How Saidiya Hartman Changed the Study of Black Life

How Saidiya Hartman Changed the Study of Black Life

How Saidiya Hartman Changed the Study of Black Life

A conversation with writer about her pathbreaking book Scenes of Subjection and how our understanding of race has changed in the last two decades. 


Saidiya Hartman has shaped studies of Black life for over two decades. Her first book, 1997’s Scenes of Subjection, argued that slavery was foundational to the American project and its notions of liberty. Her follow-up, 2006’s Lose Your Mother, combines elements of historiography and memoir in exploring the experience and legacy of enslavement. Here she first used a speculative method of writing history given the silences of the archive. And her most recent book, 2019’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, examines the revolution of everyday life enacted in the practices of young Black women and queer people that created and sustained expansive notions of freedom.

After 25 years, Hartman’s influence is everywhere. Her coining of the phrase “the afterlife of slavery” changed the ways that historians consider the long ramifications of the chattel regime on Black life. It has prepared the public to engage with the work of artists like Kara Walker, who represent slavery’s continued hold on the present. And even the critiques of Hartman’s work demonstrate an anxiety about her influence, conceding that she has, in fact, influenced our ability to see the world. I spoke with Hartman earlier this year about the republication of Scenes of Subjection on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, about the ways that people in the 1990s misunderstood race and slavery, and about the expansive visions of freedom that enslaved people cultivated. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Elias Rodriques

Elias Rodriques: What led you to writing Scenes of Subjection?

Saidiya Hartman: I arrived at slavery unexpectedly. I started out writing a dissertation on the blues. To understand that substrate of Black life, I began to research slavery. To my eyes, it was impossible to make sense of the structural logic and foundational character of racism without reckoning with slavery. The available critical language seemed inadequate for describing the necessary violence and the extreme domination characteristic of slavery. I didn’t imagine that I would become a scholar of slavery. But I felt that the key terms of life in the modern age were set in stone in that formative moment; it provided the structure for our language of freedom and rights, man and citizen. I was also troubled by the prevailing liberal framework that marked formal emancipation as the end of slavery and as an incredible rupture. I had read Marx and [Orlando] Patterson, so I understood the limits of political emancipation as well as the distinction between manumission and emancipation and the disestablishment or abolition of slavery. The other major concern was theorizing violence: not just spectacular instances of violence, but the ordinary or quotidian violence that structures everyday life. The Marxist narrative of modes of production or the Foucauldian account of modes of power seemed inadequate when accounting for slavery. Taking seriously the issue of chattel slavery or racial slavery in the settler colony threw a wrench into those explanatory frames. This set of concerns formed the project that became Scenes.

ER: How did people think about race at the time that you were writing Scenes?

SH: For me, the people who most productively thought about racism were people like Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, and Hazel Carby. Theirs was a Marxist or post-Marxist framework that attempted to explain the way in which racism was structuring the social. Stuart Hall’s “Race, Articulation, and Societies Structured in Dominance” analyzed social formations in which race was the dominant feature and which couldn’t be explained as a secondary factor or by-product of the mode of production. How could racism, woven through the essential fabric of the West as a political project, be confined to the realm of ideology? How could we account for its materiality?

My intellectual training was very much shaped by the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies, because Hazel Carby was on my dissertation committee. [Carby’s] Reconstructing Womanhood and [Paul Gilroy’s] The Black Atlantic were important anchors. Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s racial formation theory was also important to engaging racism not simply as “ideology” but as producing and determining the character of the social formation. Yet even with all of this, a rigorous analytic of racism, or what people would now describe as anti-Blackness, was emerging and not at all the given.

Tackling racial slavery was no less difficult. At that time, Western historiography had devoted 50 years to refuting [Eric Williams’s] Capitalism and Slavery. People argued that racial domination had little or nothing to do with capitalism and tried to contain slavery as a premodern formation, both in terms of power relations and capitalist accumulation. When I was an assistant professor at Berkeley, European historians—I remember Hugh Thomas specifically—were still writing papers about why Eric Williams was wrong in asserting that slavery was essential to the emergence and development of capitalism. Joseph Inikori’s work was an important contribution to this debate. The European project was to deny that slavery was a key factor in the making of the modern world. This was the consensus. Yet I had an intuitive sense, even if I didn’t have the language to articulate it, that racial slavery was a constitutive feature of the world I inhabited. It had everything to do with our present and with the disposability of Black life.

