Critical fabulation can aid in BLM activism
Let the oppressed voices of the past be heard. (Image via Pixabay)

Saidiya Hartman’s Critical Fabulation Can Help Inspire Today’s Activists

The concept provides an artistic and powerful way to engage in social change by coaxing our imagination to connect us to the voices of the past.

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Critical fabulation can aid in BLM activism
Let the oppressed voices of the past be heard. (Image via Pixabay)

The concept provides an artistic and powerful way to engage in social change by coaxing our imagination to connect us to the voices of the past.

With the Black Lives Matter Movement in full swing, it is crucial to continue fighting for a positive and long-lasting change for the Black community. However, amidst the chaos and fear that makes up the world today is also the opportunity to create something beautiful by broadening the spectrum of ways to fight for justice. The young and innovative writers and artists of this generation have the chance to participate in Black Lives Matter activism by creating art that is equally as powerful as it is innovative. While there are endless variations of artistic activism, a particularly effective and empowering avenue is through a style of creative semi-nonfiction called “critical fabulation.”

What is “critical fabulation”?

Critical fabulation, a scholarly-sounding term coined by the brilliant American writer Saidiya Hartman, refers to a style of creative semi-nonfiction that attempts to bring the suppressed voices of the past to the surface by means of hard research and scattered facts. The notion of critical fabulation originally appeared in Hartman’s essay, “Venus in Two Acts,” a piece dedicated to exploring, deconstructing and illuminating the Venus trope of the enslaved African woman.

Hartman created the piece as a response to the lack of representation the Black woman had in historical texts, noticing that the history of the oppressed is rarely autobiographical and, more often than not, is written by the oppressor himself. Taking matters into her own hands, she decided to give a voice to the thousands of women who had been talked over for so long.

As a scholar of African American history with a particular interest in the women of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Hartman actively studies archives and historical documents to “fabulate” stories based on the figures who seem to be pushed to the background. Hartman searches for tiny bits and pieces of information from limited sources to extrapolate what the life of someone omitted from historical texts would be like, then creates a narrative based on her extrapolation.

“The intention here isn’t anything as miraculous as recovering the lives of the enslaved or redeeming the dead, but rather laboring to paint as full a picture of the lives of the captives as possible,” Hartman said in her previously mentioned essay. “This double gesture can be described as straining against the limits of the archive to write a cultural history of the captive, and, at the same time, enacting the impossibility of representing the lives of the captives precisely through the process of narration.”

Hartman’s goal in her work is to pay homage to the people who lacked and continue to lack representation in writing. Her book titled “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women and Queer Radicals” continues her original process of critical fabulation by telling the semi-fictional (but historically informed) stories of Black women post-slavery.

By using her access to resources, she believes that creating stories that are, to the best of her ability and knowledge, as close to the truth as possible will help honor the lives of Black individuals lost and ignored throughout history. The time, care and consideration she takes while doing so is the driving force that makes critical fabulation an empowering success for herself and those who read her work.

Other Applications of Critical Fabulation

While Hartman developed the essence of critical fabulation and uses the technique in much of her work, others have created art with a similar process in mind. One example is Caroline Randall Williams in her book of poetry titled “Lucy Negro, Redux.” Similar to Hartman, Randall Williams researched historical documents and constructed a narrative based on the fragments of the individuals she found.

Specifically in “Lucy Negro, Redux,” Randall Williams looked into the archives surrounding Shakespeare and found pieces of evidence that showed his mysterious collection of sonnets deemed “The Dark Lady Sonnets” were written about a Black female brothel owner nicknamed “Black Luce.”

For Randall Williams (and anyone interested in the gossip of the mid-16th century), the idea that Shakespeare may have had a secret love affair with a Black woman at the time is astounding. By analyzing numerous prison records, diary entries and other documents, Randall Williams created an entire collection of sonnets through the eyes of her interpretation of Black Luce in an attempt to posthumously adjust the imbalance of power that would have inevitably arisen in the pair’s relationship.

“When you want something as badly as I want Black Luce to be the Dark Lady that Shakespeare loved, and loathed himself for loving — that little stretch becomes a welcome bridge,” said Randall Williams about her poetry collection. In the same way that Hartman brings light to the lives of forgotten individuals, Randall Williams spent time getting to know what she could of Black Luce and made sure her story wasn’t lost in the whirlpool of the past. Thus, she created something that both honored an anonymous historical figure and justly rewrote a part of history.

How Does Critical Fabulation Apply to Current Activism?

Although the style is most commonly used by scholars and published writers, critical fabulation has the potential to make waves among more common and modern media. While it is nearly impossible to fabulate narratives in the same way that authors like Hartman and Randall Williams do without easy access to archives, there are variations to the process that can certainly be adopted.

Keeping in mind both privileges and the importance of making and leaving space for Black artists, anyone with the right intentions can carefully and thoughtfully try their hand at critical fabulation. After reading, researching and attempting to understand the oppression of current and historic individuals, one can use creative storytelling to honor those who have been silenced. Through something as simple as a short free-write or as complex as a novel, anyone can work to write back in the power of those who have historically had so little.

Whether used as a way to explore one’s own racial identity and history, or as a way to engage with people throughout history that one feels far removed from, critical fabulation provides a connection to the past as well as, in a small way, an opportunity to change the course of the future.

Writer Profile

Chloe Hamer

Pitzer College
English major, Philosophy minor

I grew up in Santa Barbara, CA. When I’m not playing soccer for my school, I love to dance wildly, hang at the beach, pet every dog I see and try to make people laugh.

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