on The Matter of Black Living

January 2024

Autumn Womack spoke about her recent book The Matter of Black Living: The Aesthetic Experiment of Racial Data, 1880-1930 with postdoctoral teaching associate Max Chapnick (Northeastern University) and graduate students Brandi Locke (University of Delaware) and Ally Fulton (University of California, Davis). 

Womack’s The Matter of Black Living focuses on the period between 1880 and 1930 when sociology, anthropology, and psychology crystallized into distinct disciplines that sought to render Black life as an object of study. Womack puts the work of canonical literary figures like W.E.B. DuBois and Zora Neale Hurston into conversation with historical texts and multimedia archival objects,  to tell the story of how three visual data technologies—the social survey, the photograph, and the moving picture—express theories of “visuality, black life, and aesthetics on [their] own terms.” By probing the sites where racial data regimes and sociality met, Womack highlights how Black cultural producers experimented with data’s aesthetic potential to articulate the “dynamism” of Black social life. 

In the interview, Womack spoke about citational politics, the shifting meanings of data and aesthetics, and data’s relationship to the elsewhere. She also reflected on the concept of undisciplining, particularly how she cultivates manners of undisciplining in the classroom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

You can hear a selection of the interview by listening to the forthcoming C19 podcast episode “Reflections on the G19 New Book Forum” which can be found here.

Ally Fulton (AF): Could you talk about where the book project began, and what the transformation process was from the dissertation to the final book?

Autumn Womack (AW): In graduate school, I took two classes that really refined my thinking around questions of visuality and photography in particular and also around social science and DuBois. So those two nodal points really reorganized my thinking for the dissertation. 

The dissertation stretched back into the 1850s, whereas the book is squarely located in this kind of progressive modernist moment, starting in the 1880s and ending in 1930. One of the things the book is trying to do is re-periodize African-American literature from this time period. But the dissertation stretched back much longer. It actually began with Martin Delany's Blake. I was more interested in questions of science, specifically natural science, social science, and different iterations of science, which was how I organized the book and its actors. 

After the dissertation, I was thinking with the ideas for what many people would say is too long. It took a good five years after graduation to really know what the book was about. During that time, I knew I had these archives that I wanted to talk about. For a while, I had these three distinct stories that I wanted to tell, and it wasn't clear to me how they all fit together, how they all stitched together. I knew I wanted to tell a story about photography by way of this family, the Bakers, who survived the lynching. I knew I wanted to talk about the social survey, and I knew I wanted to talk about Hurston and film, and they felt like three discrete books. 

I had the good fortune of working with Alan Thomas at Chicago, who really saw the three books and also saw the way they could fit together. And so he encouraged me to let them live independently. You don't have to have a story that is seamless. So I'm thinking about how each of these archives and stories and sets of characters and actors is wrestling with a similar question that preoccupied individuals, especially Black individuals, at the turn of the century, which is, how do you confront the disciplining logic of racial data?

Brandi Locke (BL): Thank you so much. That was fantastic and leads to a two-pronged question that I have about two aspects of that trajectory. I'm wondering if there are particular theorists or texts that you want to highlight right now and say, I had a light bulb moment with this that completely shifted the direction of the work or had a disproportionate effect on it. And then similarly with the archive question: what’s the story behind the Bakers becoming so pivotal to the book when Martin Delany was a main feature of the dissertation?

AW: I'll start with the second question because Delany is somebody who I've always been interested in, and I thought about him a lot. When I was in my Master’s program at the University of Maryland, I was writing and thinking about him in relation to science. One of the things that happened as I was writing the book, and this also gets to your second question, Brandi, was that Britt Rusert's Fugitive Science came out. Even before I was writing the book, my first year out on the job market, her essay appeared, and I was like, oh, I don't need to say anything else about Martin Delany. This is wonderful, checks all the boxes. Great, I can set him aside. It was a gift because there are many things in common between the 1850s and the 1890s, and this is where the conversation about the long durée of slavery and racial violence and racial terror and abduction really can be felt, but the 1850s and the 1890s have so many [different] resonances–political, aesthetic, social, scientific, institutional. One of the arguments of the book is that there are really clear differences [between these moments] that we haven't yet accounted for in the field. Conversations about the long durée of slavery sometimes smooth over some of those pretty distinct differences, particularly around the ways that racial violence and precarity get articulated. 

