[AAS21 Podcast] Episode #10: The Pulse of Black Life in the Long 19th Century

Dec. 15, 2017


Podcast Transcript:

(00:00) [music plays]

Eddie: Hello. I'm Eddie Glaude and I'm the chair of the Department of African-American studies here at Princeton University. And welcome to the African-American Studies podcast. Today I'm delighted to have as our guest my new and wonderful colleague, Professor Autumn Womack. Professor Womack specializes in 19th century and early 20th century African-American literature with a particular research and teaching focused on the intersection of visual technology, race and literary culture. She's currently at work on a brilliant book entitled, at least right now--

Autumn: [laughs]

Eddie: Reform Visions: Race, Visuality, and literature in the Progressive Era. The book examines the important formal and technical features of emergent visual technologies such as photography, motion pictures and social surveys to black literary culture from the 1880's through the 1920's. She has published on this and other topics in Black Camera: An International Film Journal, Women and Performance, American Literary History and SmallAxe Salon. Her contribution to a published roundtable on "Racism's Afterlives" is forthcoming in J19: Journal of 19th Century Americanists and her exploration of antebellum data visualization in The Anglo-African Magazine will appear in Cambridge University's volume Transitions and African-American Literature, 1850 to 1865. Welcome, Professor Womack.

Autumn: Hi. Thank you for having me. 

Eddie: Well, it's a delight to have--

Autumn: [laughs]

Eddie: --have this opportunity to talk with you about your brilliant work. 

Autumn: Thank you. 

Eddie: I wanna start with kind of basic question. 

Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: You- you- you describe the book as an effort to, in some ways, reconstruct um the way in which black people have responded to or responded to what you'd call the visualization of the Negro problem.

Autumn: Mm-hmm.

Eddie: And you look at (02:00) these particular four, right, cases.

Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: But what do you-- talk a little bit about what you mean by the visualization of the Negro problem?

Autumn: Yeah um no, thank you. Um so, in the book I use visualization of the Negro problem really to name and think through the visual strategies, um, that both African-Americans and non African-Americans were using to make sense of the place of blacks in this postbellum, um post reconstruction landscape. Um, so we have things like photographs, right? This is the way we normally think of the visualization of the Negro problem, right? So, on the one hand, we have kind of these derogatory-- I mean that the well-known kind of caricatures, right, of blacks that were circulating in the public sphere and minstrel shows, um, racist cartoons, right? But then we have this whole other archive of photographs of black, middle class life, right? Um, that were also being used to kind of answer and engage with the Negro problem and say that the Negro problem actually really isn't a problem, right? We are capable of assimilating, um and performing or not even performing but having or participating in, um, in American middle class life, right, as citizens. Um, so that's one way of thinking about it. In my book I think about it in a little bit of a different way, right? And I really think about, um, it as a question, right? How do we represent modern black life, um, and how do we represent this tension, right, between on the one hand, um, kind of the shape and structure of black social life in the north and the south, right? And the visual technology is like statistics and photographs and film that are being used to make sense of it, right? So, I'm really actually thinking about the tension more so than the- the easy answer, um, that I think that a lot of scholars really productively work through. Um, so this is kind of the- the tension that I'm thinking through.

Eddie: So- so- so what happens-- you know, this is a- a moment of profound change and transformation. We see uh in some ways, the social and material conditions (04:00) of American life shifting. 

Autumn: Yeah, yeah.

Eddie: Right. Um, in- in so many ways. Um, and- and- and you make the point that- that- that African-American intellectuals and writers are intervening in this shifting and changing the landscape in a very deliberate ways. And so, we have the visualization of-of the Negro problem, uh, the standard ways in which they're doing it. The tensions that you identify and then you have what folks like the boys are doing. Uh Kelly Miller.

Autumn: Mm-hmm.

Eddie: Um Sutton Griggs.

Autumn: Yeah. 

Eddie: And of course, given how you paradise, Zora Neale Hurston even shows up--

Autumn: She pops, yeah. [laughs]

Eddie: --in here. So, what- what exactly do they do--

Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: --at the level of aesthetics, at the level of visualization that- that- that- that in some ways respond--

Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: -- to- to this shift-- these transformations that you talk about.

