Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval by Saidiya Hartman - review by Kate Dossett

Kate Dossett

Jazz Age Rebels

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval


Serpent’s Tail 390pp £17.99

When Billie Holiday was arrested in a disorderly house in Harlem in 1929, she gave her name as Eleanor Fagan and claimed to be twenty-one. Holiday, in fact aged fourteen at the time, already knew that sentences for adults convicted of actual crimes were often less severe that those handed down to wayward minors. Her gamble worked: the judge sentenced her to four months in the workhouse rather than the three years in a reformatory usually assigned to younger girls.

Young Black American women developed numerous ways of navigating, challenging and evading the zealous policing of social reformers, state officials and brutal law enforcement officers in the early decades of the 20th century. Holiday later recalled how labour and policing worked together to enforce the idea that Black women were not free: ‘Those were rotten days. Women like Mom who worked as maids, cleaned office buildings, were picked up on the street on their way home from work and charged with prostitution. If they could pay, they got off. If they couldn’t they went to court, where it was the word of some dirty grafting cop against theirs.’

The systemic violence inflicted in 1920s New York on African-Americans who challenged racially exclusive, heteronormative patterns of labour, family and sexual practice is at odds with the popular image of the Jazz Age as an era when Americans of all stripes in the cities of the north defied the constitutional

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