So it sharpened my argument to let Martin Delany fall out. I think his investment in the nation was much different for obvious reasons because there hadn't been a full rejection by the nation after promising citizenship that was felt in the 1880s and 1890s. It's useful to have chapters that don't always make it into the book but help you think through ideas and are kind of training grounds or rehearsal spaces. 

Then to answer the question about kinds of the texts that popped up that were really transformational…. I had a pretty solid set of interlocutors and one of the challenges for me with the book is that it is so distinct both methodologically and structurally. And so it was hard for me to find models of writers who were writing in this exact period. 

One of the books that I thought with throughout the dissertation writing, and certainly through the book writing, was Jacqueline Goldsby’s A Spectacular Secret. That was a methodological and conceptual model and interlocutor for me, particularly the chapters on James Weldon Johnson. Lindsay V. Reckson’s Realist Ecstasy also came out as I was finishing the book. She and I have been thinking together throughout the years, and she's also writing about this pretty tight period and thinking about the way that realism and race intersected and exceeded and determined the terms of realism. And the class I took with Saidiya Hartman that she was teaching as she was beginning to think on Wayward Lives also transformed my thinking. It was useful to have somebody else who had cleared the territory ahead of the book coming out. And then, interestingly, I encountered Katherine McKittrick's work probably about halfway through the book. Her work in mathematics and Black life was pretty crucial to my thinking as well.

BL: Thank you. I appreciate that because your citational politics are just top-notch, an amazing model for us, and being able to identify this rich community of thinkers with yourself is really important. 

Max L. Chapnick (MLC): I'm interested in the overall frame of the book around data and aesthetics and, specifically, the second and third chapters, which may expand our understanding of what data is in relation to aesthetics. I was wondering if you could say more about how you define those major ideas as a frame for the chapters.

AW: I really appreciate that question. So I think one of the things that the book is making a case for is that the way that we understand data in the 21st century is radically different from the way it was being understood and conceptualized at the turn of the 20th century when these new fields and forums were deeply invested in what data could do. As a footnote, I was on a fellowship at the Penn State Center for the History of Information where we spent a lot of time thinking about the history of data and information. On the one hand, it seemed to me that they were all deeply, deeply anxious and concerned with the turn of the 20th-century desire to produce information, data, and knowledge that could—and I'm using all of those terms interchangeably because I think they were used interchangeably in that period to a certain degree—to produce transformational facts. How do we harness all of these new technologies to produce some kind of radically transformative information and then hit the limits of that technology itself? 

The book is thinking about how Black intellectuals, actors, and figures confronted what I describe as data-producing technologies. Another way that I would put it now if I was revising the book is the forms that produce data and also the forms of technology that data takes on. Expressive forms are really what I'm talking about, which to me are different than statistics, right? It seemed important for me to put photography into this conversation, particularly because photography was used and described as kind of a data-producing form. I read so much information about lynching photography, and so the second chapter is about expanding the genre and the temporal domain of lynching and lynching photography to account for performance, the lives, the living. In all of the writing and reading that I encountered on lynching photography, the word data was always there. Photography was used alongside statistics as data. And so it seemed important for me to grapple with the idea that photography was a part of this repertoire of data at the turn of the 20th century. 

I wanted to press on this idea that, like data, the aesthetic is a scale that determines value. What is sensible, what is not sensible, what matters, what doesn't matter. Just as the aesthetic organizes the world, so too does data. Just as data can move us, it can also overwhelm us, and that's exactly how the aesthetic is discussed. This is something that I learned from Fred Moten, that the aesthetic and data can disrupt, reorganize, and shift the entire sensory order. 

BL: Where you leave off is exactly where my next question is. In chapter two you wrote: “constitutive of Black performance repertoire, gesture names the interface between white's desire for racial consumption and the phonetic responses it compels, and Black privacy.” 

And when I read Black privacy—I write about and think about Black interiority as well—[I saw a] connection to the concept that you keep repeating that, to me, is obviously in conversation with Moten around “the elsewhere.” The black elsewhere, the epistemological elsewhere, the social elsewhere. So do you mind talking a little bit about how these concepts—elsewhere, the element of privacy or inferiority and survival with respect to Blackness—come together for you?