ER: What was it like to hold on to that intuition at the time?

SH: When I shared with friends and classmates at Yale that I was writing about slavery, their eyes glazed over with boredom. “What kind of boring historical project is that?” they seemed to say. Then I read Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism, which encouraged me to continue. But Black Marxism was also very challenging for me, because my education was within a post-Marxist framework, in which one took for granted critique of the totality. And Robinson was talking about an African totality! Robinson was thinking about racial capitalism, but slavery was not a moment of genesis in Black Marxism. He tracks racism as a formation inside of Europe that gets projected out, structures the encounters between Europeans and Africans, and shapes the language of the slave trade. But largely, he thinks about racism as part of capitalism’s emergence in Europe. I was studying these things and wanted to engage with the critical thinking of those who were enslaved and who lived in the aftermath of slavery. I was also reading subaltern studies, where scholars were asking, “How do we think about dominated people who have limited or no access to the means of representation? How does one push against the normative framework of history?”

ER: Who was pushing against that framework with regard to slavery?

SH: Some Marxists applied Marxism in a strange way: “Let’s think about Gramsci’s hegemony and apply that to the relationship between slave owners and the enslaved.” Then others replied, “Well, no, that’s not hegemony. That’s extreme domination.” So I wondered, “Who’s thinking about extreme domination and the particular constituents of slavery?” The work of political theorists was key in questioning the character of power and critical engaging the assumptions of liberalism. The testimony of the enslaved was the most valuable resource. For this, we owe a great deal to the editor of the WPA Slave Narrative Collection, George Rawick. He thought about the enslaved from a tradition of Italian Marxism—autonomia—that considered the significance of local struggles. He considered the plantation alongside the factory floor, although ultimately, Scenes underscores the discontinuity between the worker on the factory floor and the enslaved as a sentient commodity in the plantation order. Instead, it strives to think about the specificity of enslaved people in a thoroughly racialized order.

ER: In your new preface, you note that terms like “exploited worker” and “unpaid laborer” failed to describe slavery. What did they fail to describe?

SH: They failed to describe the fundamental violence of slavery; the particular modes of accumulation, extraction, and reproduction in racial slavery; the dual existence of the enslaved as subject-object; the state of social death; the hierarchy of the human; and the fungibility of Black life. When I wrote Scenes, I didn’t have access to Sylvia Wynter’s Black Metamorphosis, which will soon appear in the world. (Anthony Bougues and a team of graduate students are editing it.) Wynter expands the frame and states explicitly that domination and accumulation are fundamental to the position and experience of the captive. This original and ongoing accumulation conditions the exploitation of the worker, but the exploitation of the worker cannot and does not explain the position of the enslaved, the colonized, the wretched.

Orlando Patterson was also essential. Patterson provides a critical vocabulary of the constituent elements of slavery and its idioms of power in Slavery and Social Death. Patterson took note of the inadequacy of critical discourse in describing and explicating slavery. In an interview with David Scott in Small Axe, Patterson recounts his intellectual journey as a historical sociologist, and tells a story about standing in Trenchtown [a neighborhood in the Jamaican capital of Kingston] and wanting to account for its genesis. What was the relationship between that space of racialized enclosure, the ghetto, and the plantation that engendered it?

These people were essential to my thinking. Another person who comes to mind is [Hortense] Spillers in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.” I was a graduate student when Spillers gave the talk at the Yale Humanities Center; it is one of the most cited essays in Black studies. The response of the faculty was, “Why is she dealing with the Moynihan Report?” It wasn’t, “Oh my God! The intellectual ground has shifted.” Spillers asserted that our understanding of the human is thrown into crisis by the transatlantic slave trade and racial slavery. What critical language can attend to its features? The implications of Spillers, Patterson, and Wynter are enormous. Their work structures Black studies and has shaped two or three generations of scholars. It is not coincidental that thinking about slavery was key to their projects.

ER: In terms of timing, your own book came out in the 1990s. In your preface, you note that you could feel “the force and disfigurement of slavery in the present.” How did you feel it?

