How Respectability Politics Erased Young Women From History
Speaker 1: History isn't cut and dry. There was not some tome of facts that has been handed down in generations to generations and we all read out the same book. If history's cut and dry, someone's got to cut it. Someone's got to dry it, right?
Speaker 2: Black studies are really efforts to capture the ways that the history, experiences, culture, lives of Black people, African Americans, what our lives are about, what constitutes them historically, culturally, politically over time.
Speaker 3: And you can walk through the history of Black America in this way that Black people were emancipated because it was in the interests of the country to preserve the union.
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright. Welcome to the show. The partisan attack on history did not start with Ron DeSantis, but his obvious presidential aspirations make it clear that we are going to be arguing over the history of these United States and how it is told, at least through the end of the Republican presidential primary, so just settle in. Here's the thing. The cost to us all for this whole political moment, it will not only be the forms of censorship and erasure that continue to emerge in schools around the country right now.
There's also this other thing that's something like an opportunity cost. All these debates over stuff on which there's already consensus among reputable historians, they take up space in the public conversation, space in which we should be wrestling with new ideas, new questions about the dominant narrative and what it leaves out or whitewashes. Since it is the final week of Black History Month, I want to revisit a conversation I had in February of 2021 with a scholar who is very much asking these kinds of new and radical questions about our history.
Saidiya Hartman: I'm Saidiya Hartman and I'm a writer and a cultural historian.
Kai Wright: 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 called Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. 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.
Kai Wright: I've seen some debate about where your work fits in the world. How do you think of your work?
Saidiya Hartman: That's a really complex question because I think that I'm really involved in something that's more like a historical poetics. I think historians like to say, the ones who actually respect the work is like, "Oh, yes, we respect that work. She really shouldn't do the things she does, but she gets away with it. Graduate students don't do what she does."
Saidiya Hartman: 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 Wright: For yourself, you don't think you fit in that category. That's not what you're aspiring to. You aspire to something different.
Saidiya Hartman: 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.
Saidiya Hartman: 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 Wright: 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 and 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 Hartman: 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 Corine not destined to be a star, or even the heroine of a feminist plot.
In some regard, it is to recognize the obvious, but that which is reluctantly seated, the beauty of the Black 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, an 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 Wright: 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 Hartman: I think that you are 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 9, 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. 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 Wright: You said an "impossible search" because the point is that these are people who appear in the archive, but only in flashes.
Saidiya Hartman: Yes. 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, right? 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. 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 Wright: That passage begins, "It was an age when Negroes were the most beautiful people." What is this age and why do you describe it that way?
Saidiya Hartman: If we think of this early 20th-century American literature, by the time that there's the advent of the Jazz Age, there's something about Black modernity or young Black men and women in the city cutting to 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 acknowledge, "My God, they look really good," right? There's a kind of 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. It sounds like the name of a band.
Kai Wright: Aesthetical Negroes.
Saidiya Hartman: Aesthetical Negroes.
Saidiya Hartman: Again, that "aesthetical," it's not aesthetic. It's aesthetical and the aesthetical is precisely about the "too much."
Kai Wright: May we all be aesthetical Negroes?
Saidiya Hartman: Exactly. Zora Neale Hurston, in her essay, The Characteristics of Negro Expression, she provides a formal language for this "too much," right? She talks about all of these things that are considered excessive, baroque, but those are so wonderful. I guess as I watched 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 Wright: You're listening to a conversation I had in 2021 with author and cultural historian Saidiya Hartman. The kind of questions that Saidiya is asking about history, they are facing uniquely intense partisan attack right now. We're going to spend a lot of time in the coming months processing and reacting to this debate over history. We'd love your guidance. Is there an idea or an event in US history that you just don't understand or maybe that you think, "You know what? The way I was taught this thing, it just doesn't sound right"?
Tell us about it and maybe you will inspire an episode of our show. Go to notesfromamerica.org. Look for the little green button that says "Record" and leave a message for us right there. That's notesfromamerica.org. Be sure to include your first name and the city you call home. I look out for your message. After a break, more of my conversation with Saidiya Hartman. Stay with us.
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright. This week, we are revisiting a conversation I had in 2021 with cultural historian Saidiya Hartman. Saidiya describes her work as historical poetics, which sounds right to me. In her book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, she rummages around in the archives of the early 20th century, looking for accounts of the kind of everyday radical lives that rarely make it into history books. Tell me the story of May Enoch and Arthur Harris.
Saidiya Hartman: May Enoch and Arthur Harris were the kind of young working-class Black people who are 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. 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 and 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.
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 are occupying public space, they were prostitutes. In the case of Arthur, he responds. He gets in a brawl with this white man, who they later find out is a police officer.
Kai Wright: This is 1900. They're in the Tenderloin in New York. Can you just say a few words about the scene in the Tenderloin?