AW: Yeah, that's such a beautifully big question. I guess I hadn't thought of my work in relation to the elsewhere, but I think it's implicitly there or it's reaching for something like an elsewhere. I often think of my book wrestling with the intransigent or the excessive, which might be a kind of elsewhere. In the book, I alternately describe it as what can't be quantified, what refuses classification. 

So, for example, I spent a lot of time in the first chapter thinking about statistics and the way they were harnessed at the turn of the 20th century to count, quantify, control, legitimate, and evaluate. Statistics could only ever make sense of Black abjection or death, right? And that is, ironically, how Black life got produced. Death statistics are actually how they measured the propensity for life, which doesn't totally make sense. But, how many people were dying actually predicts the life expectancy and what one can then do with a life. So I often think about what can't be accounted for, what refuses accounting, and then what makes one valuable in the eyes of the state and these other forms of social life and practice that I describe as living

One of those sites or spaces that is particularly intransigent to a kind of statistical accounting or a data regime is Black privacy. That’s the very thing that white supremacy cannot understand and seeks to deny. This idea that there is some private life that can't be captured, that can't be accessed, and that has to be shuttered or denied is the engine of white supremacy. 

I tried to work through that in the second chapter, which orbits around a family who survived a lynching and then was produced as evidence in the anti-lynching debate in all these different domains from the courthouse to the stage to the photography studio. For a brief moment, they became icons of the anti-lynching movement. They demanded that viewers think about survival as the idiom of racial violence. One of the things that was difficult for the public to make sense of was the private life of mourning for a woman who had survived a lynching and lost her husband to it. That actually became a real point of rupture in the story that I tell, especially in the courtroom scene that I read, where she was compelled to testify against her attackers and she wouldn't give access to her private life. 

BL: Thank you, I really appreciate that. It means a lot to see such care taken with your subjects in this particular way. 

AF: This is a broader question touching on all three chapters. In chapter three, you cite Michael B. Gillespie to foreground the need to approach film as an idea rather than a material object.
This is an approach that I saw you take up in the other chapters as well, where you're thinking through how the social survey and the photograph were both objects and ideas. Could you expand on how you arrived at this approach and also on why you think it's important for both Black material culture studies and material culture studies writ large to think about the object as more than just its objectness?

AW: Yeah, thank you for that. And again, Michael was one of the people whose work I came to as I was writing the book. I'm not alone in this, but for me, I think–and this is always at the heart of my methodological approach–I follow the lead of actors, maybe I should call them subjects, and the archives and people and folks and stories that I'm writing about. They are theorizing their own life in so many beautiful ways, so I'm going to follow their lead.

So, Ally, to answer your question, the idea that material objects need to be far more than just what they present themselves as came from exactly how I was seeing these 19th- and early-20th-century figures thinking about and writing about the objects themselves. The first place where I encountered it was with the social survey, which is this really unwieldy, sweeping, and deeply influential form that took hold and captured the public's attention at the turn of the 20th century. Du Bois’s The Philadelphia Negro is probably the most well-known example. The social survey was described by everyday reformers, everyday readers, and social scientists, as a method, a book, a spirit, an idea, a feeling, a practice, you name the kind of key buzzwords that we use in the field, they were using to describe this nebulous thing. 

AF: I appreciate that response. As someone who is just starting to work in archives, this is something that I've been wrestling with. 

AW: And the way I think about it, the way I ask my students to think about it, too, is: how does this aesthetic material, whatever blank object, double as a theory for social practice?
That’s always kind of my entry point, that these objects are always theorizing themselves or doubling as a theory for something.

AF: That's excellent, thank you so much. We're going to pivot to asking a few questions about how the book relates to your teaching. In the introduction, I was struck by the discussion between data and the concept of undisciplining. Are there ways that you bring into the classroom this focus on data’s dynamic capacity to undiscipline? 

AW: Interesting. You know what? I don't know.

AF: That's perfectly fine too.

AW: It's hard for me to answer this question because even though I am somebody who is, pretty ironically, deeply committed to disciplinarity, I also kind of live in a world of undisciplinarity. In my teaching, I'm always thinking about the ways that forms and objects, whether a sonnet, a magazine, or a photograph, are actually undoing the very logic that they seem to participate in. It's gotten harder and harder for me to convince my students of this, particularly when it comes to the 19th century. But I think it's just kind of at the heart of how I think. So that's why the question gives me pause. I have to kind of undiscipline my mind. Actually, how do I teach in this way?