SH: The fungibility and disposability of Black life. The state-sanctioned murder of Black people. The radically restricted life chances of Black people. That is the world I knew and experienced, but thinking along these lines was untimely and certainly unwelcome. On the one hand, multiculturalism and the post-racial society were the hegemonic frame at the time, and on the other hand, the tremendous violence of the state and its carceral machinery targeted Black people as predators and criminals and made incarceration and premature death the expected horizon. [President Bill] Clinton’s liberal establishment was dismantling the welfare state and building the carceral complex.

Settler colonialism and racial slavery and liberal ideals of freedom gave shape to the United States. That is undeniable. But there’s a constant and relentless attempt to deny this. After [Barack] Obama was elected, a colleague of mine, a classicist, said to me, “Now your work is passé.” [laughter] That says everything.

When Scenes was published, it had a chilly reception. To state directly, plainly, and unapologetically the ways in which Blackness was marked by this experience of having been a commodity, to elaborate the conditions of social death, and to attenuate the notion of agency was not welcome. When historians began to address the question of agency, they failed to cite my work. Historians like Rawick, Sterling Stuckey, [Herbert] Gutman, and other pioneering radical historians of slavery offered rich accounts of the agency of the enslaved and slave culture. The intent of Scenes wasn’t to negate that work, but to think about power and structures of violence in a systemic way. While there are variations in the condition of slavery, I wanted to address the state of slavery, its structural features and constituent elements. That’s why Orlando Patterson and Claude Meillassoux were very important to me. Those thinkers helped me develop a critical language of slavery. Graduate students and young readers kept Scenes alive.

ER: The new version is very much a collective endeavor as well. Can you tell me about the new additions?

SH: I wanted the new edition of Scenes to enter the world with a collective voice and as a collaboration with others. The notations and compositions by Torkwase Dyson and Cameron Rowland make thought available in other ways. They are critical commentaries, abstract compositions, and elaborations of the central terms of the book. Over the years, people have said, “Scenes is so hard!” So when Cameron and I were collaborating on the notations, we thought, “Suppose you wanted a crib sheet of Scenes? Maybe you could just tear out the notations.” We offer the notations as points of clarification, which allow a variety of people to enter the text. They are outlines, provocations to read otherwise. Torkwase’s compositions or blueprints address issues of flight, enclosure, and Black movement in confined spaces. These abstract renderings frame the chapters; they are dense and suggestive in that they open other ways of reading and approaching the text. The new foreword by Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor underscores the critique of the prevailing structures and the recognition that they cannot save us and cannot actualize our longing for another way to exist. This radical critique cannot be mistaken for resignation and despair. The afterword by Marisa Fuentes and Sarah Haley explicates the historical intervention, archival labor and critical context of Scenes. So, there are several different interpretations of Scenes inside the book. For me, this was a way of expanding and amplifying the work. It made collective utterance part of its framing.

ER: About that critique: You note that the recognition of humanity does not end violence so much as enable other kinds of violence. How?

SH: There was a commonsense understanding that the violence of slavery solely concerned the object status or denied humanity of the enslaved. But enslaved people were also recognized as human in slave law and statutes. The enslaved existed as subject and object—as property and as human—and their humanity was another site of violence. The promise of emancipation was the transition from being the property of another to the property of oneself. The liberal narrative of slavery’s end celebrates and fetishizes this transition: “Now you are a free worker!” But as Marx observed, the worker goes to the market, trades his hide, and needs to prepare for a tanning. That made me think, “Was this the liberatory horizon of freedom? It was so impoverished.” As we know, the domination of the ex-slave required direct forms of violence and of racist terror; the control of the Black laboring classes continued to employ forms of extreme violence, and the spectacle of terror never disappeared. Racism is a distribution of death, controlled depletion, and a brutal allocation of chances at life. The forms of direct, extrajudicial, and extra-economic modes of violence remained dominant after emancipation. Racism, as Du Bois notes, gave every white person the power of police over Black folk. This is to say nothing of the psychic dimensions of anti-Blackness.

If individualism and wage labor aren’t the horizon of freedom, then we need a radically different understanding of what the disestablishment of slavery or abolition entails, and a different language and imagination of possibility. We see the traces and practices of these other visions of freedom in the thoughts and in the social assembly of the enslaved. It isn’t a notion of freedom defined as the “liberty of contract,” which is what the Freedmen’s Bureau and Northern capitalists and missionaries imposed as the vision. The ex-slave was taught to read and, at the same time, was being trained to become a self-possessed subject; this was part and parcel of the “training and formation” of the dutiful and disciplined worker.