Autumn: Yeah. So, I'll start with Kelly Miller, right? 'Cause he's- he's the kind of where I begin the project. Um, and it's interesting ‘cause I never really thought of myself as somebody-- I had ever really imagined myself as somebody who would be engaging with um, an intellectual like Kelly Miller, um, not because he's not fascinating but just because it hadn't-- it hadn't been on my radar, um, before I started this project. Someone like Kelly Miller, um, is really interested in statistics, right? He's a trained mathematician. He, um, he teaches at Howard, right? He- he knows math, statistics, science, physics, all of this, right? Um, and he's really engaged or really takes issue with the predominant way that racial statistics are being marshaled at this time period, right? So, by somebody like Frederick Hoffman, who is using census data to say blacks are ultimately gonna die because they don't have the physical wherewithal to- to withstand modernity. Um, so Kelly Miller really hones in on the- the visual-- the visualization of the data in that Frederick Hoffman's race traits, right? And he reprints tables and he reads the tables and he reads the statistics. On the one hand, as um fording races data, right? But then he sees a potential on these (06:00) statistics, right? Um, and that's what I'm really interested in, him seeing or him using statistics and seeing them as something that can actually, um, reorganize the relationship between, um, knowledge about black life, right? And predictions about the future.

Eddie: So- so, do we see this as part of a broader, um, and in some ways longstanding effort on the part of black intellectuals and writers to kind of marshal various evidence--

Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: -- uh, to prove, uh, the claims about black inferiority where in here, we see Miller in this instance drawing on his own skill as a mathematician to- to make the numbers say something else or say something different or was that too flat a reading--

Autumn: No. It's not too flat a reading. But I think the stakes were particularly high at this time period, right? So, yes, black intellectuals were always repurposing statistical information--

Eddie: Right.

Autumn: --as long as the census was around, right? So, I think what was different about this time period is that um, the way that statistical data and the way that census data was being fastened to these narratives of racial inferiority and really kind of racial criminal-- criminality at this time period, right? Black criminality, this time period. The way those two things are being fastened was especially new, right? Um, and the questions, there was a different set of questions, right? So, in the antebellum period, like the question-- the question was about or most of the time stat- statistics were being used in the service of other pro- pro or anti slavery argument, right? So, the- the stakes were a little bit different in this um, or the question was a little more open, we should say in the postbellum period. Um, so one of the things that I argue in the book or that I like to think about is that Kelly Miller is thinking about the way that these statistics actually can ask us to see race differently, right? And that's kind of where the visual technology aspect of it comes in. Um, and then we see him kind of raising this question, right? What can statistics allow us to see, right? And then somebody like Du Bois is answering in (08:00) a really concrete way.

Eddie: And with the Philadelphia Negro. But what about Zora Neale Hurston? How does she help us in this?

Autumn: How does--

Eddie: How does she enter the story as well?

Autumn: Yeah. Well, Zora Neale Hurston enters at the very tail end.

Eddie: Right.

Autumn: Um, and so this is like the late 1920's and she's-- she fits into the picture because she's taking up the motion picture. Um, she-- just that she wrote. She also recorded films. This is something that a lot of people don't know. Um, so she recorded-- we have 24 minutes of this footage, um, that she recorded a black Southern life. Um, and the way she fits into it is that she's also trying to make sense of a population that was, on the one hand, deemed knowable, right? So, this is the thing that if we record black life, it's knowable as a quantity, right? Um, but it was also kind of like the problem of black Southern life too, in the 1920's. Um, so she fits in here because like Miller and like Du Bois, um, and like some of the actors I look at in the third chapter when I'm talking about photography, she's really interested in this tension between, um, the movement and the progress of black social life and the limitations or the capacities of the visual technology. So for her it's the camera and um, black folk life, right? Which for her was always in motion, always in movement. So, how do we reconcile the movement that's constitutive of black folk life with the camera which is an instrument of capture and objectification. Um, and I think this is what Kelly Miller was also up to with the statistics, right? How do we reconcile statistics with kind of the movement or the polls of black, urban, and for him urban and rural life, right? And this is kind of Du Bois in the Philadelphia Negro. So, that's also kind of the question that animates--

Eddie: So- so let's- let's step back a bit though because that's a long arc.

