Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Britt Rusert reviews The Matter of Black Living

Autumn Womack. The Matter of Black Living: The Aesthetic Experiment of Racial Data, 1880–1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2022. 288 pp.

Review by Britt Rusert

15 June 2022

Autumn Womack’s meticulously argued and conceptually rich monograph chronicles how African American writers’ engagements with data at the turn of the twentieth century produced a vibrant terrain of experimental aesthetics at a moment when the use of data was increasingly being hailed as a way to illuminate and solve the “problem” of free black life (the “Negro Problem” that W. E. B. Du Bois would recast in affective terms: “How does it feel to be a problem?”).[1] But at the very same time, Womack argues persistently and persuasively that this was a historical moment before the “givenness of data,” (p. 33) when regimes of statistical data and other quantitative methods were themselves still in an emergent, experimental phase, and when social scientists, politicians, and cultural commentators were not quite clear if it was even possible to document and manage black life through data approaches. In other words, both literature and data interacted with one another as experimental forms. Womack shows that black writers, from Sutton Griggs and W. E. B. Du Bois to Zora Neale Hurston and the lesser-known Kelly Miller, were interested in how data—still undisciplined—could be used to illuminate a dynamic field of black sociality where data was also unmoored and made to move.

The book’s first chapter, the chapter geared most to specialists in African American literary history, solves a long-standing riddle about how to categorize and thematize black fiction in the postbellum, pre-Harlem era. Any casual reader of this era’s literary production knows that the framework of racial uplift does little to capture the sheer variety of modes and genres that black writers were engaging, sometimes over the course of a single work. Through Womack’s careful reframing, novels like W. E. B. Du Bois’s Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911) and Sutton Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio (1899) become suddenly legible—not as idiosyncratic hybrid texts or baffling pastiches of genres and forms of address—but as works deeply connected to the social survey, a favorite form and “predominant tool for social scientists and social workers during the first decades of the twentieth century” (p. 38). Womack argues that “the social survey and the literary were deeply related enterprises whose intermittent interplay is indicative of an understudied epoch in the production of turn-of-the-century black fiction, one in which literature emerged not simply in opposition to social studies but as social study” (p. 37). Womack coins the term “social document fiction” (p. 28) to categorize such works and this is a welcome supplement to both the racial uplift framework and that of the “nadir” that have long dominated literary histories of the period. Her reading of Alain Locke’s now famous “New Negro” issue of Survey Graphic is especially illuminating, where she argues that Locke did not challenge or subvert the magazine’s immersion in social scientific approaches as much as he extended work that was already being done by social reformers, progressives, and other socially minded scientists of the time.

To my mind, scholars have not fully understood how writers of the Harlem Renaissance related to social science: not as a recalcitrant disciplinary regime invested in truth claims but as a set of empirical methods and tools that were still in flux and development. Womack’s critical untangling of the social scientific sources of the Harlem Renaissance is thus long overdue. The book’s second chapter questions the well-trodden philosophical lamination of photography to death, turning to a photographic archive of lynching survivors to excavate alternative logics only seen in the most violent archives of antiblack terror and torture. Womack reminds us that people did (and do) survive lynchings and the refusal to remember that fact risks exacting new harms and producing violent erasures. Against all odds, it is evidence of black survival that Womack glimpses in black literary and cultural representations of lynching in the period, including in W. E. B. Du Bois’s short story “Jesus Christ in Georgia” (1911) and in an archive of photography, performance, and ephemera related to the Baker family, who in 1897 were targeted by a white mob and attacked in Lake City, South Carolina. The lynching killed Frazier Baker and their two-year-old daughter; Frazier’s wife and five children survived. The Baker survivors circulated in print and photography in the period and also appeared as characters in Griggs’s Imperium in Imperio, where they provided “the occasion for envisioning a political horizon whose contours are determined by the corporeal presence of lynching survivors” (p. 102).

A third chapter on Zora Neale Hurston’s “enduring curiosity” in film’s capacity to capture black social life in all of its granularity is beautifully written and stands as a particularly inspired part of the book. Womack’s analysis chronicles Hurston’s ongoing interest in the experimental qualities of film to capture the experimentalism of black living itself, often against the logics of the anthropological study she was being funded to undertake. Hurston understood that data could be used against the “terrain of ‘antisocial data’” (p. 163) and in reading Womack’s study, readers are left with the sense that we would be better off if we were more mindful of the experimentalism that data might still afford. Especially in Chapter 3, which takes shape as an admirably deep and careful documentation of Hurston’s film work in the South and the Caribbean, we see Womack modelling a mode of scholarly inquiry that mirrors such an experimental practice, interacting with but never beholden to data as given.

[1] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, ed. Brent Hayes Edwards (New York, 2007), p. 7.