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Berkshire Academic Examines Lives Of Early 20th Century Young Black Women

The cover of "Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments."

On Saturday, a Berkshire County-based academic will speak about her new book as a fundraiser for a local nonprofit.

Gwendolyn VanSant is the the CEO and co-founder of Lee-based Multicultural BRIDGE.

“Multicultural BRIDGE is a nonprofit organization," she told WAMC. "We’re dedicated to cultural competence and equity and justice. We provide training, education, and opportunity for community to gather in conversation.”

Saturday, it’s holding a fundraiser as a part of its “Social Justice in Action” series. In honor of Women’s History Month, VanSant chose speaker Dr. Saidiya Hartman of the English department at Columbia University.

“Dr. Hartman’s real purpose in life, I believe – or, from my perspective – is giving voice to African-American history, reframing it in ways that’s empowering, and less about sort of the downtrodden history of African-Americans but really the strength and beauty in our culture,” said VanSant.

Hartman’s newest book was published by W. W. Norton & Company in February.

“So the title is ‘Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,'" Hartman told WAMC.

The book explores the paradox of young black women living in Northeastern cities at the beginning of the 20th century. A rave review from the New York Times praised its “beautiful, immersive narration” and “distinctive electricity and tension.”

“So we have these young women who are intoxicated with the idea of freedom, who hope to make these wonderful new lives – lives that would only be possible in the aftermath of slavery – and supposedly, lives that wouldn’t be restricted by racism in places like Philadelphia and New York," said Hartman. "And instead, what they encounter are a set of racial restrictions that are different than the South but no less severe.”

Hartman says the women found themselves living in ghettos, and – regardless of their skills or experience – overwhelmingly restricted to working as domestic servants. In the cities, they faced the racism of the white working class – as well as the learned racism of immigrant groups like the Italians, Irish, and Jews.

“Basically, that becomes their lesson in what it is to be an American," said Hartman. "There’s a joke that the first two words that every immigrant learns – one is the N-word and the other is ‘OK.’”

For the young women Hartman’s book follows, finding ways out of their racial enclosure – in the rare instances it was possible – required creativity and collaboration.

“One available path was if you could sing or dance a bit, working in the chorus. So that was a way to make much more money than a domestic, to have a life that was more fun, more glamorous, and to have a bit more autonomy about one’s existence," Hartman told WAMC. "The other thing was that young women often pooled meager resources so that they could all live together and they would kind of share and pool the money that came in so that none of them were required to work full-time.”

Hartman describes her work as an act of discovery, exploring the understudied lives of people living on the cusp of transformation.

“People think of the Harlem Renaissance as a moment of all this artistic creativity, queer politics, or, you know, in terms of white folks, the Jazz Age, and what I’m saying is, well, no – many of those transformations of intimate life really take place for black women much earlier, and they’re agents of that transformation," she told WAMC. "And when we think about men’s political agency we might think of, oh, people protested the war, they didn’t want to fight, that there was a critique – but what about the every day critique that average working class people are living? They have critical ideas about the world that they are a part of, and they are also developing tactics and strategies in opposition to the imposition of certain kinds of social scripts.”

Hartman’s talk will explore all these issues and more. It starts at 3 Saturday at the Mount in Lenox.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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