The hallway provides the refuge for the first tongue kiss, the place for hanging out with your friends, the conduit for gossip and intrigue. Here you first learn about the world and the role to which you have been consigned, so you scribble fuck or wretched on the wall in the stairwell. The hallway is where the authorities post the tenement-house laws and the project rules, and the guidelines might as well say, Negro, don’t even try to live. It is inside but public. The police enter without warrants and arrest whoever has the bad fortune to be found and caught. It is the passageway that leads to the two rooms where you stay with your mother, father, aunt, and your two sisters. Your mother tries to make the drab rooms home be setting out your grandmother’s tea set, which is too fancy for the small kitchen table; the set belonged to the white folks she worked for. She said it was a gift, but once let it slip that it was owed to her, she earned it and much more. A Masonic Lodge calendar and lithograph of Frederick Douglass hide the crack on the plaster wall. The sheer curtain hanging in the window filters the weak light of late afternoon. The ivory table mat covering the battered stovetop confirms that even in the worst place one finds beauty. All that effort makes it no less terrible. No one forgets that they are here because excluded from everywhere else, so you make do and try to thrive in what’s nearly unlivable. It is the Black Belt: You are confined here. You huddle here and make a life together.


This black interior is a space for thought and action, for study and vandalism, for love and trouble. The hallway is the parlor for those who manage to live in cramped dark rooms with not enough air and who see the sunlight only when they step out onto the front stoop.

Saidiya Hartman