Autumn: It's a long arc.

Eddie: From Kelly Miller to Zora Neale Hurston.

Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: Um, you know, there's this-- I mean I'm a-- I'm a bit obsessed about periodization-- 

Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: --for a variety of reasons. But uh, this notion of the long 19th century, what (10:00) analytical work is it doing? What- what does it mean for you to-- in this book--

Autumn: Right.

Eddie: --uh, with Zora Neale Hurston in that sense?

Autumn: Yeah. Um, so this is a question that I think about a lot because the-- of the not long 19th century, it just seems like keep getting pushed-- pushing back further and further and further, some people are like the 1930's. Like is it the 1940's. I think as-- the further we get, like the longer the 19th century can get. Um, but for me what's really-- what I think is really interesting is that by isolating these four cases, right? So, from Kelly Miller to Du Bois and the third chapter is kind of a motley crew of performers, um, and photographers. And then, um, Zora Neale Hurston, right? I think we constantly a different relationship between the actors that we normally think of as organizing the 19th-- well, the 19th century or at least the postbellum era, right? So, Kelly Miller and Zora Neale Hurston are never thought of as in the same sentence-- in the same sentence.

Eddie: Right.

Autumn: Like I've-- I don't think there's ever a sen-- I can't think of a word.

Eddie: I think this is the first time I've used the [crosstalk]

Autumn: Right. And so, I think that-- one of the things that I-- I'm trying to do by asking or posing a different question, right? So the- the question that animates the book is not so much what did the Negro problem look like, but how was the Negro problem constructed in visual technologies, right? Um I think by asking that question, we see a different set of actors engaging with each other in unexpected and really oblique ways, right? But also a different archive comes to the- the surface, right? Um--

Eddie: Yeah. Talk a little bit about that, this archive because your archive is- is eclectic. It's--

Autumn: It's very eclectic. Yeah.

Eddie: Yeah.

Autumn: Um, so the archive includes things like the social survey, right? Um, which was one of the predominant modes of collecting information and organizing information about (12:00) late 19th and early 20th century, urban and- and rural life. Um, and so, I spend a lot of time thinking about and working through a capacious body of surveys. Um, so everything from charities and commons, which was they put out a number of, um, social studies, they would call them, of Negro life. Um, but then also like Polish life and the Italian life. Um, and so, I spent some time looking at that and then I look at the Philadelphia Negro, right? And what these things all have in common is that they were all trying to um, re-situate the public's relationship to the social world, right? What can we show you about the social, that you don't-- that you can't see at first glance, right? So, pulling back a curtain. Um, so that's-- that's one of the archives. And in addition to the- to the documents themselves, right? I look at, um, lesson plans and syllabi of sociology instructors who are teaching the social survey, right? What they have to say about it. And one of the things that's really interesting is that they all talk about it as a visual technology. Um, so, they all say that this was a camera that could shed light on something we hadn't seen or a microscope, um, or it illuminates an- an otherwise invisible world. Um, and so- so just thinking about the archive, right, um, the- the material documents themselves and the primary documents, but then also thinking about kind of where those take you which is--

Eddie: Right. So, talk a little bit more about, um, of-of the social survey. Uh how do you-- I mean as a literary critic, how do you read that form?

Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: I mean I- I- I see the way in which the voices of Philadelphia Negro works within the book, of the commons and charities, the Negro City in the north. Uh, but the survey, you- you read it as a (14:00) particular form. So, say a little bit more about that.

Autumn: Yeah. Um, so, one of the things that I found when I started working with the social survey is that many of the black writers or novelists or fiction writers or poets that I was interested in were also either contributing to social surveys or writing social surveys of their own. So, even in the-- um, the 1905 charities and commons, um, Negro in the cities of the north, right? Which was kind of a big capacious study of black urban life. Um, there is everybody contributing to that like Fannie Barry Williams and, um, James Weldon Johnson and Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. So all of these figures that I-- are- are suddenly put together in this space, right? So on the one hand, right, so, I started thinking about it that way, right? Like they're all contributing to the social survey. And then, as I began to look through the survey and think of it as a literary form, right? Um, I think of it as a genre, a literary genre.

