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“Scenes at 20”: Theses on Hartman

Front cover of Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997). Photograph retrieved from the website of Oxford University Press.

The following “theses” are original transcriptions of Fred Moten, Herman Bennett, Brittney Cooper, Savannah Shange, Jared Sexton, C. Riley Snorton, and Saidiya Hartman at the recent “Scenes at 20” symposium at the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The symposium was co-organized by Marisa Fuentes, Carter Mathes, Myisha Priest, and Lisa Ze Winters, and it was meant to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997). I have sought in these transcriptions to reproduce on the page—and with as much fidelity as possible to the livestream I watched—what Moten, Bennett, Cooper, Shange, Sexton, Snorton, and Hartman actually said on this particular occasion. The third “thesis” is not necessarily about Hartman; but it was (at least from my perspective) too important not to include here.


“We have to write sentences differently—normal sentences don’t work for us. We have to just do stuff differently. … I think of it explicitly as a feminist practice. I mean, in a way, you could say that the root of it is Hurston; and it goes through Morrison and Bambara… We’re just an extension of that…”

—Fred Moten, Keynote Panel on “Feminist Touchstones and Intellectual Genealogies”


“What the hell would political economy look like before [Adam] Smith? ... But the ‘number boys’... they’re indifferent, right? The white number boys are just like, ‘Well, you know, we know what the numbers are...’ ... When you read Walter [Johnson] and [Edward] Baptist and [Sven] Beckert and all that other stuff, they can go about business as usual, cite Saidiya [Hartman] and then move on, right? ... I think it’s interesting that scholars of literary theory are actually, sort of saying like, ‘Look, we can’t leave this to the historians.’ And I think they’re right!”

—Herman Bennett, Panel on “The Tenses of Freedom”


“The North does not get to claim the space of cosmopolitanism... If I’m in a room, we’re not going to sit up north and talk about how it’s problematic for the South to sort of have some kind of space—because there is a way in which northern academic spaces also dominate conversations that the rest of the world is then tagged into in terms of these conversations. ... So, let’s put it all on the table. It’s not that I don’t hear you, it’s just that that’s not all that there is to the story.”

—Brittney Cooper, Q&A with the Panel on “Agency”


“Self-fashioning is only always gendered. ... Is black agency perennially gendered... and how does that also relate to our ability to undermine capital with our self-fashioning?”

—Savannah Shange, Q&A with the Panel on “Agency”


“So, my modest proposal is: to think about some collective class we might all engage in—that hopefully Saidiya [Hartman] would teach—and it would be a reading of [Milton Friedman’s] Capitalism and Freedom in conjunction with [Eric Williams’s] Capitalism and Slavery.”

—Fred Moten, Q&A with the Panel on “Performance and Practice”


“[Scenes of Subjection] did more than pose new questions and reformulate longstanding questions in novel ways; it also struck me as a provocation—a call whose response was not known in advance; or, whose response was known but whose audience, perhaps not unlike its author, didn’t want to know anything about the nonetheless unavoidable knowledge. A text whose prose reveals—in its expression as much as in its content—something of the toll it took to compose it, and the toll it would take to read it.”

—Jared Sexton, Panel on “Performance and Practice”


“What is the discourse of sexuality to the fungible? … What forms of redress are vexedly possible in/as flesh?”

—C. Riley Snorton, Panel on “Performance and Practice”


“There’s a difference between developing a language of freedom and developing a desire for it; and we shouldn’t presume that there is a desire for freedom, or only a desire for freedom.”

—Jared Sexton, Panel on “Performance and Practice”


“Decades earlier she had vowed never to lose sight of the work, never to be distracted by the business of it (the petty rivalries, the schools, the hierarchy, the administration, the protocols that deadened thought), never be embittered by the bullshit, the obstacles, the assault, and the fundamental disregard of this project—her project, our project. So she trained herself not to desire recognition, not need the praise of others to nurture the endeavor... She knew the longing for recognition and affirmation had destroyed many Negroes, ruined so many minds. She tried to live like a cactus, and survive on so very little. So the feast was unexpected. The words she cobbled together could not even convey the joy, the enormity of endowment, the sense of disbelief as others described what she had done—what she had made possible. Had she achieved what they had said? Was not more proof required to establish that she deserved it? Was the grand celebration a mistake or premature? Didn’t she need to work even harder to prove she deserved it all? So she consulted the tattered outline of a plan for black female genius always at hand when she was writing, which was really just a how-to guide to survive in hostile conditions. Item #4 stated clearly: ‘Want nothing. Never care what they say about you.’ And now here she was at the podium, biting her lip, and trying to hold back tears to embrace it all, to find her place in this great company, to accept that she, too, had contributed something to this venture. But she started to choke up—so, she just said, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’”

—Saidiya Hartman, “Closing Remarks”


Garry Bertholf is an assistant professor of English and Africana Studies at Davidson College; he received his Ph.D. in Africana Studies from the University of Pennsylvania.


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