately I think that they have totally carried into the way we think about blackness today and they continue to shape social policy. We see it under Republicans with these marriage initiatives for the poor or those who are on welfare. We see it in terms of the totally demonizing discourse around teenage mothers and this seemingly interminable discourse about the crisis of the Black family in spite of evidence to the contrary.
Kai: It's also just thinking about the way we as Black people think of our history, also I wonder about the legacy of this stuff. This conversation is part of a series of pieces we're doing in Black History Month as I personally wrestled with my relationship to Black History Month. I have always struggled with it because as a young man, it just felt so sanitized and different from the stories you're telling and the stories that I felt. I just wonder about your own relationship to Black History Month, your own thoughts on it.
Saidiya: Roots are in an insurgent project, so someone like Carter G. Woodson's The Mis-Education of the Negro, but the way it's become framed is, "Who are our representative men and women too?" We can add our cast of characters to that cast of characters of the exemplary as opposed to really radically challenging the model and the logic of history itself.
Yet at the same time, there are so many essential facts about the history of racism or the history of Black people that most people do not know.
I would much prefer like a people's history of the US, kind of Howard's in model, then each marginalized group gets to have their month, and you can't talk about people's history without talking about Black folks and indigenous people and the struggle of queer folks or women.
Kai: What about you personally? How do you personally relate to Black History Month? Is it something that's meaningful to you? Do you celebrate it? What is your personal relationship?
Saidiya: I don't feel like, "Oh my God, this is my month." I think it's another way we have a pragmatic relationship to it inside the enclosure, what Black History Month means. It means that maybe there can be like a show on wayward lives. Maybe it means that 20 books can get some attention from mainstream press and some reviews, but it's enclosure. It's a marketing strategy. It's a way of carrying on business as usual by giving us a nod.
For me, Black History Month came into my consciousness with Soul Train and Afro Sheen and the Budweiser poster of the Kings and Queens of Africa. That was all a part of my memories of it. As I was going to school, it had no impact on the history curriculum that I was taught. It had no impact on largely the way history is taught in school to my daughter. It can be a kind of inclusion, diversity strategy of containment. If you would say, under the conditions of white supremacy, do we need a Black History Month? I'm going to say yes.
Kai: Saidiya Hartman is author of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. She's also a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Jared Paul mixed the podcast version, Kevin Bristow and Matthew Marando were at the boards for the live show. The team also includes Carolyn Adams, Emily Botein, Jenny Casas, Marianne McCune, Christopher Werth, and Veralyn Williams.
Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Karen Frillman is our executive producer. I'm Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter @kai_wright, and as always, please do join us for the live show next Sunday, 6:00 PM Eastern. You can stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker, "Play WNYC." Until then, thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves.
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