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Fictions of History

Reanimating Black lives by “undisciplining data”

The writer and scholar Saidiya Hartman opens her 2008 essay “Venus in Two Acts” with an admission about the challenge she’s taken on: to give life to the story of the “Black Venus,” the “emblematic figure of the enslaved woman in the Atlantic world,” present in the archives in various forms, but never as a full person. “I want to do more than recount the violence that deposited these traces in the archive. I want to tell a story about two girls capable of retrieving what remains dormant—the purchase or claim of their lives on the present—without committing further violence in my own act of narration,” Hartman writes. “Listening for the unsaid, translating misconstrued words, and refashioning disfigured lives—and intent on achieving an impossible goal: redressing the violence that produced numbers, ciphers, and fragments of discourse, which is as close as we come to a biography of the captive and the enslaved.”

Hartman carefully details the process of archival discovery: while she has encountered her two Black Venuses in a legal indictment against a slave ship captain, many others can be found in ledgers, overseers’ journals, or in a traveler’s account of brothels. Circumstances notwithstanding, the end result is the same—an unnamed Black woman, deprived of the ability to tell her story, reduced by a white man to a commodity or a tawdry sexual exploit. Aiming to engage in a reparative exercise, Hartman asks: “How does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death, the account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features?”

She continues: “Can we, as [M.] NourbeSe Philip suggests, ‘conjur[e] something new from the absence of Africans as humans that is at the heart of the text’? And if so, what are the lineaments of this new narrative? Put differently, how does one rewrite the chronicle of a death foretold and anticipated, as a collective biography of dead subjects, as a counter-history of the human, as the practice of freedom?” Hartman’s goals surpassed the disciplinary bounds of history, which would limit her to the scarce documented facts. Her approach, which she termed “critical fabulation,” is more delicate and subtle—“a history written with and against the archive”—a speculative space exceeding “fictions of history.” With her methodology, she would add dimension and heft to the precarious archives.

Discipline and Publish

Autumn Womack’s debut nonfiction work, The Matter of Black Living: The Aesthetic Experiment of Racial Data, 1880-1930, takes a similar approach, focusing particularly on the “postbellum” era, when the academic disciplines of sociology, anthropology, and Black studies found their nascence. But this was also when much of the early Black archive was created, through social surveys, photographs, film, and other mediums. One open question anchors her text: “How do you document Black life?” What emerged in the archive, she argues, was a “racial data revolution”—a phrase she adapts from the writer Khalil Muhammad—an ever-evolving landscape of schemata that worked along with repressions already in place to transform Black people into mere data points of a post-emancipation “Negro problem.” In the same vein as Hartman, Womack offers a framework that she calls “undisciplining data.” The leading Black scholars of the period she studies, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Zora Neale Hurston, sought out informational nuances to reanimate Black lives, finding a “contentious nexus where black life and data-producing technologies meet but do not necessarily harmonize; it is the errant, the excessive, and the elusive. It is what, this book argues, cannot get composed into data and what emerges when registering black living is at stake.”

Conventionally assumed to be objective, data is in fact something that is produced. And frequently built into the Black archives is the assumption of subhuman status—often, literally, recording people as property—especially the earliest records documented in ledgers and journals. As Katherine McKittrick notes in her essay “Mathematics Black Life” for The Black Scholar, “historically present anti-black violence is repaired by reproducing knowledge about the black subjects that renders them less than human. It is a descriptive analytics of violence. The cyclical and death-dealing numeration of the condemned remains intact, at least in part, through analytical pathways that are beholden to a system of knowledge that descriptively rehearses anti-black violences and in this necessarily refuses decolonial thinking.” Du Bois would powerfully document and disrupt such cycles with his fieldwork for what would become The Philadelphia Negro, which animated Black life through graphs, visuals, and diagrams. Those would become critical to his politics, ultimately serving as a technological standard that evaded the constructs of social sciences. The publication of a 1905 special issue of Charities focusing on “The Negro in the Cities of the North” and Alain Locke’s 1925 Survey Graphic special issue “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro” would also deliver epistemological challenges, elaborating on Black life beyond the statistical frame and providing the eventual runway for the “social document fictions” novels of the literary space. “More than just a compendium of black-authored documents or sociological evidence that attempts to scientifically and systematically approach the ‘Negro Problem,’” Womack writes, “engagements with the social survey are, above all else, an attempt to make data move.”

Frequently built into the Black archives is the assumption of subhuman status—often, literally, recording people as property—especially, the earliest records documented in ledgers and journals.

