A photo featured in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Champion Charleston dancer Gwendolyn Graham with the chorus of the revue Blackbirds taking part in their first rehearsal on the roof of the Pavilion Theater in London in 1928. Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Books that Matter: Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

On our inaugural books podcast, an author talks about breaking open the archive to rebellion, love, and the daily struggle to live free.

Reading a book is a little like standing in front of art at a museum. Both experiences are at once intimate and communal, and both can help you see something that you may not have noticed before.

A photo featured in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Thomas E. Askew. African American girl, half-length portrait, with the right hand to cheek, with illustrated book on table. c. 1900
A photo featured in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Thomas E. Askew. African American girl, half-length portrait, with the right hand to cheek, with illustrated book on table. c. 1900

The Books that Matter podcast was born from our love of reading, and from our conviction that reading is central to our jobs as editors and curators at an art museum. It comes from our desire to create a space to share books that feel exciting—maybe even necessary—to think about right now because of how they relate to broader questions in the world. Over the course of this series, we’ll be reading nonfiction that borrows from fiction, fiction that crosses into history, and biographies that uproot histories altogether. We hope you’ll join along.

For our first episode, we’ve read Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019). Hartman is a professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her genius is no secret; she was just named a MacArthur Prize winner last fall. For the last few decades, she’s been writing about and analyzing the afterlife of slavery in such books as Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007) and Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997). Her most recent book, Wayward Lives, follows the lives of young black women at the beginning of the 20th century in New York and Philadelphia, and the ways that they tried to break free from imposed and invisible forms of servitude. It’s unlike any history book we’ve read before.

From Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Couple on Street Dressed for Ball. 1935
From Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Couple on Street Dressed for Ball. 1935

We had the great honor of inviting Hartman onto the podcast to talk with us about this extraordinary book, her process in researching and writing it, and the pleasure and pain that comes streaming from it in equal measure.

If you’ve already read Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, we hope our conversation opens some new ways of thinking about it. And if you haven’t yet, we hope you’ll find this podcast an enticing invitation.

Up next on Books that Matter is Ali Smith’s novel How to Be Both. Happy reading and listening.