Autumn Womack, "The Matter of Black Living: The Aesthetic Experiment of Racial Data, 1880–1930" (U Chicago Press, 2022)


Autumn Womack is a professor of English and of African American Studies at Princeton University. Her new book, The Matter of Black Living: The Aesthetic Experiment of Racial Data, 1880–1930 (University of Chicago Press, 2022), addresses scholars and readers interested in literary studies, visual culture, and transformative justice in modern America. The book also transcends these areas to speak to readers in science & technology studies, in history of technology, or broadly interested in science justice.

The premise of the book is that America was living through two collective experiments as it suffered the aftermath of the failed Reconstruction following the US Civil War. The first was the experiment of Black freedom and the second was the experiment of new technologies to document (Black) life at a time when standards for how to use and to read their outputs were excitingly wide-open. In the hands of Black cultural producers, the yield of these technologies was “undisciplined data,” which pointed to the possibility of true freedom not mere social reform as defined by White progressives.

Readers follow writer Zora Neale Hurston working with anthropological film, WEB Dubois working with the social survey as a foundation for his urban sociology as well as for his literary novels, and other historical actors who were using documentary technologies to demonstrate the impossibility of capturing the fullness of Black sociality with those very technologies. Producing “undisciplined data,” Womack suggests, is not only a practice of the past, but the hope for greater justice in the present day.

This interview was a collaborative effort among Professor Laura Stark and graduate students at Vanderbilt University in the seminar “Science & Technology Studies.” Please email Laura with any feedback on the interview or questions about how to design collaborative interview projects for the classroom. Email:

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Laura Stark

Laura Stark is Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health, and Society.

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