Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

The letter from Esther’s girlfriend was nothing like her husband’s. It didn’t plead for her to be a good girl or beg her to leave the wild world behind or caution her to take the straight road, but reminded her instead of all the pleasures awaiting her when she received her free papers, not the least of these being Alice’s love:

Dear Little Girl, Just a few lines to let you know that everything is o.k. I suppose you think I was foolish to leave Peekskill but I could not stand the work. I have not been used to working so hard when I leave Bedford and why should I do so when I don’t have to, you stay where you are as you expect to live in New York when you are free. . . . It will surprise you, I am going to be married next month, not that I care much [for him] but for protection. I went to New York Sunday and seen quite a number of old friends and heard all the scandal and then some. . . . New York is wide open, plenty of white stuff & everything you want so cheer up there are plenty of good times in store for you. So I must close with the same old love wishing you well.

Within a few weeks of Esther’s release, she and Alice reconnected with their friend Harriet Powell. They crashed at her place until they could find a place of their own. Harriet’s mother welcomed both girls, not caring that one of them was white. They enjoyed a wild time in the city, making up for the twenty-five months stolen, dancing until nearly dawn, going to the theatre and the movies, eating at chop-suey joints, and keeping company with whoever they wanted, at least until the parole officer found them. “Both were free and neither good,” Miss Murphy told their employer at the midtown hotel, making sure that the head housekeeper knew exactly what kind of girls they were. She began with the word dangerous.


The afterlife of slavery unfolded in a tenement hallway and held Esther Brown in its grasp. She and her friends did not forget for a moment that the law was designed to keep them in place, but they refused to live in its clauses and parentheses. The problem of crime was the threat posed by the black presence in the northern city, the problem of crime was the wild experiment in black freedom, and the efforts to manage and regulate this crisis provided a means of reproducing the white-over-black order that defined urban space and everyday life. With incredible ferocity, state surveillance and police power acted to shape and regulate intimate life. State violence, involuntary servitude, poverty and confinement defined the world that Esther Brown wanted to destroy. It made her the sort of girl who would not hesitate to smash things up.

From “The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Riotous Manner“ in Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. New York: Norton, 2019.

Kyla Tompkins