Revolution in a Minor Key

Illustration for article titled Revolution in a Minor Key
Image: Norton; Steven Gregory

Reprinted from Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments by Saidiya Hartman. Copyright © 2019 by Saidiya Hartman. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

It was past midnight and Harriet Powell was still on the dance floor. At first, she couldn’t make sense of what the police officer said. She was under arrest? For what? The music blaring in the background and the couples dancing around her offered no hint that she would spend the next few years in and out of prison and that a decade would pass before she received the gift of her free papers. Who would have expected that involuntary servitude was the price for two nights of love in a rented room in a Harlem tenement? Or that unregulated black movement was still a risk, a threat, and a crime? Or that the “rebellious flame” of her “nocturnal wanderings” and sexual variance made her a potential prostitute and vagrant? How had the state come to set its sights on a seventeen-year-old black girl and make her the target of its violence? Even after the police officer uttered the words: You are under arrest, she protested, insisting that she had done nothing wrong. How had living become a crime?


Everyone was talking about freedom and democracy. One year, six months and twelve days of war hadn’t produced any agreement about what the war meant and what it would bring. The police didn’t give a damn if a Negro was wearing a uniform. Move on nigger. But even the dissenters, the radical Negroes who opposed transforming young men into cannon fodder for capitalism and who condemned the war as a crime and an extension of the color line on a global scale, expected something decisive at the outcome. Would the colored people of the world be united in the fight against imperialism? The hopes of revolutionary change ignited by 1917 reached deep into the heart of the Black Belt. The New Negro has no fear—was the declaration that echoed through the crowd. The spirit of Bolshevism was palpable in the streets of Harlem. Would a better world unfold in its wake? In editorials in the New York Age, the Amsterdam News, the Chicago Defender, and the Afro-American, everyone was asking when, if ever, the Negro would be free. But no one had Harriet Powell in mind or the war waged against her. Walking with the “conscious sway of invitation,” gathering and assembling at the cabaret, and engaging in the very ordinary everyday practice of defiance were incommensurate with the political idiom of adjustment, betterment, and reward, the holy grail of self-appointed race leaders and friends of the Negro, and, as well, beneath the scrutiny of black socialists and street-corner radicals. Harriet’s beautiful lack of restraint, her spectacular refusal to aspire to a better job or a decent life, and her radiant lust solicited only the attention of the police and the sociologist.

Charlie Hudson wasn’t a soldier, unlike many of the young men Harriet knew who were lingering and tormented in the south and desperate to get to France. Theirs was not a romance stoked by the passions of war or the imminent threat of separation. If they became involved too quickly and made their way from the dance floor to the bedroom in a week, their only excuse was pleasure. On the Tuesday evening when Harriet left home to meet him, she told her parents she would return home shortly. Her father didn’t believe it for a minute. He complained that the girl made no pretense of listening. She was always running the street. After work, she came home only long enough to change her clothes before rushing off to a dance or a movie and did not return until well after midnight. Why shouldn’t I go out sometimes if I work? she challenged. He said he wouldn’t stand for it in his house. It wasn’t fair, she countered; she worked like an adult, so why shouldn’t she be treated like one?

The rented room was just a few blocks from the Palace Casino, where she first met Charlie. It was in the fast part of Harlem, filled with lodging houses, cabarets, clubs, and saloons, and it was where the police focused their raids. Harriet had been intimate with others, mostly boys her own age, kissing and groping in dark hallways and on rooftops. The first time she did it was with an Italian she met at the park. He took her home and raped her. Few were the girls who consented the first time. It was different with Charlie Hudson. He was not brutal. He didn’t force her, nor did he want her to hustle. For two days and nights, they lay idling in bed in a furnished room indistinguishable from hundreds of others, which had been carved out of lovely row houses now amputated and transformed into the tenements and rooming houses that lined 134th Street. In the tiny but glorious world of the rented room, she did whatever she wanted to do, not what others expected her to do, and it made her feel grown. When she and Charlie finally ventured outside, they made their way back to the dance hall.


