On October 7, 2017, Rutgers University Historian Marisa J. Fuentes introduced a symposium entitled, Scenes at 20: Inspirations, Riffs and Reverberations. This celebrated the 20th Anniversary of Saidiya Hartman’s 1997 book, Scenes of Subjection, and its influences on the history of black identity and current affairs. Several academics participated in the forum to commemorate this noteworthy and significant example of scholarship and the methods of inquiry set forth by Hartman in her seminal work. In the 2022 revised, expanded, and updated 25th Anniversary edition of Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Norton, 2022), Hartman reminds the reader of the complicated themes of racial violence found in the source material involving antiblackness. With the usage of primary data, critical race theory, and memoir, she unpacks how routine anti-black terror evolved over the course of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, Hartman highlights the shaping of black identity and its potential to relate to an additional context of anti-black violence for members of the George Floyd protest era. Scenes of Subjection offers perspectives concerning wider public debate around provincial antiblackness, but beyond that, it incorporates the significance of multiracialism and worldviews that entail a more wide-ranging global history.
By testing the strengths and weaknesses of the archives and weighing the costs of an often nonchalantly documented slave history and canon, Hartman’s scholarship asks for a new dimension in discussing identity, race, and racial justice histories. She successfully confronts the flaws of slave/free binaries. The author stresses the limitations of class reductionism while remaining skeptical that fighting white supremacy alone combats antiblackness. In the Foreword, Professor of American Studies Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor emphasizes the nation’s structural deficiencies and provides the historiographical significance of Hartman’s work while outlining how “Scenes should be considered among the texts that have spelled out the mutually constitutive relationship between racism and capitalism in American history.” To reiterate this sentiment throughout the book, an extraordinary conceptual artist, Cameron Rowland, helps to highlight the intersectional nature of the text through a series of captivating graphic notations.
Hartman, Professor of English at Columbia University, first wrote Scenes of Subjection near the close of the twentieth century and “persuasively argued for a critical analysis of the modes of empathetic identification at work in narratives of physical violence against the bodies of slaves.” By linking a study of race and identity with literary performance, Hartman wrote as a revisionist scholar using the archive within a Cultural Poetic and New Historicistintellectual framework. She provided contributions to the fields of cultural history and social psychology and interrogated the narratives of slave violence (scenes) that emerged predominantly from white accounts (subjection) thereby tragically erasing the black body and their agency. She captured the essence of violence and antiblackness in referring to the objectification of the slave. Hartman first wrote in 1997 that “the slave is the object or the ground that makes possible the existence of the bourgeois subject and, by negation or contradistinction, defines liberty, citizenship, and the enclosures of the social body.” This powerful quote reveals the significance of Hartman’s work that merits the book’s commemorative reissuing. In the new edition’s Introduction, just across from one of several hauntingly beautiful compositions by artist Torkwase Dyson depicting “a gesture toward other planes,” Hartman describes:
“The terrible spectacle that introduced Frederick Douglass to slavery was the beating of his Aunt Hester. It is one of the most well-known scenes of torture in the literature of slavery perhaps second only to Uncle Tom’s murder at the hands of Simon Legree.”
Hartman argues that historically self-making and identity is defined more by blackness’s social relationality, that included a normative and white definition. She argues that “Blackness marks a social relationship of dominance and abjection, and potentially one of redress and emancipation; it is a contested figure at the very center of social struggle.”
A large part of Hartman’s thesis centers around notions of selective memory’s competition with accurate history and the dangers of intentional and collective forgetting. In other words, for Hartman, the standard liberal orthodoxy and account of slavery fails to explain the corporeality of the enslaved and we will never find an objective truth within that history. What we find instead are narratives and memories reflected in our own understandings and consciousness. This chasm seemingly motivated Hartman to take a multi-archival approach to provide historical voices to enslaved people.Hartman shows the importance of uncovering first-hand accounts, letters, oral histories, and interdisciplinary secondary source materials pertaining to slavery to unearth the documents and dialogues that help people read between the historical lines. She also gives humanity to the enslaved person by utilizing a wide array of documents in two parts: “Formations of Terror and Enjoyment” and “The Subject of Freedom.” In short, she provides a historical account of anti-black violence but measures it against an assertion that socially constructed depictions of slavery may grant some form of historical agency but can never grant humanity. For Hartman, Part I expresses in part, the master-slave relationship and how that prevents the ability for enslaved people to ultimately possess any form of legitimate agency. In Part II, she analyzes slavery’s afterlife and argues that the slave whip never vanished, it only repurposed itself in later generations.
