Single Author: Saidiya Hartman

ENG 440: Single Author – Saidiya Hartman: Slavery & its Afterlives


This class will be a deep dive into the complete published writings of the pre-eminent contemporary theorist of slavery and its afterlives, Saidiya Hartman. We will read Hartman’s critical writings alongside several of her literary intertexts in order to get a full picture of the context of her interventions. The course will be divided into three units corresponding to each of Hartman’s books. In the first, Scenes of Subjection (1997), we will discuss the ways the absues of slavery were often perpetuated through means that at first glance might have seemed like opportunities for pleasure. We will also discuss the ways legal emancipation the the granting of rights to the enslaved allowed for the perpetuation of subjection and unfreedom by other means. Alongside Hartman, we will read the autobiographical narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, two of the primary texts of Hartman’s archive.

In the second unit, structured around ­Lose Your Mother (2006), we will discuss what Hartman calls “the afterlives of slavery,” including both the ways legacies of enslavement persist into the present as well as the dilemmas the archive and the violences of slavery pose for the telling of slavery’s stories. To deepen our conversation about archives and memory, we’ll also read Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

The third unit will be structured around  Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), and will focus on Hartman’s method of “critical fabulation”: using archival materials to construct speculative stories about people whose lives might otherwise be “lost” to the archives. We’ll also consider the ways Hartman’s work has changed over the course of her career and the way other scholars have taken it up under the auspices of Afro-pessimism and Black Optimism.  


Writing assignments will include brief explication assignments, where students will unpack short passages from Hartman’s more challenging writing. For major assignments, students will have the option to complete a series of short (5-6 page) essay assignments responding to the various course texts, or they can opt to spend the semester developing a single 20-25 page research paper (appropriate to use as a writing sample for graduate school application). Regardless of which option they choose, students will develop an annotated bibliography (potentially collaboratively, as a class) in order to both advance their research skills and to deepen their knowledge of scholarship around slavery.


Readings will include:

Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection (1997)

Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother (2006)

Saidiya Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts” (2008)

Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019)

Frederick Douglass, The Narrative of Frederick Douglass (1845)

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

Selected 19th century court cases

W.E.B. DuBois Black Reconstruction 1860-1880 (1935) (selections)

Nella Larsen, Passing (1929)

Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987)

NourbeSe Philip, Zong! (2008)

Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters (1997)


Delivery Format: face to face