Maybe a clearer example is that I regularly teach with special collections and archives, whether it's a class on black archival theory or I regularly teach a class on Toni Morrison that makes use of her papers. In these classes, I never begin with a theory of the archive. I think that burdens students into expecting the kind of knowledge that they expect these kinds of spaces to produce. 

AF: Not providing a specific theoretical framework for how you're expected to engage with these objects is super interesting. It leaves students more open to having a chance encounter or an unexpected engagement with an archival object that they wouldn't necessarily have otherwise.

AW: At the heart of that idea of undisciplining is that there are these other forms and practices and aesthetic domains that actually are always outside of what we think of as data but that are constantly in conversation or friction with it. That friction produces a beautiful kind of encounter. We ourselves have to undiscipline and rediscipline ourselves in a way to be able to perceive them. This is a practice that derives especially from the 20th-century world that I'm studying.

We have to undiscipline ourselves to leave behind all of our preconceived notions of what the 19th century is, what we think radical is, what we think the aesthetic is. In my 19th-century African-American literature survey, we always have to think about the kinds of creative expression and practice that happened in these sites of seeming constraint. It's very easy to just say, the plantation, the form of the domestic novel, these are constraints that were imposed upon Black writers and thinkers and creatives at this moment. But for me, naming the constraint is only half of the story. What kind of productive disruptions can emerge in that site of constraint? I think that’s what undisciplining data is about.

MLC: I love some of the chapter pairings, like the Sutton Griggs with the Baker photographs. I'm wondering whether and how you teach so many different forms when you're in the archives, like silent film with photography, with social surveys, with novels. How do you get students to see how these forms work together?

AW: I teach the way I write, for better or worse. So it's a journey that we go on in my classes where we move through the domains that these writers were moving through. I'm trying to create a constellation of this moment for the students so that they don't think of these writers as writing in a vacuum. I reconstruct the world in which these writers and thinkers and creatives were producing. That usually happens in lectures where I'll always have a constellation of images on the board. Sometimes I'll bring in archival objects. One of the assignments that I ask them to do is to reconstruct the social world of a text and object. For example, for an assignment on Douglass, they have to research how and where his text was reviewed over time. So not just in 1845, but the long reception history of Douglass, who was reading it in what way over time. 

And we spend a lot of time in special collections, too. We might look at an edition of Frances Harper’s Iola LeRoy, see who it was dedicated to, and then follow that trail and think about who was reading her and who she was reading. And we're always thinking about citations that are built into each book. This way they begin to really see the life of these works. 

BL: Panning out to the classroom of today, we all know that people are buzzing about the decline of the humanities and the exponential rise and investment in computational sciences, social sciences, and fields that produce racial data and support those disciplines that you're engaging here. To think about your work in conversation with this moment of anxiety and distress, what would you like to see from the discussions that bring this moment into conversation with your book? 

AW: One of my hopes is that the divide between the hard sciences and the humanities falls away so that we can actually think about the aesthetic labor that data is being compelled to perform, even unwittingly. I do think there are a number of people who are doing this really beautifully in the social sciences. I'm thinking of my colleague Ruha Benjamin, in particular. 

The other thing some people are thinking about as part of the anxiety around AI and Chat GPT and all of its iterations and permutations is the assumption that it can do everything. But it’s not iterative, and there's a part of the imagination that it can't reproduce. There's something powerful in thinking about what happens at the confrontation of what it can't do and what we're inviting it to do, which might generate something different. My book is always propelling us to think about what's falling outside. It goes back to your question, Brandi, about the elsewhere, or what can't be contained, or what simply isn't compatible. Rather than trying to make it fit, what happens if we unfurl those sites of refusal?

Autumn Womack is an Associate Professor of African American Studies and English at Princeton University. At Princeton, her teaching, research, and writing focuses on late 19th and early 20th-century African American literary culture and archival practice and politics. She is the author of The Matter of Black Living: The Aesthetic Experiment of Racial Data, 1880-1930 (The University of Chicago Press, 2022) and is the editor of the Norton Library Edition of Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (2023). Her research and writing has appeared in journals such as American Literary History, J19, Women and Performance, Black Camera, The Paris Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, as well as numerous edited volumes. Most recently she curated the groundbreaking archival exhibition Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory (Princeton University).