Saidiya Hartman: The Tenderloin was the vice district of the city. It extended between 20th and 53rd streets, west of 6th Avenue and running along the waterfront. What was interesting in terms of the racial organization of the Tenderloin is that the avenues were ethnic, so they were Italian and Irish and Jewish and then the side streets were Black. It was called the Tenderloin because the corruption was so great that the police officers received the biggest payments there. They would say that the tenderness and juiciest part of the graph to be taken was from the Tenderloin.
Kai Wright: Good grief. [chuckles]
Saidiya Hartman: 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, so people are sleeping on fire escapes. People are sleeping on the front steps. People are sleeping in the foyer, so it's that public aliveness and that proximity of city life. There's an excitement about that, right? If Black folks can make a way for themselves anywhere, well, certainly, it's got to be New York, right? It's that nascent sense of possibility that they embody.
Kai Wright: 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, so then just describe what happens from there.
Saidiya Hartman: Basically, there is a search for Arthur Harris. 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, so violence engulfs the city for all of those days. The riot also becomes a factor then in the migration of Black folks out of the Tenderloin and uptown to Harlem.
Kai Wright: 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 and 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 Hartman: It doesn't occur to them. I think it's also just the assumption of the equality of Northern space. Arthur's 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 Wright: 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're trying to record our own facts about this violence, right? There's community journalism that's going on. There's public history that's going on and so the community does, in fact, chronicle this story. When the story is written, when Black people write this story, May Enoch is entirely absent from it and it choked me up to say it.
Saidiya Hartman: There's a strategy for achieving Negro rights and equality and that's about the politics of respectability. 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 a legal marriage, right? 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 produce 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, they're a problem, that there's a new level of conflict that's happening because this type of Black folk is entering the city in too great a number.
Kai Wright: Perhaps the most famous Black intellectual of the early 20th century was among those who were truly uncomfortable with the life choices of poor Black people in northern cities. W.E.B. Du Bois was a young man at the time. He was a rising star in academia and his perspective on Black life was increasingly definitive. At the time, he was studying Black Philadelphia specifically and he did not like what he saw. This is the part of his story that doesn't often get told. Who is Du Bois at this moment?
Saidiya Hartman: Dubois 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, so 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 and 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 the sociology in particular is going to provide the tools to eliminate the problems of racism and to defeat racism. A decade later, he's in a radically different position.
Kai Wright: 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 Hartman: 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, 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, heteronormative 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 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 Wright: Then when he steps into this world where people are openly engaged in pleasure, men and women alike, that is shocking.
Saidiya Hartman: It's shocking. There's also this reality of part of the absence of Black male heads of household was simply due to the very high death rate among Black men, so 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 Wright: 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 you really quite liked the way that that space is mixed up. Can you describe that a little bit?
Saidiya Hartman: For me, that's part of the birth of the modern. It's that encounter and proximity of strangers, right? 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 forbid it, but it never occurred to me that people would do that." A decade or so later, it becomes fashionable among the rich to sleep on their rooftops. Basically, it's a way to escape the heat and the confinement of a tenement.
Kai Wright: 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's Seventh Ward. This is right at the corner of Seventh and Lombard.
Saidiya Hartman: Slick, fresh mouth boys, calmly buxom girls, policy runners, ne'er-do-wells, petty gangsters, domestics, longshoremen, and whores, the young and the striving, the old and the dissipated gathered on the corner of Seventh 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. Passersby could overhear wishful stories shared about the good things yet to come. Hard-working folks and jaded pleasure-seekers joked and despaired, "This is the future we was waiting for?" The beautiful anarchy of a 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 refreshed 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 and that sensory overload can be described by reformers as wretched and that sensory overload is also dazzling.
Kai Wright: I'm talking with author and cultural historian Saidiya Hartman. We spoke during Black History Month in 2021 about the entirely new questions we ask if we visit history from the perspective of its dazzling street corners rather than that of its so-called great men. Coming up, the cultural revolution that erupted in Black neighborhoods at the turn of the 20th century and the new rules that elites created in response. That's next.
Kousha Navidar: Hey, everyone, this is Kousha. I'm a producer. I want to remind you that if you have questions or comments about what you're listening to, we at the show would love to hear from you. Here's how. First, you can email us. The address is email@example.com. Second, you can send us a voice message. Just go to notesfromamerica.org and click on the green button a little bit down the page that says "Start Recording." Finally, you can message us on Twitter and Instagram. The handle is @noteswithkai. However you want to reach us, we'd love to hear from you and maybe use your message on the show. All right, thanks. Talk to you soon.
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright and we are revisiting a conversation I had in 2021 with writer and cultural historian Saidiya Hartman. Before the break, she explained why Black intellectuals and white progressives at the turn of the 20th century were so disturbed by the way poor Black people in northern cities lived and socialized. Their middle-class assumptions blinded them to the cultural revolution that was erupting amid the chaos and the crowding of those urban neighborhoods.
