How they leap off the page ... a rich resurrection of a forgotten history ... [Hartman's] rigor and restraint give her writing its distinctive electricity and tension. Hartman is a sleuth of the archive; she draws extensively from plantation documents, missionary tracts, whatever traces she can find — but she is vocal about the challenge of using such troubling documents, the risk one runs of reinscribing their authority. Similarly, she is keen to identify moments of defiance and joy in the lives of her subjects, but is wary of the 'obscene' project to revise history, to insist upon autonomy where there may have been only survival, 'to make the narrative of defeat into an opportunity for celebration' ... Hartman is most original in her approach to gaps in a story, which she shades in with speculation and sometimes fictional imagining — a technique she has used in all her work but never quite so fully as in this new book ... This kind of beautiful, immersive narration exists for its own sake but it also counteracts the most common depictions of black urban life from this time — the frozen, coerced images, Hartman calls them, most commonly of mothers and children in cramped kitchens and bedrooms.
Illustrated with startling historical photographs, Hartman’s blend of narrative and imagined internal monologue uncovers a world of unjust imprisonment, child prostitution, and race riots but also lively dance halls and chorus lines and the daring transformation of tenement hallways into 'places of assembly' and rooftops into 'stretches of urban beach' ... Hartman has created an insightful feminist reassessment of a key era in American history.
Lyrical and novelistic ... Taken together, the affectionate and reverent reconstructions add up to a picture of black urban women’s courage, their attempts to carve out freedom, love, autonomy, power, and pleasure in socially constrained circumstances ... This passionate, poetic retrieval of women from the footnotes of history is a superb literary achievement.