On the floor of the Palace Casino, Harriet savored the joy of losing herself in the crowd. She absorbed the waves of heat emanating from all the bodies shimmying and shaking and grinding and it made all the pleasure of the past forty-eight hours even sweeter. Only when Officer Johnson grabbed her arm as she moved across the dance floor did it come to an end.

The growing black presence in New York exaggerated the menace of colored women and the sexual dangers posed by young black folks rushing to the city. Each decade the population had doubled. It was impossible to walk through the streets of the Tenderloin or San Juan Hill or Harlem without encountering rambunctious girls, street waifs, baby-faced whores. They were the daughters of day laborers, Southern migrants, and West Indian immigrants flooding the city. The bohemians called them chippies, anarchists, lady lovers, sporting girls, bull daggers, and wild women.


Social reformers and yellow journalists sounded the alarm: The seduction of “unprotected” girls had reached epidemic proportions, so extreme measures were required. White slavery incited the moral panic and the national movement to protect young women from sexual predators. Rumors circulated about white slavery conspiracies, Jewish slave trafficking networks, Negro predators, and Chinatown opium dens, and the utter lack of evidence did little to dampen the fear and hysteria. Common sense held that black girls were the most vulnerable because of the corrupt employment agencies recruiting them from the south, the lack of decent job opportunities, and, most important, the centuries-long habit of consorting with white men, which had been their training in slavery. “Black women yielded more easily to the temptations of the city than any other girls,” explained Jane Addams, because Negroes as a group, as “a colony of colored people,” had not been brought under social control. Policy makers and reformers insisted they were “several generations behind the Anglo-Saxon race in civilizing agencies and processes.” For this reason, they were in need of greater regulation. Slavery was the source of black women’s immorality, observed the criminologist Frances Kellor, because “Negro women [were] expected to be immoral and [had] few inducements to be otherwise.” Even W. E. B. Du Bois lamented, “Without a doubt the point where the Negro American is furthest behind modern civilization is in his [or her] sexual mores.”

Moving about the city as they pleased and associating freely with strangers, young women risked harassment, arrest, and confinement. Wayward minor laws made them vulnerable to arrest and transformed sexual acts, even consensual ones with no cash exchanging hands, into criminal offenses. Phrases like “potential prostitute,” “failed adjustment,” and “danger of becoming morally depraved” licensed the dragnet. Casual sexual encounters and serial relationships were branded as “moral depravity,” an offense punishable with a prison sentence. All colored women were vulnerable to being seized at random by the police; those who worked late hours, or returned home after the saloon closed or the lights were extinguished at the dance hall, might be arrested and charged with soliciting. If she had a sexually transmitted disease or children outside of wedlock or mixed-race children, her conviction was nearly guaranteed. Young women between fourteen and twenty-one, but sometimes girls as young as twelve, were sentenced to reformatories for visiting or residing in a house with a bad reputation or suspected of prostitution, or associating with lowlifes and criminals, or being promiscuous, or not working. Those who dared refuse the gender norms and social conventions of sexual propriety— monogamy, heterosexuality, and marriage—or failed to abide the script of female respectability were targeted as potential prostitutes, vagrants, deviants, and incorrigible children. Immorality and disorder and promiscuity and inversion and pathology were the terms imposed to target and eradicate these practices of intimacy and affiliation.


It was one’s status that determined whether an intimate act, an evening spent with a stranger, or a proclivity to run the streets was a punishable offense. A status offense was a form of behavior deemed illegal only for a particular group of persons. These offenses fell within the jurisdiction of magistrate courts, and judges had great latitude in deciding a young woman’s fate. Subjective evaluations of “behavior and conduct” produced dire outcomes. The Women’s Court was created to address matters of sexual delinquency and it had the highest rate of conviction of all New York City courts. Not surprisingly, black women made up a significant percentage of those convicted.