Of course, an enormous violence is required to produce a working class and drive people without any resources but the self to the market. However, this transition was radically truncated for the formerly enslaved. Late 19th- and 20th-century Black intellectuals, as well as ordinary Black folks, who were primarily agricultural laborers and domestics, stated repeatedly that Black people were living in a condition that was all but slavery in name. That was the reality. So, why the faith in the liberal narrative about emancipation and the end of slavery; why erect the barrier between variants of involuntary servitude when many of the essential features of unfreedom were still in place, when racist terror and state violence was the norm?

ER: What did you find studying that transition?

SH: I read the reports of field workers in the Freedmen’s Bureau and other visitors to the South reporting on the great violence in the former insurrectionary states. These reports were written by white officials and bureaucrats, and even what they described was sobering. Again, it raised the question: What does it mean to abolish slavery? Certainly, it would mean the end of racial capitalism and the hierarchy of life it has produced. It would entail dismantling the Western scheme of value and disenchanting the human. The racial taxonomy of life and value and the hierarchy of species would all have to be abolished. The end of private property—that’s what abolition entails. It is not the burdened individuality of freedom or the end of the legal property in slaves. Abolition requires uprooting the order of value and overturning the vertical order of life that created the system. A more far-reaching vision of abolition is imperative. The testimony of the formerly enslaved articulates this longing as well as the poverty of liberal and market freedom. The imagination of Black freedom has never been content to be defined by legal liberalism. It was always more capacious. What people wanted and hoped for was a revolution of the social order. In the US, the outcome of the Civil War negated property in slaves, and there was the possibility that the social order would be remade, so that an actual reconstruction might be possible.

ER: What are some of these other, more expansive visions of freedom?

SH: There is an expansive vision of freedom articulated in the everyday struggles against the plantation, the boss, the white man. The visions of what might be articulated by the enslaved were utterly antagonistic to white supremacy and the capitalist order. Sometimes it took the form of a messianic vision that didn’t imagine justice was even possible within the secular world, so people ran away from the plantation, took to the hills, and lived in the swamps. The majority expressed what might be or welcomed the world to come in spiritual practice. They articulated other visions of the possible and values fundamentally opposed to the prevailing scheme of captivity. For the settler and the colonizer, Earth is something that can be parceled out, that can be commodified, that can be sold. You can plant your flag or build your fort or erect your fence or post a “No Trespassing” sign and construct the sanctity of the private, the dominion of the sovereign nation or sovereign individual. This is a worldview that is at odds with the way most inhabitants of the planet have lived and have understood their relation to the earth. I wanted to recover those beliefs and values that have always supported and animated Black life and that remain utterly hostile to this project—to capitalism, to racism, to the sovereign “I.”

How did the enslaved conceive, imagine, describe, and engage the world in which they were situated? How did they attempt to create openings and lines of flight within the racialized enclosure of the plantation? Practice was the domain in which to engage these matters. It is the link between Scenes and Wayward Lives. What does it mean to know that you will be free? What sustains a belief in freedom when there’s nothing in the world that would allow or encourage you to think that it is reasonable or possible? This belief has a dramatic impact on the way the Civil War unfolded. For Lincoln, the goal was reunification of a warring nation. But as Du Bois observed in Black Reconstruction, the enslaved had a different vision and understanding of what this war meant. For them, it was a war against slavery. And they made it so.

ER: I want to ask you a question that you ask of Olaudah Equiano [the Black abolitionist and author of a slave narrative]: “How do you commemorate what has yet to arrive?”

SH: I love that moment in Equiano’s narrative in which he imagines and commemorates the end of the Atlantic slave trade and slavery, although the book was published in 1789. He has a knowledge of freedom that is tantamount to faith; it is faith. He knows that slavery will end and anticipates the celebration of that end. I aspire to such faith. I can see the wonder of it; I can see the hope it offers. I experience these moments as a writer. They’re short-lived and fleeting, but they are moments in which there is a glimpse of the possible, where radical transformation is palpable.

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