In the book, Hartman includes a chapter on the “The Burdened Individuality of Freedom,” where she touches on how freedom and emancipation are perpetually immaterial without solidarity and pushing back against abusive and unchecked systemic power in the slave afterlife. Also included is an astounding notation designed by Rowland that illustrates “The Cycles of Accumulation and Dispossession.” Hartman has misgivings for both mainstream liberal orthodoxy and conservativism and after reading Scenes, it would be a mistake to see racialized historiographies merely posing as fungible conflicts of interests while failing to notice the ongoing problems and historical themes brought on by the exploitative nature of capitalism. For Hartman, antiblackness need not be overt, for it manifests itself materially within historical, social, economic, and political frameworks and contexts, no matter what our collective memories tell us about The Civil War, Reconstruction, historic amendments, and civil rights. What passes for history often serves to harness capital and preserves illiberal and immoral power structures within the dominant group.
With an exceptionally written Afterword by Historians Marisa J. Fuentes and Sarah Haley the scholars reflect on Hartman’s work and try to distill how it transformed an “understanding of the historical relationship between captivity and emancipation by demonstrating that slavery makes and is made by something we might call freedom.”“Historians must interrogate,” they argue, “our complicity with the desire of liberal humanist progress in our projections onto the past of enslaved lives.” The power of Hartman’s book is how it continues to complicate the history of slavery and studies of race. It is a humanities book but also a philosophical and literary text that challenges the orthodoxy and its fixed ways of treating the slave archive. Tracing the historiography of American slavery from conservative denialism to liberal paternalism and then transitioning to progressive histories that furnish agency and the relevance of current affairs or foreign policy are not enough.
We are fortunate that Hartman successfully carried out this herculean task twenty-five years ago and the book’s robust nature warranted a reprinting and reinforces how archives always need reshaping. She explains in the Preface that “If it were possible, I might have written it as a 345-page-long sentence. This sentence would be written in the past, present, and future tense.” Luckily for us, Hartman’s work serves as an example of exemplary scholarship and provides a guiding light for generations to come.
Hartman, Saidiya. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-
Century America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Scenes at 20,” Inspirations, Riffs and Reverberations, This symposium at Rutgers University
celebrated the 20th anniversary of Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America and its impact on studies of Black lives in the past, present, and future, accessed November 1, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPR9uFXpY-c.
Wall Hinds, Elizabeth Jane, The Multiple Worlds of Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon: Eighteenth-
Century Contexts, Postmodern Observations. Boydell and Brewer: Camden House, 2009.
Women and Performance, “Reading and Feeling after Scenes of Subjection,”
Sampada Aranke and Nikolas Oscar Sparks, Accessed November 7, 2020, Reading and Feeling after Scenes of Subjection | Issue 27.1 — Women & Performance (womenandperformance.org).
 “Scenes at 20,” Inspirations, Riffs and Reverberations, This symposium at Rutgers University celebrated the 20th anniversary of Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America and its impact on studies of Black lives in the past, present, and future, accessed November 1, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPR9uFXpY-c.
 Saidiya Hartman. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2022), xvi.
 Elizabeth Jane Wall Hinds. The Multiple Worlds of Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon: Eighteenth-Century Contexts, Postmodern Observations. (Boydell and Brewer: Camden House, 2009), 5.
 Saidiya Hartman. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 62.
 Saidiya Hartman. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2022), 1.
 Saidiya Hartman. Scenes of Subjection, 94. Saidiya Hartman quoting Michael Omi and Howard Winart’s Racial Formation in the United States.
 Saidiya Hartman. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2022), 245.
 Saidiya Hartman. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2022), 370.
 Saidiya Hartman. Scenes of Subjection, 372.
 Saidiya Hartman. Scenes of Subjection, xxix.