The lasting impacts of slavery, for Saidiya Hartman, are clear. Her new book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval, focuses on how black women in Philadelphia and New York lived in the early 19th century. Hartman, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, sees a through line from the era that followed emancipation up to our contemporary realities.

This Black History Month, the Inquirer took a look at indentured servitude in Pennsylvania, as it rose in popularity following the passage of Pennsylvania’s historic abolition law. Indenture applied to black residents born after 1780 and allowed enslavers to keep people captive, and further allowed them to bind the children of enslaved people as indentured servants until they turned 28. Hartman took some time before the Philadelphia stop on her book tour to discuss the transitional periods after enslavement and the difficulty of finding first-hand accounts from those the most impacted by its effects.

Her comments have been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

On the through line between enslavement and servant status.

"There’s a continuity between slavery and a variety of forms of involuntary servitude, even when those other states of involuntary servitude are recognized as something distinct from slavery. One of the ways we see this in Philadelphia, well into the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, is in terms of black laborers being consigned to domestic servitude, which black people definitely understood. And especially black women, since over like 90 percent of black women were working as domestic servants.

People were clear that it was work for them that was marked by the taint of slavery. They understood it to be continuous with slavery… People are understanding themselves being employed through these forces of economic coercion and being confined to the lowest sector of wage labor and understanding it as racialized, understanding it as a continuity.

Again, in the beginning, the first decades of the 20th century even, white liberals and progressives are talking about the resemblance between domestic labor with other kinds of involuntary servitude under slavery and under feudalism."

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval

On how slavery influenced the formation of race in America

Obviously another point of continuity between slavery and the other mode of involuntary servitude is in regard to prisons. For example, we know when we think about Eastern State Penitentiary, and the whole practice of solitary confinement that the first prisoner is Charles Williams, a black person. Or that when slavery is formally abolished, that we see then these efforts to really racialize citizenship as a white entitlement.

So the state constitution, for example, changing voting so that it’s not just about property qualifications for suffrage, but that the notion of a freemen is modified by the word white freemen over 21. [NOTE: Black men in Pennsylvania were stripped of the right to vote in 1838.]

The paradox of Philadelphia is that people think of it as a cradle of liberty, as this seed of abolitionists activity. But the fact is that, black people, black men in Philadelphia didn’t gain the right to vote until their southern brethren and ex-slaves gain that right to vote after the passage of the 15th amendment so what we see are not only those kinds of continuities between forms of labor that are determined more by coercion and direct forms of control and domination, but we see the emergence of a racialized order.

On how modern segregation followed slavery and indenture

We [see] that direct connection between the status of the ex-slave in the South and the status of free blacks in a place like Philadelphia.

When we look at the beginning of what becomes that next space of racialized enclosure, that is the ghetto, right? The making of segregation and the making of the black slum in the urban context and Philadelphia — largely because of [W.E.B.] Du Bois and his study of the Philadelphia Negro, we see the ways in which black folks are kind of barred from employment in this modernizing industry.

What’s interesting about the North… when we think about Philadelphia or in New York, the way in which there’s kind of social mandates by elites to produce a racialized order, often in the absence of an explicit legal apparatus like dictating segregation that we see in the South. So we don’t have those kinds of laws, but we had those things playing out everywhere, around housing, around employment, around access to education.

Saidiya Hartman
Saidiya Hartman

On the challenge of detailing the life histories of the enslaved and indentured

Any account that we have of slavery is always narrated from the outside, to a certain extent, or after the fact, right? Because the people writing, or, for the most part, telling the story of their enslavement are no longer in that state. So, the most exceptional person then is narrating the experience of that institution. Outside that ... for the most part, it hasn’t been possible to narrate an account of the institution while one is still inside it.

Those other stories are largely yet to be activated. That’s one of the things, I certainly always try to do in my work. So how is it that we tell the story, not of the exceptional individuals, but of that multitude of folks. Who lived, endured, suffered and died in the context of these brutal institutions. And that’s much more challenging.

It’s the conundrum, but that’s actually the experience that one is most curious about: How do you tell the life of the unknown?