Sex wasn’t a crime, yet some forms of intimacy were unlawful and immoral— premarital sex, sex with a girl or boy under the age of consent, sodomy, sex in exchange for gifts or money rather than a marriage proposal. A wayward minor, as defined by the Code of Criminal Procedure, was: “Any person between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one who (1) ‘habitually associates with dissolute persons,’ or (2) ‘is found of his or her own free will and knowledge in a house of prostitution, assignation, or ill-fame, or habitually associates with thieves, prostitutes, pimps or procurers, or disorderly persons,’ or (3) ‘is willfully disobedient to the reasonable and lawful commands of parent, guardian or other custodian and is morally depraved or is in danger of becoming morally depraved,’ or (4) ‘... without just cause and without the consent of parents, guardians, or other custodians, deserts his or her home or place of abode, and is morally depraved or is in danger of becoming morally depraved,’ or (5) ‘... so deports himself or herself as to willfully injure or endanger the morals of herself and others.’ ”

Only young women were adjudged wayward under these statutes (between the years 1882– 1925). The intent of the legislation was to police and regulate sexual offenses without the “stigma of the conviction of crime.” Young women’s sexual activity, it was believed, led “directly to the entrance of the minor upon a career of prostitution.” Yet such “protective measures” served only to criminalize young black women and make them even more vulnerable to state violence.


Serial lovers, a style of comportment, a lapse in judgement, a failure of restraint, an excess of desire—these were not crimes in and of themselves, but indications of impaired will and future crime. Those charged were not technically guilty of breaking the law or having committed a crime, so as a result, they were not protected by regular forms of due process, but subject to the discretion of the magistrate as to whether to suspend sentence, offer probation or commit the accused to the reformatory or other appropriate institutions. As a result of this discretion, many young black women who were first-time offenders, or to be more exact, young black women who had their first encounter with the police were likely to be sentenced to the reformatory for three years.


The wayward were guilty of a manner of living and existing deemed dangerous, and were a risk to the public good. Formally, they were not juvenile delinquents because “delinquency includes the commission of an act which if committed by an adult would be adjudged a crime and punished as such.” In contrast, the provisions of the Wayward Minors Act held that “the definition of a wayward minor includes only non-criminal acts but which indicate the imminence of future criminality.

The paradox was that minor infractions and statutory offenses were subject to more severe forms of punishment than actual crimes. A girl convicted as a wayward minor might receive an indeterminate sentence of three years, while a woman convicted of prostitution might receive sixty days at the workhouse. When the young Billie Holiday appeared before the Women’s Court after being arrested in a disorderly house, the fourteen-year-old Elinora Harris gave her name as Eleanor Fagan, which was her grandmother’s surname, and pretended she was twenty-one in order to avoid a custodial sentence of three years at the reformatory in favor of a short stint at the workhouse. As she had hoped, the judge (Jean Norris) sentenced her to four months in the workhouse at Blackwell’s Island. This sentence was a month longer than the sentence received by the neighbor who raped her when she was eleven.


Wayward minor laws brought conduct such as drinking, dancing, dating (especially interracial liaisons), having sex, going to parties and cabarets, inviting men to your room, and roaming the street under the control of the police and the courts. These counter-conducts (different ways of conducting the self directed at challenging the hierarchy of life produced by the color line and enforced by the state) or errant ways of living were seized by the state in its calculation of social risks and dangers. Risk was the metric for tabulating future crimes and this foreshadowing determined the outcomes of young black women already targeted and vulnerable to myriad forms of state violence. The actuarial logic at work predicted the kind of persons and the kind of acts that were likely to lead to crime and social disorder. State racism exacerbated the reach of wayward minor laws, marking blackness as disorderly and criminal.

Harriet Powell has been credited with nothing: she remains a surplus woman of no significance, a nobody deemed unfit for history and destined to be a minor figure. What errant thoughts and wild ideas encouraged her to flout social norms and live outside and athwart the law in pursuit of pleasure and the quest for beauty? Or to never settle and keep running the streets? Was it to experience something akin to freedom or to enjoy the short-lived transport of autonomy? Was it the sweetness of phrases like I want you, I go where I please, Nobody owns me rolling around in her mouth?


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