Experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic in Western New York have been so varied, deeply structured by occupation, wealth, household composition, and location. For me, much of this time has been incredibly quiet: working on my laptop from home, answering lots of emails from students, reading for research and teaching. My partner does the same. The heating and appliances in our newly built apartment complex are quiet. Even our dog is quiet until the excitement of an evening treat gets the better of her and she barks until we hand it over. Except for the pre-treat frenzy, the loudest part of our lives has often been whatever comes through the open windows.
One afternoon last summer, the sudden outdoor roar of bikes interrupted my reading of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. I tossed my book aside and rushed to the window to see the source of the noise: a mass of dirt bikes, four-wheelers, and ATVs with engines revving stopped at the corner light; they screeched off as soon as it turned green. It was a wild disruption; there was no tuning out that sound to focus on the next sentence of the book. But it was also alluring; there was an energy, a togetherness, a sense that they were having fun. And it was worrying. I looked to see if everyone was wearing a helmet; I hoped they would all make it home safely, that they would not terrify a new driver or a pedestrian trying to cross the street; and I hoped that if they were pulled over by a cop, that they would not end up injured or worse. Amid this worry, a sudden flash of thought: these young men had leapt off the pages of Hartman’s book. They, too, were “wayward youth.”
In Wayward Lives, Hartman explores the experiences of young, Black women in New York and Philadelphia from about 1890 to 1935. Only a generation or so separated these women from a time when most of the people who looked like them were denied legal agency in all aspects of their own lives, and their daughters in many ways still lacked full autonomy. They were subject to the sharp limits of gendered and racially divided labor that determined what work they could do and how little they were paid. Formal and informal institutions excluded them from particular neighborhoods. They were also targeted by policies like the “wayward minor” codes, which were only enforced for young women. While claiming to protect them, these statutes in fact criminalized them for vaguely defined offenses such as being “in danger of being morally depraved.”1 Indeed, these young women were often seen as a problem by police, courts, rent collectors, and social workers, all of whom left a paper trail of racial control in the form of “concerns” and accusations that Hartman follows through various archives.
Hartman refuses to see these young women as a problem. She writes: “The wild idea that animates this book is that young black women were radical thinkers who tirelessly imagined other ways to live and never failed to consider how the world might be otherwise.”2 She recasts “[being] wayward” as an “untiring practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive” and thus “a beautiful experiment.”3
The book is deeply researched but also deeply imagined. Hartman reads, and reads into, her archival materials, bringing to life these young women. Hartman’s tenderness and the loving eye she brings to bear are evident throughout her writing. It grips you in the same way a good novel does. You hear the young womens’ loud, disruptive voices as signs of vibrant and exuberant youth. You feel them taking and making spaces for themselves as creative, just, and even righteous acts. You cheer on their moments of self-determination and groan at their heartbreaks. These women, through Hartman’s loving animation, make you feel how precious life is, how important it is to make space and take time for joy, for feeling alive, for seeking-demanding-generating-manifesting moments of freedom.
Much of this I also saw and felt as those ATV riders roared by my window. Initial annoyance and not a little worry, yes, but also a rush. And I saw and felt that rush of joy and danger and exuberant self-determination again later, in a much different setting, when looking at images of their fellows in Crossroads, the solo exhibition debut of photographer DJ Carr at The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art’s newly opened space. The roar of the noisy street had been replaced by the quiet and thoughtful spaces of the gallery, but a similar energy charged the air. As Hartman does with her own subjects, Carr’s photographs — curated here by Tiffany Gaines — take a loving approach. These images often have a clear focal point amid a sweeping background: one individual in sharp focus, with fellow riders and the city in softer focus behind. The photos, though still and quiet, draw you in and let you linger, lovingly see, imaginatively listen, and learn. To me, the conversation between Hartman and the riders now continued through Carr’s photographs.
While there are differences between Hartman’s and Carr’s subjects, most notably their genders, there are also important similarities. There is a sense of play and aliveness related directly to risk. Hartman’s young women often dodged undercover cops at the cabaret and dance hall, and they frequently quit jobs as domestic servants — underpaid, overworked, subject to sexual assault, and expected to be grateful — with no clear plan for future income.4 Carr’s riders pop wheelies on the highway; there is risk, close to recklessness. But within this, there is also resistance to gravity, the overcoming of friction, excitement — the sublime openness to the moment and whatever may come seen in Niagara St Crucifix (2020), for instance.
