How Saidiya Hartman Retells the History of Black Life

October 20, 2020

On a clear night earlier this year, the writer and scholar Saidiya Hartman was fidgeting in a cab on the way to moma PS1, the contemporary-art center in Queens. The museum was holding an event to celebrate Hartman’s latest book, “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” an account, set in New York and Philadelphia at the turn of the twentieth century, that blends history and fiction to chronicle the sexual and gender rebellions of young Black women. Several artists planned to present work that illustrated Hartman’s influence on them. She was nervous just thinking about it. “I’m crying on the inside,” she said. “I’m this shy person, and this feels so weird.”

Hartman, who is fifty-nine, wore a blue batik tunic over slim black pants and plum-shaded ankle boots. A professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, she occupies a singular position in contemporary culture: she is an academic, influenced by Michel Foucault, who has both received a MacArthur “genius” grant and appeared in a Jay-Z video. Hartman has a serene, patient demeanor, which the cultural theorist Judith Butler described as “withheld and shy, self-protective.” She speaks at what seems like precisely three-quarters speed, to allow her to inspect her thoughts before releasing them. “She definitely has a bit of that holding-your-tongue thing as a power mode,” the artist Arthur Jafa, a friend and collaborator of hers, told me. “She carries the universe in her head, and you can feel it in her presence.” But her best friend, Tina Campt, a professor of visual culture at Brown, called her endearingly “goofy and awkward.” On a recent trip to London, Campt told me, Hartman got lost returning to her hotel from a restaurant. The hotel was a block away.