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The Matter of Black Living

The Aesthetic Experiment of Racial Data, 1880–1930

Examining how turn-of-the-century Black cultural producers’ experiments with new technologies of racial data produced experimental aesthetics.

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.

288 pages | 7 color plates, 18 halftones | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2021

Black Studies

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature

Media Studies


“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

“Womack has penned a highly original and revelatory book. . . . A tour de force that reconceptualizes the documentation of black life: the creative interventions and experiments in the longue durée of black disfranchisement and precarity.”

Ethnic and Racial Studies

"Womack provocatively argues for understanding the self-representation of Black communities as a form of resistance to the reductive understanding of African American existence as a problem. . . Building on W. E. B. Du Bois's insights about how Black Americans were forced to split themselves into a living self that could celebrate the complexity of their communities and their struggles and the representations of themselves seen through white eyes, Womack considers three forms of self-representation embraced by leading Black thinkers in the early 20th century: the social survey, photography, and film."


Table of Contents

Introduction: Data and the Matter of Black Life
Undisciplining Data
The Social Life of Racial Data
Racial Data, Visual Revolutions
The Aesthetics of Data
Undisciplining as Method
1. The Social Survey: The Survey Spirit
“The Survey Spirit”: Origins, Evolution, and the Radical Operations of the Social Survey
“Ugly Facts” and (Anti)Social Data: Kelly Miller, the American Negro Academy, and the Call for the Social Survey
A Book to Do Some Good: Kelly Miller, Sutton Griggs, and the Emergence of Social Document Fiction
Faulty Surfaces, Unruly Eyes
Everywhere and Nowhere: The Social Survey’s Nongeography
2. Photography: Looking Out
Seeing Survival
Deep Black Mourning: Lynching’s (Anti)Photographic Logic
“Let Them See”: Photography, Performance, and Reform
Looking Out: Toward a New Visual Epistemology of Survival
Photographically Hesitant: The Visual Politics of W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Jesus Christ in Georgia”
3. Film: Overexposure
Beyond the Frame: Overexposure and Zora Hurston’s Filmic Practice
“Drenched in Light”
Recording Racial Feeling
Contraband Flesh
Cinematics of Negro Expression
Coda: Racial Data’s Afterlives

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