The figures in Hartman’s text and Carr’s photos also share a sense of living a creatively reworked popular glamour. Hartman’s subjects sometimes literally danced in chorus lines, backing up popular entertainers of the day and, in the process, feeling like “bigger and greater version[s]” of themselves.5 By metaphorically figuring all her women as chorines, dancing through life, she reveals a mode of being that chases a sense of beauty and joy, and makes art of life.6 Carr’s photos embrace the scale and flair of the cinematic, and reference the aesthetic of hip-hop music videos. Four-wheelers on recognizably Buffalo streets recall similar subjects in the 1998 video for DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” and cruising around in the background of Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” (2016), who get a flirtatious head nod from the artist as she smashes a few windshields à la Pipilotti Rist’s Ever Is Over All (1997). Both the book and these photographs reveal the creative efforts of everyday people to live in, or perhaps even as, art.
There’s also a parallel in the typical establishment reaction to such displays of perilous play and the audacity of claiming the right to act like the star of one’s own life. In Wayward Lives, Hartman documents how the defiance inherent in choosing a risky activity for the sake of excitement and joy, particularly and specifically by people of color, is quickly framed as a problem. Cops were more than willing to entrap young women on prostitution charges with no evidence of an actual crime, and courts and social workers were more than willing to incarcerate young women they deemed destined for “future criminality.”7 The law criminalizes those it defines as a “problem,” but it also provokes resistance and can never fully constrain its subjects. It can be flouted in acts of resistance, and at the margins of its dominance, joy can be felt and another world imagined. Of a young woman refusing servitude and seeking self-determination and happiness, Hartman writes: “To the eyes of the world, Esther’s wild thoughts, her dreams of an otherwise, an elsewhere . . . [were] a menace to society.”8
There is an echo of this sentiment in the casting of the communities found in Carr’s images as a “growing problem” in Buffalo. The Buffalo News has reported on Common Council efforts to enact harsher penalties, including increasingly onerous impound fees for illegally operating ATVs, four-wheelers, and dirt bikes on city roads.9 A unanimous Common Council vote in February approving escalated punishments was accompanied by the Buffalo Police Department (BPD) touting a tip line and a reward for leads on illegal vehicles. From April through June, the BPD impounded scores of ATVs, four-wheelers, and dirt bikes, and arrested at least four people in connection with these efforts.10 Whether for the real or perceived breaking of rules, these reactions to the wayward youth of the early twentieth century and their counterparts a century later in Buffalo share a rhetoric of teaching lessons and effecting deterrence to disguise harsh retaliation.
In Carr’s photographs, there are defiant gazes, moments posed and poised — see “NO PANIC” (2020) or McCarthy Park meet up (2020). But there is also often a sense of congregation and togetherness. None of the riders in Carr’s photos looks lonely. Whether gathering before or after a ride — as in 450’s at McCarthy (2020), Posted on Niagara (2020), and “PUTO” (2020) — or on the road — as in Buffalo Skyway Walkdown (2020) and Pack Leader (2020) — riding for these individuals is clearly a social activity. Amid the lockdowns and distancing of our pandemic era, this palpable sense of connection feels especially poignant. This kind of togetherness echoes that created by Hartman’s chorines, which allowed individual acts of bravery and defiance to be sustained and allowed moments of enacted freedom to be felt in a shared joy, rather than in cold and lonely vulnerability.
Hartman’s radical work prompts consideration of who might be considered such wayward actors today. As curator Tiffany Gaines has argued, Carr’s photographs record how our streets, far from being mere traffic infrastructure, can be reframed as shared “sacred spaces,” spaces where wheelies and revving engines bring about “freedom and fellowship.” Seeing these qualities on the page or on the gallery wall helps us recognize and acknowledge their echoes in the world at large. Carr’s photographs helped me recall and reframe how I experienced these riders when they first roared by my open window. Setting to the side our initial annoyance at their noise or “wayward” behavior and whatever concerns we might have for their (or, at times, for our own) safety, we might also learn from our creative neighbors as they experiment with making streets into ephemeral spaces for collective freedom.
Abigail Cooke is an economic geographer employed by the University at Buffalo, who teaches about and researches trade, immigration, and local labor markets. She is also a member of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center’s Board of Directors. She lives in Buffalo, New York.
1 Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: WW Norton & Company, 2019), 222.
2 Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, xv.
3 Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 227–28.
4 Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 223–34.
5 Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 301.
6 Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 235.
7 Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 223, 240–44.
8 Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, 236.
9 Deidre Williams, “Lawmakers Look to strand ATV, dirt bike drivers causing havoc on city streets,” The Buffalo News, December 8, 2020, https://buffalonews.com/news/local/lawmakers-look-to-strand-atv-dirt-bike-drivers-causing-havoc-on-city-streets/article_e8aa300a-243f-11eb-8b2d-7757a2f318dd.html.
10 Aaron Besecker, “Buffalo’s crack down on ATVs, dirt bikes continues.”
The Buffalo News, June 2, 2021, https://buffalonews.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/buffalos-crackdown-on-atvs-dirt-bikes-continues/article_271b1fac-c3cd-11eb-bb15-0758e16d6a0e.html.