Frank B. Wilderson III, a former student of [Saidiya] Hartman’s who now chairs the department of African-American studies at the University of California, Irvine, described her as quietly persuasive. “She’s not an ‘angry Black woman,’ ” he told me. “She’s not Assata Shakur. But what they don’t know is that, where Assata Shakur will blow your head off, Saidiya has just put a stiletto between your ribs.”

Wilderson interviewed Hartman in 2002 for an article called “The Position of the Unthought.” In it, he criticized scholars of African-American history for underplaying the “terror of their evidence in order to propose some kind of coherent, hopeful solution”; he praised “Scenes of Subjection” for exposing the unrelenting violence of slavery. Hartman agreed that turning that legacy into a narrative of uplift was “obscene.” But she has always been interested in portraying the agency of Black people. In “Scenes of Subjection,” her subjects endure vicious circumstances through acts of imagination, making a way out of no way; they evaded work on plantations and, after Emancipation, refused to enter into contracts with their former masters. Hartman told me that her goal was to shift Black lives from the “object of scholarly analysis” to the basis for an “argument that challenged the assumptions of history.” Once, while she was discussing “Scenes of Subjection” with her class at Columbia, a student expressed surprise that she gave the words of a slave the same weight as those of Foucault. “Yeah,” she responded. “Exactly.”

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