Saidiya Hartman, Literary Scholar and Cultural Historian | 2019 MacArthur Fellow

Saidiya Hartman, Literary Scholar and Cultural Historian | 2019 MacArthur Fellow


My work explores the limits of the
archive, and it’s involved in this dance and trying to understand and to mine
every detail about the lives of the enslaved, about the lives of free black
people. I’m Saidiya Hartman, and I am a writer and a cultural historian. What motivates my work is writing about
the lives of those who are unknown, dispossessed, exploited, disposable. And I guess what motivates me are the
surprises in the archive — the complexity and the wonder of these lives that have largely left few traces. When I began my dissertation, I was actually writing a
project about black music. I was reading a history of a bluesman, and he said if
you want to understand the blues, you have to understand what it was like to
plow a field in Mississippi. Once I started to read about slavery and to
read those narratives, it changed the course of my project. We can’t actually understand
the lives of black folks in the U.S. today, the precarity of those lives, without
taking into account slavery and its legacy. One of the chapters of “Lose Your Mother,”
that’s described “The Dead Book,” I describe the experience of a
young enslaved girl aboard a slave ship. The only thing said
about the girl in the trial were four words, “the said Negro girl.” And I thought
how do I begin to tell her story? How can I reconstruct the terms of her
experience aboard the slave ship? I utilize the various versions of the
legal case as well as newspaper accounts to tell the story from a range of
perspectives. “Venus in Two Acts” is where I coined the term “critical fabulation” to describe my practice. Critical fabulation was central to being able to resurrect
forgotten history, lost lives, the millions of stories that were lost in
the Middle Passage. In the book “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,”
it tells the story of young black women who are involved in the search for freedom. Imagining what a beautiful life can be
as the black ghetto is emerging and the dreams of the city,
what the city could be, what it might be, are being radically
restricted. I’m working on several projects now.
One is an essay about narrative and the archive. Another is a photo text about black life, and the
third project is a speculative history of a black woman radical about whom we
know little, and the challenge for me is to try to recreate her interior life. I do the research of a scholar, but I want
the work to read with the beauty of a novel

local_offerevent_note October 11, 2019

account_box Matthew Anderson


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