Eddie: Okay, that's better.

Autumn: Right? Um, it seems or I noticed that I had a lot in common with the form and the conventions of fiction of that time period. So, um, like Du Bois' Quest of the Silver Fleece, right? He actually calls that an economic study which is the same thing that he calls or the same categorization that he gives to the Philadelphia Negro, right? So that got me thinking how are these two things in conversation with each other. And then, I also I started thinking of- of texts that were odd or didn't quite fit into any-- just kind of s-stand out, right?

Eddie: Right.

Autumn: So, Sutton Griggs' Imperium in Imperio, right?

Eddie: Right. Okay. So, a little bit more about Sutton Griggs' Imperium in Imperio. I mean I-- I've always been fascinated and attracted to that-- to that work.

Autumn: Yes. So, Imperium in Imperio, which I also love, um, is this weird novel. Um, it was published in 1899 by Sutton Griggs, who was a Baptist Minister, novelist, publisher. All of these things that everybody in the 19th (16:00) century was, right? Um, and so, the- the novel tells the story of these two parallel characters, right? And one who seems to have all the opportunities in the world and the other who really grab in poverty and you know struggles, right? But they live this parallel-- live this parallel lives and they both converge at the end in this imaginary black secret government called the Imperium where they have this oratorical battle, um, or standoff. Um, and so, I always love the novel and one of the things that I found, um, when I began researching it, is that Kelly Miller, right, who makes an appearance in the- the first chapter of the book or who's a- a big part of the first chapter of the book, reviewed Imperium in Imperio, right? And so, we can see how like all of these chapters that seem not connected actually, these- these guys did all connect with one another. 

So, when Kelly Miller reviewed Imperium in Imperio, he classified it as a text that did the work that Frederick Hoffman's Race Traits couldn't do, right? Um, so he used very similar language. So in his review of Hoffman's Race Traits, which was the- the first of the American Negro Academy's published paper, right? Um he said that-- Hoffman's Race Traits, it's a racist tax. It gets it all wrong. But it gives a really comprehensive overview, right? It does do that. Um, and so, he use really similar language but just praised Imperium in Imperio, right? It gives a comprehensive overview. It is the text that does or it can do what race traits failed to do, right? So, this got me thinking about, okay, what is it about Imperium in Imperio? Like what does Imperium in Imperio doing that Hoffman failed to do with the statistical, right? Um, so the questions that emerge were, okay, how does fiction then answer or repair the statistical but also operate as another mode or another kind of social scientific document. Um, so I'm-- I--

Eddie: Fiction, functioning as a kind of social scientific document.

Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: Okay.

Autumn: Because he-- (18:00) he named it as such, right? And then this- this also, you know, led me to The Quest of the Silver Fleece, right? Which Du Bois also names as an economic study. So, the original question that- that got me interested in these two tacks was, okay, how are-- what does it mean to think of them as economic studies or a social scientific studies, right? As more than fiction or not more than fiction, but fiction and-- right?

Eddie: Yeah. I was-- I was thinking as you were talking, you know, Sutton Griggs' novel comes- comes to me through a kind of Black Nationalist—

Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: --um genealogy, right?

Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: He's-- that book is often read as, um, you know, uh, um, um, a- a central text in the Black Nationalist, 19th century Black Nationalist imaginary, right? And so, it leads me to think about this period that you-- that you're covering. I mean we talked about social, um, you know, significant shifts as social and material conditions of black life. But it's also a time of extreme white retrenchment, right?

Autumn: Mm-hmm.

Eddie: Um, extreme violence, in some ways. Violence that leads to displacement. A trickle that will soon become a flood as people are moving, right? Not just simply moving from rural countryside, um, from the south to the north, but rural countryside to- to cities and changing their relation to labor discipline and- and whatnot. So, I'm wondering just ideologically, right, as these different black ideological responses emerge, right? Are these- these-- might the visual technologies, um, shift according to the ideological purposes to which they are being deployed, right? And- and to put it more, um, concretely, right? What does it mean for someone who- who's making the argument that we would ascribe to a black nationalist to be engaged in this kind of work in this moment? Kelly Miller is a unique figure. Du Bois is at a certain point in his career, right? So, 'cause folks are trying to make (20:00) sense of what's happening as you write your novel.

