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The Tragic Mode

Saidiya Hartman, interviewed by Max Nelson
“I love Ralph Ellison’s definition of the blues as ‘an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.’ I set out to engage the catastrophe.”
Saidiya Hartman

Ryan Cardoso

Saidiya Hartman

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

Last month, the Review published “The Hold of Slavery,” an essay by Saidiya Hartman about writing her landmark first book, Scenes of Subjection (1997). (A version of the piece appears as the preface to the book’s revised twenty-fifth anniversary edition, out now from Norton.) “In the archive of slavery,” she writes, “I encountered a paradox: the recognition of the slave’s humanity and status as a subject extended and intensified servitude and dispossession, rather than conferring some small measure of rights and protection.” The “critical lexicon” in the late twentieth century for understanding slavery and emancipation failed to capture that paradox. So Hartman set out to develop a new one.

That work, she writes, “would preoccupy me for two decades.” In Lose Your Mother (2007), which interleaves a history and theory of the Middle Passage with a memoir of the year Hartman spent in Ghana in the late 1990s, she developed an account of what it meant to live in “the afterlife of slavery.” In the essay “Venus in Two Acts” (2008), she struggled with how to tell the stories of lives only fleetingly registered in transatlantic slavery’s ledgers and legal records. (“How,” she asks, “does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death?”) And in her most recent book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), she reconstructed “the radical imagination and wayward practices” of young black women in turn-of-the-century Philadelphia and New York. Their rebellions against segregation and patriarchy, she showed, amounted to nothing less than “a revolution in a minor key.”

Over e-mail we discussed Hartman’s memories of growing up in New York, her academic and literary influences, and the place of tragedy and romance in historical writing.     


Max Nelson: In The New Yorker, Alexis Okeowo noted that you started graduate school at Yale hoping to write about the blues—a subject to which you’ve since returned in your book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. What convinced you to change tracks back then and start researching what would become Scenes of Subjection?

Saidiya Hartman: Amiri Baraka’s Blues People guided this change of course. He quotes a musician who described the blues as suffused with the sounds of the field, with slave songs and field hollers and dirges, even as it was the music of freed people. The sonic resonances of slavery and West African music in the blues were concrete examples of duration and change, what Baraka described as “the changing same” in black musical culture and what James Snead described as “repetition as a figure of black culture.” Baraka placed so much emphasis on black music in the nineteenth and twentieth century as the music of the ex-slave. It was the cultural equivalent to what Hortense Spillers terms “the hieroglyphics of the flesh,” a marking and branding that might transfer from one generation to the next.

I love Ralph Ellison’s definition of the blues as “an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” I set out to engage the catastrophe and the ways it was performed and articulated in cultural practice. The reckoning with catastrophe and performance required a deeper understanding of the material conditions of slavery and its afterlife. I read Sterling Stuckey’s Slave Culture, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Édouard Glissant’s Caribbean Discourse, and Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, and there was no turning back.

With Scenes, you made what in your essay you call “a radical departure” from the prevailing ways of writing the history of slavery. What was this radical departure? The book’s acknowledgments name some of the people who helped you develop it: classmates, teachers like Hazel Carby and Judith Butler, and colleagues like Farah Jasmine Griffin. How did the intellectual milieus you were in—and the relationships you formed in and outside academia—shape the book?

Scenes is an interdisciplinary text that engages history, critical theory, philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies, law, literature, and performance. I had so many great teachers. I read Raymond Williams, György Lukács, and Stuart Hall with Hazel Carby. Karl Marx and Louis Althusser with Gayatri Spivak. Nietzsche, the Frankfurt School, and post-Marxist theory with Cornel West. Cultural studies gave me a method for reading and engaging practice as a way of doing and making dense with historicity, determined by material and social relations, and capable of critically elaborating and transforming these relations. A Juba song or a ritual like the Ring Shout or a dance like the Buzzard Lope were forms that articulated what had been endured as well as what might be. They provided a space for breath within the social death of slavery. They possessed a latent capacity or potential to imagine after slavery.

I was surrounded by a cohort of brilliant graduate students at Yale. On a train ride to Princeton to hear Toni Morrison read a lecture that would become Playing in the Dark, Farah Griffin and I discussed our respective dissertation topics. We encouraged each other; when I floundered, she extended her hand. After the lecture, Cornel West took us to dinner and emboldened us in our nascent intellectual labors, saying that soon black women intellectuals would receive their due. We took him at his word.

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As I write in the preface, it is impossible for me to read Scenes without discerning the contributions of my interlocutors, by which I mean to say that I recognize the traces of texts published after 1997 in its lines. Certainly, the echoes of many decades of conversation are palpable. My engagement and collaborations with artists have been critically important for my thinking, and this is apparent in the revised edition.

Growing up in New York City, I encountered so many incredible organic intellectuals: Una Mulzac, the owner of Liberation Bookstore in Harlem; Elombe Brath and the activities of the Patrice Lumumba Coalition; Queen Mother Moore; a feminist lecture series organized by the Sisterhood of Black Single Mothers; Pan-Africanist study groups; a poetry workshop with Quincy Troupe. I had the chance to hear Larry Neal read at the Schomburg Library, to interview Amiri Baraka when I was in high school, to see artists like Dianne McIntyre, Butch Morris, and Olu Dara perform in loft spaces—when artists, not investment bankers, lived in those spaces. Kitchen Table Press, St. Mark’s Bookshop, Film Forum, and The East Organization were as critical to my intellectual development as the university.

