I will say it plainly: in America, the ostensible pursuit of objectivity has historically served to silence Black voices. This is true in the field of journalism, in every hall of the justice system, and even in each of the vast and sacrosanct schools of science. Over and over, institutions and writers and police officers find, through processes heralded for their rejections of emotion in favor of data, that there is nothing more questionable than Black dissent—our voices are classified as subjective, and we are very literally made subject.
One of my favorite aspects of W. E. B. Du Bois’s writing is that, even as a sociologist, he understood that data was limited. That it was limiting. This is in part because what a thing is, whether we decide that it is sound data, or three-fifths of an opinion, or a man, is determined by people. Du Bois’s data portraits (collected in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America and first exhibited at the 1900 Paris Exposition) contain hard numbers. His seminal book The Souls of Black Folk tells the history of Black America. But his data portraits (painted not long after the invention of the bar graph and well before the fields of data visualization or infographics) are expressive in the way visual art is. And his essays begin very literally with song. Take his description of Atlanta in The Souls of Black Folk, which reads so much like poetry it is easy to forget that Du Bois is a sociologist:
South of the North, yet north of the South, lies the City of a Hundred Hills, peering out from the shadows of the past into the promise of the future. I have seen her in the morning, when the first flush of day had half-roused her; she lay gray and still on the crimson soil of Georgia; then the blue smoke began to curl from her chimneys, the tinkle of bell and scream of whistle broke the silence, the rattle and roar of busy life slowly gathered and swelled, until the seething whirl of the city seemed a strange thing in a sleepy land.
To offload the burden of labor and injustice to a machine in order to keep one’s hands clean is the birth of the cotton gin. It is the driving force of capitalism and the prison industrial complex. Systems and machines are not racist because they don’t have to be: their owners and operators are. But the soul of us is uncapturable, even despite America’s use of science and math and forensics—the objective—to weigh our bodies. In this piece, I hope to trouble science with spell and prayer. I hope to upset Christian forgiveness by acknowledging that its methods are empirical too, and often destructive in their transformation of rage into acceptance. And I want to remember Trayvon Martin, who wanted many things he will not have. This poem is part of a larger project in the works that calls on as inspiration mathematics and equations and draws inspiration in part from W. E. B. Du Bois.
I also owe much to Vanessa Angélica Villarreal. Her visual poems—
“f = [(root) (future)]” in particular, which makes of logic a lyric and historic process—have been a guiding spirit for me. Moreover, I’m thankful for the considerable time she spent giving feedback to this piece and other poems from this series.
GEORGIA IN LINE AND COLOR: W. E. B. DU BOIS’S DATA PORTRAITS
Introduction by Gerald Maa
Using 120-Year-Old Tools to Document Black Life in Georgia by Janeria Easley
From “Of the Sons of Master and Man” by W. E. B. Du Bois
selections from “The Exhibit of American Negroes” for the 1900 Paris Exposition by W. E. B. Du Bois
spell to trace a rainbow to its apogee by Kieth S. Wilson
From “Of the Black Belt” by W. E. B. Du Bois
THE AXIS OF DISPOSSESSION, fig 2. By Vanessa Angélica Villarreal
The After-Thought by W. E. B. Du Bois