Autumn: Right. Yeah. So, two things pop into my mind. The first thing is that-- and this is something that I'm just interested in more broadly or that I'm curious about-- is the way that um, these certain, um-- the way that we classify or think about certain texts in relationship to political and social movements like Imperium in Imperio and Black nationalism, right? Um, are actually a reading that we-- a reading that we ascribe to them, right? So, I'm not sure that Sutton Griggs--

Eddie: Saw himself doing--

Autumn: Saw himself doing that, right?

Eddie: Oh, okay.

Autumn: So, it's like when these text reemerged, I think Imperium in Imperio reemerged in like 1969, right? Um, that then we repurpose it-- not repurpose it, right? But we see the Black Nationalist, um, strands coming through or we see it as something that's part of the-- that-that is more in keeping with the Black Arts Movement than in something like Kelly Miller, right? Like, Kelly Miller would never make it, if he lives in the 1960's. Um, so I think it's useful to kind of suspend the way the work that we need the text to do now or at that particular moment when they reemerged from or purse that out from the work that they- that in 1899, black folks needed the text to do, right?

Eddie: So, that's a really-- yeah, that's a really interesting claim. I mean, so, that-that is to say, you- you want to, uh, bracket the kind of present as preoccupation that- that may over determine the archives, right? That- that-that this work gets--

 Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: --uh, placed within a set of broader concerns that animate what I'm doing now as opposed to what was motivating then. So let me ask you, since we're talking about motivation, let me ask you this then. So, as a-- as- as a- a literary scholar who actually is very, very attentive to these historical sources look, right? I mean what motivates um how you approach the period as a literary (22:00) scholar. I mean I've-- I have-- I'm always driven by present as preoccupations when I return to the archive. I'm always thinking that the present is always in a need of-- in need of a pass to account for itself. Uh, and particularly the newly emergent is always seeking for-- seeking an archive to- to- to ground it in some way. So, what motivates you when you return to this-- to this period or the-- these- these moments?

Autumn: Yeah. When I return to these moments, I'm really thinking about two things. First, I'm thinking about how these texts were operating and answering the needs and the questions of their writers and of their readers, right? So, really in that way is kind of an archivally based, like historicist' project, right? So, that's on the one hand. But where that came from is me doing a lot of work in graduate school and doing a lot of reading and going to a lot of talks and hearing, um, scholars and my colleagues and my classmates and my professors talking a lot about, um, our contemporary needs and demands, right? And me thinking this is exactly what Du Bois was talking about in 1899. This sounds exactly-- the literary experimental is-- the literary- literary experiments that you're, um, naming as 21st century actually were shaping someone like Sutton Griggs, right? So, it was me seeing resonances between our contemporary moment and the work that we're asking, um, literary texts to do now, right? I saw overlaps, right? Where I wanted to chart a different or a longer history, right? So, in that way, it doesn't-- it's not that different from what you're naming at all. But I’m really invested in thinking about how these texts were taken up and circulated and read in their period. And I think that question reveals all of these unexpected and surprising overlaps, right? It's a different constellation of the period where we then-- we can see how we get to some-- from somebody like Kelly Miller (24:00) to Sutton Griggs to Du Bois in the 1910's to then maybe Zora Neale Hurston 'cause why not. Um--

Eddie: Right.

Autumn: Right?

Eddie: So, but-- this seems to me as such um, such a critical part of what we do in African-American studies, right? Um, that it's not-- that- that this kind of-- the eclectic nature of your archive, the scope of the work, the- the- the attentiveness to the complexity of black life on the ground, trying, in some ways to show how, um, uh, these aesthetic stra-- and visual strategies, um, are-- if I'm reading you correctly, open up, um, the ways in which black folk are navigating substantive social, uh, and- and- and economic change that's often obscured by visual technologies that seek to justify their subordination, right? There's this ongoing work--

Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: --to kind of reveal the complexity and nuance of black folks’ ways of being in the world.

Autumn: Yes. A hundred percent.

Eddie: Right?

Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: So- so, this is-- this is also-- this is-- this is really fascinating to me. So, how does this shape the next projects? I heard a hint of it--

Autumn: Yeah.