Similarly, Womack examines photographic depictions of Black life, both in an evidentiary and narrative relationship. In a chapter entitled “Photography: Looking Out,” she shows that photography was used to ensure, for example, that stories of lynching didn’t fade into the ether. Traveling multimedia exhibits by activists such as Ida B. Wells rejected the idea of “raw data” as being self-evident and confronted the horrors of racial violence through image documentation and bearing witness. Womack recounts the Baker family murders in 1898 via “photography, performance, and legal testimony”—an event that was noteworthy not only for its brutality, in which the Bakers’ South Carolina house was torched, but for the fact that a trial even occurred. She details the impact of the wife Lavinia’s testimony of her husband and daughter’s murder, leaving little to the imagination, with the scarring on her own body as evidence of the crimes, tactfully declining to identify the assailants. “Lavinia’s spectacular opacity interrupts lynching’s performance cycle,” Womack writes. “Reconstituted as a black domestic nightmare rather than a public display of white supremacy, Lavinia’s testimony at once impedes the process of firsthand identification that would allow white courtroom spectators to identify with the mob and frustrates the pathway to empathetic identification that might encourage anti-lynching sentiment.”

At the time, lynching and photography had a highly symbiotic relationship, with Kodak “point-and-shoot” cameras being present at the site of many crimes; the visual language behind the “flash” of a camera and the “flash” of a gun echoed one another. There would be an attempt at a multimedia “anti-lynching performance spectacle” in Providence, Rhode Island, and in Boston, at the behest of white philanthropist Lillian Clayton Jewett, that would disintegrate once Lavinia Baker defied the norms of white reformer conventions by spontaneously jumping up and performing an ecstatic dance. Lavinia Baker’s active presence on the stage “redirects the performance of passive mourning that Jewett crafted,” Womack explains. “Rather than publicly revealing her own injuries and remaining still, Lavinia Baker’s dance is an embodied ritual that calls attention to the ways that racial violence quite literally moves, and moves through, the body.”

Years later, W.E.B. Du Bois, building on the labor of Ida B. Wells, used lynching photography archives to foil efforts to cast away records of racial violence, a form of counterfactual spectatorship that would lead to the birth of, among other things, the NAACP. These images would be juxtaposed with poetry, biography, and other information; the intention was to make white supremacy the spectacle, deploying what Womack calls “looking out,” which “does not depend on mutual recognition or make recourse to the authority of a dominant gaze,” and which “identifies an ethical posture that is not about recognition or elaborating the ‘truth,’ but about sounding an alarm.” The Du Bois photographic project intended to underscore the sheer scale of the lynching violence in America; visualizing that terror was a way of preventing it from turning into a statistic. He elaborated his position in his editorial, “The Gall of Bitterness,” published in The Crisis in 1912:

In so trying [to narrate the truth] we realize that the mere statement of the facts does not always carry its message. Often the lighter touch, the insinuation and the passing reference are much more effective. We know this, and yet, so often the grim awfulness of the bare truth is so insistent we feel it our duty to state it. Take those stark and awful corpses, men murdered by lynch law, in last month’s issue: it was a gruesome thing to publish, and yet—could the tale have been told otherwise? Can the nation otherwise awaken to the enormity of this beastly crime of crimes, this rape of law and decency? Could a neat joke or a light allusion make this nation realize what two thousand five hundred murders such as these look like?

Womack threads through the ways that postbellum African American intellectuals engaged in what Christina Sharpe identified as “wake-work”—thinking about Black life via our relationship to the violent arithmetic applied to the dead. It is a complex racial calculus, and one that is constantly infringed upon by the mirage of social progress; but it is through the practice of “undisciplining data” that our most esteemed cultural producers have been able to generate truths in various aesthetic mediums. They defied the purported realities of data that was an outgrowth of the Atlantic slave era by confronting social conditions and lived realities. Black scholars have always understood the subjectivity of data; by embracing the liminal space between nonfiction and fiction, data and visuals, numbers and photography, they have rendered a more holistic perspective of Black life in a post-emancipation society. This recognition has kept Black scholars at the forefront of new technologies of production—protecting Black cultural life at every threshold, as they consistently find ways to articulate their humanity.

Why I Started Hating Meta

One hundred years past the postbellum era, we face a familiar predicament. Data and technology have arguably define Black life more than ever before, courtesy of surveillance capitalism.

