When English and comparative literature professor Saidiya Hartman was appointed as an University Professor, Columbia’s highest academic honor for distinguished faculty, on Oct. 15, none of her colleagues were surprised. For decades, Hartman has driven groundbreaking research on the lives of Black Americans, navigating through the obstacles and norms of white academic discourse to cement pivotal narratives of Black history in mainstream scholarly literature.
“We’ve been hoping that would happen for a while now. These things don’t just happen, and it’s pretty obvious who deserves that kind of honor,” professor Marianne Hirsch, a colleague of Hartman’s, said,
Hartman, who is on sabbatical until September 2021, published her newest work “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval” last year. The book gives a new voice to young Black women who lived in New York and Philadelphia at the beginning of the twentieth century, whom history had labeled “wayward” but whom Hartman chooses to call “radical.”
Her latest work won the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, the 2020 American Historical Association Joan Kelly Memorial Prize, and Columbia’s 2020 Lionel Trilling Book Award for an excellent, faculty-produced piece of literature. “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” which is currently ranked the number one bestseller in Human Sexuality books on Amazon, cuts across genres much like Hartman herself.
Current director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality, and professor of English and comparative literature Jack Halberstam. attended a Barnard event when “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments” came out. He noted how the lecture hall was packed with students and intellectuals from across Columbia and New York City.
“Every chair was taken. There were people standing against the wall at the back and all the way around the room. It was electrifying,” Halberstam said.
Chair of the African American and African Diaspora studies department and fellow professor of English and comparative literature Farah Jasmine Griffin met Hartman while they were pursuing doctoral degrees at Yale University. According to Griffin, Hartman was highly regarded for her intellect and was a widely respected, sophisticated theoretical thinker.
“She’s always possessed that sensibility and that questioning, the ability to think originally and to challenge received notions and dogma. I think that’s always been the case. It’s just matured into these really fascinating projects over the years,” Griffin said.
For her doctorate thesis, Hartman wrote about the impact of violence on enslaved peoples, which led to her first book, “Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America” (1997). The book explores the aftermath of slavery in America and questions when and if slavery has ended. Griffin gives credit to Hartman for developing how to talk about the modern-day implications of slavery.
“Slavery doesn’t end when it officially ends. She helped us to understand that and how it can continue to exist in all kinds of racial inequities. That’s groundbreaking, and you give people a way of thinking and a vocabulary for talking about something that they didn’t have before,” Griffin said.
“That’s what the very best scholarly and theoretical work does. And I think you can say that probably about each one of her projects,” she added.
Halberstam remembered meeting Hartman in the 1990s while working at the University of California, San Diego. The university was trying to hire Hartman at the time.
“Academia––it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because you’re surrounded by smart people, but it’s like being an athlete. You could be on a track and field team, and there’s some good runners. And then there’s someone who just runs at a different pace and blows everyone else away, and Saidiya is one of those people,” Halberstam said.
In 2007, Hartman published “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route,” where she investigated the history of the Atlantic slave trade in the context of her recent research about a slave route in Ghana. In her 2008 essay “Venus in Two Acts,” Hartman coined the term “critical fabulation,” which describes her original theoretical approach to writing the stories of the unvoiced. With critical fabulation, she challenges the narrative of the archive by merging archival and historical research, critical theory, and her own imagination to give alternate histories.
Since she began teaching, Hartman’s influence has been felt by graduate students across universities and departments. Alongside Laura Wexler, a professor of American studies and of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, and a co-chair of the Women’s Faculty Forum at Yale, Hirsch developed the curriculum for “Theoretical Paradigms,” a graduate class that includes Hartman’s scholarship.
“Laura Wexler and I were reading authors over the summer and decided that this work was really important to give graduate students a way to read and to think and to approach archives that would be quite unique and really useful for their own work,” Hirsch said.
Tiana Reid, has known the University Professor since 2014, when she was working toward a master’s degree. Hartman advised Reid for her M.A. paper and is one of the professors on her dissertation committee.
“I can’t really extract what she’s taught me,” Reid wrote in an email to Spectator. “To me, her influence is more atmospheric, non-transferable. Do you know that Bran Van 3000 song, ‘Everywhere’? She’s everywhere to me.”
Griffin said she sees Hartman’s impact on her own graduate students as well.
“It’s so funny and interesting to be in a class and have your students quoting someone who you know and care about and whose thought you watched develop over the years,” Griffin said.
Hartman is the second professor in the current English and comparative literature department to receive the appointment of University Professor. Professor Gayatri Spivak, who is a deconstructivist literary theorist and helped found Columbia’s Institute for Comparative Literature and Society, received her appointment in 2007.
Department Chair Alan Stewart said it is gratifying to see the University recognize Hartman’s work and acknowledge the impact of the humanities. Stewart, who is a scholar of 16th and 17th-century British history, said Hartman’s theories on historical and archival work have broad implications for his field as well.
“I’m greatly in awe of what she’s aiming to do in this imaginative interaction with the archive,” Stewart said. “That’s something where there are lessons to be learned, no matter what area of literature you work in.”
Term Assistant Professor Alex Pittman of Barnard’s women’s, gender, and sexuality studies department echoed Stewart and said he also teaches her work in his class.
“Her impact on performance studies, which alongside women’s, gender, and sexuality studies is my primary field of research, has been immeasurable,” Pittman said via email. “I am constantly reading, learning from, and engaging her work in my classes and my own research, so I feel (and I believe many of my students feel) an incredible amount of gratitude for what she has brought into and made possible within the world.”
Hartman was the director of the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality from 2011 to 2013, and she remains part of its core faculty. George Delacorte Professor in the Humanities Jean E. Howard, who also teaches at the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality, said Hartman’s time as director helped mark a significant change in the institute’s development. Hartman brought prominent scholars of African American feminist and sexuality studies to campus and introduced issues of mass incarceration to the institute.
“The gender community at Columbia has never been simply a white community, but she helped to make it a more diverse community,” Howard said. “That’s had a very important institutional impact. We feel it here in a practical, institutional way, as well as in the work she’s done thinking about women’s lives in a new way.”
Hartman’s appointment to University Professor is one accolade to be added to a career of accomplishment. She has been a Fulbright, Rockefeller, Whitney Oates, and University of California President’s Fellow, and last year, she won a MacArthur “genius” grant. Despite this, all of her colleagues have characterized Hartman as a very modest intellectual.
“She’s one of those people who you always want to talk about ideas with. We’ve known each other since we were in our twenties,” Griffin said. “You want her opinion on her work, but one of my favorite things we’ve done for years is talking to her about what we’re reading. One of the most exciting parts of having her as a colleague and a friend is just, ‘What are you reading? And then what are your thoughts about what you’re reading?’”