Eddie: --with regards to this kind of reprinting of old ’90. You're still in the 19th century. Well, now you are--

Autumn: I'm still in the 19th century.

Eddie: So, talk a little about your next project.

Autumn: So, the next project is an exploration of-- it's really a- a- a book-- history of the book project. I'm looking at, um, this moment in the late 1960's that was named the Reprint Revolution, right? Where all of these texts from the 1900's were being reprinted. And I'm thinking about the way that those, the reprinting of those 19th century texts shaped and informed the formation of black studies programs. Um, and so, I'm looking at-- this really-- I really started this project or I really started asking these questions because I became interested in Arno Press, right? Because all of the 19th century texts that I read, um, are most of the-- the first edition was-- the first reprinting in the 20th century (26:00) was by Arno Press. So, I had all these questions about who was Arno Press, what was their politics. And I originally imagined that there would be a smooth line of connection between, um, the titles that the press was putting out and the titles that were then canonized in African-American literary studies and the texts that were taken up in black studies programs. But there was a total disconnect when I actually looked at the, um, the title sheets, right? And what was being taught, um, about was being taken up as kind of the texts, right? The canonical texts. 

So, Arno Press was publishing things that we now think of as obscure and that are having a resurgence now, like Elizabeth Keckley's House Behind the- the Scenes of whatever it's caught her, um, exposé of living and working in the White House, right? Um, or, um, Charles Ball's slave narrative that nobody reads for a very-- not for very good reason. But it's just long and tedious, right? So, they reprinted over 200 titles of 19th century black text and many of them are canonical. Like the 1845 Frederick Douglass narrative. But a lot-- a lot of them aren't. Um, so part of the project is thinking about that, right? This disconnect. Um, and they saw their project as doing historical recovery and "not the political work," right, of- of black studies programs. Um, and then I'm really interested in black bookstores, right? They were also emerging um, with a vengeance at this time period. Um, so I'm looking at Marcus Books that was in, um, Oakland and, um, I've been looking at their order forms and their requests from libraries. What should we order for our new section on "Negro life," right? So, I'm thinking about the ways that this question of read early demand, right? What the field needs? How we think we should be remembering the past, right? How all of these things informed or were informed also really by printing practices, right?

Eddie: So, it's really-- it's really fascinating to kind of (28:00) think about, 'cause intuitively, you would think there would be a connect.

Autumn: Mm-hmm. And there is a bit of a connect but I was shocked when I found all of these, um, these meeting minutes from Arno Press, kind of their- their board meetings about what their vision was. Um, and it was really similar to, um-- I mean I think it was similar to a lot of the way that the past was being reconstructs-- was reconstructed or marshaled at this time period, right? Um, so I'm thinking of that 1968, I think it was Life Magazine, where it was Frederick Douglass', um, the gyro type on the cover and it was called the Black Past, right? It's a very particular way of remembering the Black Past. Um, so the historical recovery project is certainly part, right, of the formation of some of these black studies programs. Um, but they also saw-- they- they named their work as not radical, not political, right?

Eddie: So, they weren't kind of caught up in a certain kind of ideological rendering of what African-American studies or black studies is and what it would become.

Autumn: E-exactly not. [laughs] Not in a-- or not exactly. So, I'm-- that's-- its-it's-- it is very early stages. But um, I'm really excited about- about thinking about that.

Eddie: Well, I would like to thank Professor Autumn Womack for- for joining us today. We're so looking forward to the book, uh, Reform Visions: Race, Visuality and Literature, 1880 to 1930. I'm really looking forward to the next project on reprint culture in the mid 19th-- that's because of my own 20th century.

Autumn: Yeah. I'm excited for that.

Eddie: Yeah. This is really exciting. And I wanna thank you for joining us for the discussion today. Additionally, uh, special thanks to Courtney Bryant for providing the music to this podcast, to the staff of the Department of African-American studies at Princeton University, our Office Manager, April Peters. Our Event Coordinator, Dionne Worthy. Our Social Media Specialist, Alison Bland and our Technical Audio Engineer, Elio Leo. Remember you can find this podcast and more by visiting our website, aas.princeton.edu. Thank you and take care. (30:00) 

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