Saidiya Hartman: Another way I like to think about it is as an aesthetic resource when I talk about the air shaft, right? What those air shafts and buildings mean is that you're on 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 site of their creative inspiration. Ethel Waters said, "I would hear an argument and then I would write the lyrics to a song."
[Ethel Waters singing]
Saidiya Hartman: Duke Ellington talks about building compositions on that beautiful cacophony of tenement life.
Saidiya Hartman: That is, for me, the experiment and living otherwise, right? It's not simply that working-class and poor folks fail to meet some bourgeois standard, that there's another set of standards and values that are at 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 Wright: Trying to impose this new order on what was happening organically there. That is so--
Saidiya Hartman: 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. In places like Philadelphia and New York, it was largely created through philanthropists, reformers, and committees of the rich who thought interracial sociality was a danger. They utilized all of these extra legal means to prevent it.
Kai Wright: To understand the extra legal means that Saidiya is talking about, we need a short detour. In her book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, she uses a metaphor of a chorus to evoke the voices and perspectives of the people who the elite reformers found just really disturbing and who would be targeted with these extra legal means of enforcing middle-class values. I asked Saidiya to read a section of her book in which she uses on the life of the chorus and to first explain why this metaphor is such a big deal for her.
Saidiya Hartman: The chorus speaks to the multitude that really shapes the course of our history and why we often focus on the charismatic male leader or the speaker at the podium. That's what the movement is, right? 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.
Saidiya Hartman: Dancing and singing fueled 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 Russian to the city, or the stroll down Lennox 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 Wright: 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 Hartman: A status crime is something that 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, right? It's a crime depending on what your status is. If you're 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, right? 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, right? They were status offenses. The idea was that, "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 Wright: To illustrate the point, Saidiya tells me the story of Harriet Powell.
Saidiya Hartman: Harriet Powell is a very smart, unrepentant, too loud Black girl.
Kai Wright: 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 Hartman: 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 in the dance hall and carrying on. 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. 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 Wright: 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 Hartman: 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 kind of reform of the criminal justice system. These are like 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, but 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. 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, well, then it is a sexual revolution than it is a revolution in values, right? 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, but are people able to imagine that poor Black girls were as devoted to forging another path for themselves?
Kai Wright: You write about the story of Billie Holiday, who got arrested for one of these crimes as a young woman and responded to it with a savvy tape.
[song Fine and Mellow by Billie Holiday plays]
Love will make you drink and gamble.
Kai Wright: Can you tell us the story?
Saidiya Hartman: Billie 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 kind of no-knock warrant that resulted in Breonna Taylor's death so that they could actually just enter a house without any kind of warrant. She's arrested and 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 Wright: Let me just interrupt the conversation here because there's a beat in the story that Saidiya 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. Billie Holiday thought that was a missed opportunity for herself.
Saidiya Hartman: She says, "Too bad she wasn't a lesbian because if she had, then I probably would have gotten no sentence at all."
Saidiya Hartman: 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. For Harriet Powell, then it is the beginning of a decade-long entanglement with the police in these correctional facilities, right? Because then if you come out and you're on probation and you have a violation, then you can be sent back. In that regard, I think it's very much like the "school-to-prison pipeline" that we are seeing today.
Kai Wright: There's all these ways in which some of these laws in particular echo in today, but 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 Hartman: Unfortunately, I think that they have totally carried into the way we think about blackness today. They continue to shape social policy. We see it under Republicans with these marriage initiatives for the poor and those who are on welfare. We see it in terms of a 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 Wright: When I spoke with Saidiya Hartman in 2021, it was part of a series of conversations in which I was wrestling with my own feelings about Black History Month. You can go to notesforamerica.org to find that whole series. It's under the specials tab on the site. As we are concluding another year of that annual ritual, it's worth hearing what Saidiya had to say when I asked her about her relationship to Black History Month.
Saidiya Hartman: Its 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, I think, 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, the kind of Howard Zinn model, then each marginalized group gets to have their month. You can't tell that people's history without talking about Black folks and Indigenous people and the struggle of queer folks or women.
Kai Wright: 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?
Saidiya Hartman: 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 a show on Wayward Lives. Maybe it means that 20 books can get some attention from mainstream press and some reviews, but it's a kind of 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 Wright: Saidiya Hartman is author of Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals.
Kai Wright: Notes from America is a production of WNYC Studios. Follow the show wherever you get your podcasts and on Instagram @noteswithkai. Of course, talk to us right on our website. Go to notesfromamerica.org, look for the record button, and tell us what's on your mind. Mixing and music by Jared Paul, recording, producing, and editing by Karen Frillmann, Vanessa Handy, Regina de Heer, Rahima Nasa, Kousha Navidar, and Lindsay Foster Thomas. André Robert Lee is our executive producer and I am Kai Wright. Thanks for spending this time with us.
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