As the nineteenth century came to a close and questions concerning the future of African American life reached a fever pitch, many social scientists and reformers approached post-emancipation Black life as an empirical problem that could be systematically solved with the help of new technologies like the social survey, photography, and film. What ensued was nothing other than a "racial data revolution," one which rendered African American life an inanimate object of inquiry in the name of social order and racial regulation. At the very same time, African American cultural producers and intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Kelly Miller, Sutton Griggs, and Zora Neale Hurston staged their own kind of revolution, un-disciplining racial data in ways that captured the dynamism of Black social life.
The Matter of Black Living excavates the dynamic interplay between racial data and Black aesthetic production that shaped late nineteenth-century social, cultural, and literary atmosphere. Through assembling previously overlooked archives and seemingly familiar texts, Womack shows how these artists and writers recalibrated the relationship between data and Black life. The result is a fresh and nuanced take on the history of documenting Blackness. The Matter of Black Living charts a new genealogy from which we can rethink the political and aesthetic work of racial data, a task that has never been more urgent.
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Autumn Womack is assistant professor of African American Studies and English at Princeton University.
Introduction: Data and the Matter of Black Life
1 The Social Survey: The Survey Spirit
2 Photography: Looking Out
3 Film: Overexposure
Coda: Racial Data's Afterlives
"With new historical insight and indispensable analysis of the social survey, the photograph, and the motion picture, Autumn Womack calls for an urgent rethinking of the information technologies, data regimes and disciplinary measures employed to enumerate black social life. From reading Zora Neal Hurston's filmic practices through an aesthetic of overexposure to conceptualizing "looking out" as a capacious mode of perception and praxis, The Matter of Black Living reveals the ruptures and possibilities of black creative innovation. A brilliant read." * Simone Browne, University of Texas at Austin * "The Matter of Black Living elucidates the breadth and the reach of black ontological possibility and the historical trajectory of black self-expression that (white) modernist practices forgot. Womack cogently presents the unwieldy negotiations of social knowledge and data collection that have impacted African American cultural productions. . . This book is thoroughly researched and argued. It will be essential for readers of modernist African American literature, visual culture studies, and American studies." * Kimberly Juanita Brown, Dartmouth College * "The boldness and brilliance of The Matter of Black Living lies in its innovative vision and its exhilarating methodological practices which ultimately widen and deepen the story of pre-Harlem Renaissance black life. The profundity of Womack's archival research and the eloquence of her cultural analyses illuminate the intricacies of the efforts in which black peoples repeatedly undisciplined the racial data chronically weaponized against them. In doing so, they mobilized new technologies to articulate the capaciousness and incessant vitality of blackness itself." * Daphne A. Brooks, Yale University *
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