Saidiya Hartman | An excerpt adapted from Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval | W. W. Norton & Co. | 25 minutes (6,922 words)
The small naked figure reclines on the arabesque sofa. Looking at the photograph, it is easy to mistake her for some other Negress, lump her with all the delinquent girls working Lombard Street and Middle Alley, lose sight of her among the surplus colored women in the city, condemn and pity the child whore. Everyone has a different story to share. Fragments of her life are woven with the stories of girls resembling her and girls nothing like her, stories held together by longing, betrayal, lies, and disappointment. The newspaper article confuses her with another girl, gets her name wrong. Photographs of the tenement where she lives regularly appear in the police briefs and the charity reports, but you can barely see her, peering out of the third-floor window. The caption makes no mention of her, noting only the moral hazard of the one-room kitchenette, the foul condition of the toilets, and the noise of the airshaft. The photograph taken of her in the attic studio is the one that is most familiar; it is how the world still remembers her. Had her name been scribbled on the back of the albumen print, there would be at least one fact I could convey with a measure of certainty, one detail that I would not have to guess, one less obstacle in retracing the girl’s path through the streets of the city. Had the photographer or one of the young men assisting him in the studio recorded her name, I might have been able to find her in the 1900 census, or discover if she ever resided at the Shelter for Colored Orphans, or danced on the stage of the Lafayette Theatre, or if she ended up at the Magdalene House when there was nowhere else to go.
Her friends refused to tell the authorities anything; but even they didn’t know how she arrived at the house on the outskirts of the Seventh Ward, or what happened in the studio that afternoon. The Irish housekeeper thought she was the black cook, Old Margaret’s, niece, and, neglecting her work as they were wont to do had wandered from the kitchen to the studio. Old Margaret, no kin to the girl, believed that Mr. Eakins had lured her to the attic with the promise of a few coins, but never said what she feared. The social worker later assigned to the girl’s case never saw the photograph. She blamed the girl’s mother and the slum for all the terrible things that happened and filled in the blanks on the personal history form, never listening for any other answer. Age of first sexual offense was the only question without certain reply.
From these bits and pieces, it has been difficult to know where to begin or even what to call her. The fiction of a proper name would evade the dilemma, not resolve it. It would only postpone the question: Who is she? I suppose I could call her Mattie or Kit or Ethel or Mabel. Any of these names would do and would be the kind of name common to a young colored woman at the beginning of the twentieth century. There are other names reserved for the dark: Sugar Plum, Peaches, Pretty Baby, and Little Bit — names imposed on girls like her that hint at the pleasures afforded by intimate acts performed in rented rooms and dimly lit hallways. And there are the aliases too, the identities slipped on and discarded — a Mrs. quickly affixed to a lover’s name, or one borrowed from a favorite actress to invent a new life, or the protective cover offered by the surname of a maternal grandmother’s dead cousin — all to elude the law, keep your name out of the police register, hold the past at a safe distance, forget what grown men did to girls behind closed doors. The names and the stories rush together. The singular life of this particular girl becomes interwoven with those of other young women who crossed her path, shared her circumstances, danced with her in the chorus, stayed in the room next door in a Harlem tenement, spent sixty days together at the workhouse, and made an errant path through the city. Read more…