In a recent article titled “Artifice and Intelligence,” Emily Tucker, the Executive Director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law, explained why the center would be removing “artificial intelligence,” “AI,” and “machine learning” from their institutional vocabulary. “That we are ignorant about, and deferential to, the technologies that increasingly comprise our whole social and political interface is not an accident. The AI demon of speculative fiction is a super intelligence that threatens to dominate by stripping human beings of any agency,” Tucker explains. “The threat of lost agency is real, but not because computers are yet capable of anything similar to, let alone superior to, human intelligence. The threat is real because the satisfaction of corporate greed, and the perfection of political control, requires people to lay aside the aspiration to know what their own minds can do.” Recognizing that data is a political tool, she argues that artificial intelligence is merely the “application of turbocharged processing power to the massive datasets that a yawning governance vacuum has allowed corporations to generate and/or extract.”

It is through the practice of “undisciplining data” that our most esteemed cultural producers have been able to generate truths.

Consider the number of Black tech leaders who have fought to keep our data undisciplined in the digital space. Timnit Gebru[*] created the independent artificial intelligence research institute DAIR (Distributed Artificial Intelligence Research institute) on the one-year anniversary of her infamous firing from Google’s Ethical AI team, bringing on UCLA professor and codirector of the Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, Dr. Safiya Noble, as part of the Advisory Committee. “When AI research, development and deployment is rooted in people and communities from the start, we can get in front of these harms and create a future that values equity and humanity,” Gebru has said. There is the Algorithmic Justice League, founded by Dr. Joy Buolamwini, which focuses on “leading a cultural movement towards equitable and accountable AI”; in this methodology, one works both with and against the technological archive to assess what function it serves. For example, facial recognition technology has been known to misidentify Black suspects. An inclusive approach to the solution would be to expand the dataset for a more technically accurate arrest rate, furthering the Black incarceration crisis; a more accountable approach would work to reject a system that would further expose Black communities to the police.

With all of that in consideration, Tucker proffers the “Baldwin Test.” Inspired by the luminary’s essay “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare” (included in the anthology The Cross of Redemption), Tucker thinks about how we use language in our technological practices: “Perhaps,” Baldwin wrote, “the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.” Tucker elaborates: “Where Turing’s test treats the desire to distinguish between the real and the imitation as a distraction, Baldwin treats it as a North Star . . . And to the extent that our words might make certain worlds even a little more or less possible for those to whom we speak and for whom we write, we want to wield them carefully.” It is a framework that operates in line with Womack’s concepts of “undisciplining data” and “looking out”: choosing to be unfettered by restatement and exceeding what Hartman calls the “fictions of history,” whether it be in the English language or in the digital archive.

Keeping this in mind, one might look at a recent lengthy essay on the metaverse written by Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister of the UK and current president of global affairs at Meta. The metaverse, he writes, is “ultimately about finding ever more ways for the benefits of the online world to be felt in our daily lives—enriching our experiences, not replacing them.” Clegg invokes augmented reality web conferences, global lectures, job creation, but as for the use of data in a framework that is inherently prone to abuse and harm, he is vague about the specifics, and about who the stakeholders should be. “We must create thoughtful rules and put guardrails into place as the metaverse develops to maximize its potential for good and minimize the potential harms,” Clegg writes. “We can think of this process as developing a system of governance for the metaverse.” Clegg fails to articulate what the metaverse would be governing for, however—speaking optimistically about the unwritten codes that will develop in the metaverse over time as they would in standard social gatherings, which, if history is any indicator, would offer a green field for extended anti-Blackness to propagate into web3. As Ruha Benjamin notes in her Race After Technology, “Many tech enthusiasts wax poetic about a posthuman world and, indeed, the expansion of big data analytics, predictive algorithms, and AI, animate digital dreams of living beyond the human mind and body—even beyond human bias and racism. But posthumanist visions assume that we have all had a chance to be human.

Instead of resigning ourselves to the inevitability of the metaverse, we should look to Baldwin’s words, as cited by Tucker: “[The poet’s] responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle, to bear witness, as long as breath is in him, to that mighty, unnameable, transfiguring force which lives in the soul of man.” As we stand upon the precipice of the next frontier of the internet, we are still articulating how to shape Black life within the as-yet-unformed terrain, with the limited web3 releases so far largely limited to macabre reanimations of legends long past, continuously extracted for revenue. Womack shared with us the template that Black American forebears used for reconfiguring the relationship between data and Black life—and it is in the spirit of what Baldwin urged: insisting on the human riddle and bearing witness to the transfiguring force in our souls. It is in the articulation of that practice, both then and now, that the capacity to augment reality with what Ruha Benjamin calls “race-critical code studies”—from the ledgers of the transatlantic slave trade to the predictive criminalization for facial surveillance—becomes both critical and evident.


[*]  Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly used “his” instead of “her” in referring to Timnit Gebru. We apologize for the error.