Your essay is at once an account of how you wrote Scenes and a reflection on the book’s reception. You write that your aim was “to account for extreme domination and the possibilities seized in practice”—all “the countless ways in which the enslaved challenged, refused, defied, and resisted the condition of enslavement.” The latter theme has, you suggest, “received less attention in the reception of the book,” even as it’s remained central to your work. Why, in your view, has this theory of practice been “overshadowed” by the book’s other influential arguments?

By far the most pressing tasks were to articulate the structural character of slavery’s violence and the dimensions of subjection, and to detail the fundamental ways in which slavery had not been disestablished. Rather than look at the most obvious and egregious examples—lynching, white supremacist violence, and convict labor—I examined the ways in which liberalism and rights discourse were shaped and interpreted to maintain the racial order of the plantation and to legitimate segregation. Other historians and cultural critics had addressed the force and brilliance of black culture and day-to-day resistance, but the discussion of domination, sexual violence, fungibility, and agency shifted the terms of discourse about slavery. 

For some, it proved to be a challenge to hold the necessary terror and quotidian violence of slavery with practice. Scenes is not a bleak or hopeless book; however, it is utterly unrelenting in its critique of the liberal freedom founded upon slavery and the hierarchy and exclusion that characterize the human. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s introduction does a great job clarifying this point. The disorientation of Scenes is in the assertion that the “gift of emancipation” and the recognition of black personhood were no less brutal. When one describes US democracy as experienced and endured by the enslaved and the emancipated, the romance of the republic is shattered. Black people were governed and abandoned by the state, disenfranchised by the law, and subjected to great violence ranging from massacres to state-sanctioned and extra-juridical forms of execution and murder. We were subjected to the law, but only in rare instances protected by it. Theft and terror enabled the freedom of property-holding whites, and this truth cannot be avoided when writing the history of slavery. Most citizens are still not ready to countenance it.

You write that “the work of novelists and poets provided a model” for the book, and you list a number of those writers in a footnote, from Paule Marshall and Toni Morrison to Maryse Condé, Jamaica Kincaid, and Robert Hayden. Could you elaborate on your history of reading those writers? Were there specific works that made an especially strong impression on you, or to which you found yourself returning especially often?

Novelists and poets provided the models for creatively disordering the archive, transforming and rearranging its statements, looking at its documents from below, from the vantage of those in the hold, contesting its regime of fact and truth. I remember the impact of reading Glissant’s deconstruction of “the document of emancipation” in Caribbean Discourse, and Morrison’s dramatic deployment of fragmented narratives of the Middle Passage in Beloved. Novelists like Condé, Caryl Phillips, Gayl Jones, and Fred D’Aguiar created fictions of the archive. They worked within and against its silences and constraints, the purposeful acts of destruction intended to make our history impossible. Lack and absence made poesis necessary. The work of these writers taught me how to break the frame of the imposed discourse and what might be accomplished by dis-composing and remaking narrative.

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In Scenes, you stress that narrating “the social relations of slavery” requires abandoning the form of the “romance, even if it is a romance of resistance.” You return to that thought throughout your work. “In the sixties,” you write in Lose Your Mother about the black Americans who emigrated to Ghana after independence, “it was still possible to believe that the past could be left behind because it appeared as though the future, finally, had arrived; whereas in my age the impress of racism and colonialism seemed nearly indestructible. Mine was not the age of romance.” The word returns, with what struck me as a slightly different emphasis, in “The End of White Supremacy, An American Romance” (2020), your more recent essay on W. E. B. Du Bois’s “The Comet” (1920). What place do romance and tragedy have in your thinking about what you have come to call “the afterlife of slavery”?

That is a great question. Largely, histories of slavery were narrated as romances of overcoming bondage. An early article, “The Poverty of Tragedy in Historical Writing on Southern Slavery” (1986), was one of the few to address the lack of attention paid to the tragic in the historiography. Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973) was an important text in my graduate education because it considered the relation of narrative form and the ideological horizon of history. Most historians took for granted that this most enduring and obdurate form of subjection and dispossession had ended by legal decree. The tragic mode was an important way of underscoring temporal entanglement, what lived on and endured.

Lose Your Mother, along the lines of David Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity (2004), attended to the romance that fueled the anticolonial struggle—the vision of a world after or beyond empire. A generation of freedom fighters imagined that end was within reach, they could almost grasp it. It was a dying colonialism. Yet we belonged to a later generation who lived in the wake of that thwarted and deferred dream of escaping the stranglehold of the West and defeating colonialism and capitalism, and we were keenly aware of living in a present determined by slavery and coloniality. The afterlife of slavery illuminates the dispossession and precarity of black life that is the consequence of slavery.

“The End of White Supremacy” explores the contending or antagonistic romances of the US. For some, the romance is that white supremacy can and will be defeated, and that we might even experience its end in our lifetime. For others, white supremacy is the romance; it is the ideational core of making America great again. In Du Bois’s speculative fiction, “The Comet,” the end of white supremacy requires the end of the world. This tragic romance never tires of imagining when and how the afterlife of slavery might finally reach its end.

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