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One of the most valuable things I learned studying with Ruth Ellen Kocher was the concept of “Mastery of Form/Deformation of Mastery,” coined by scholar Houston Baker to describe the aesthetics of Black writers in the Harlem Renaissance and their relation to a dominant tradition. Colonial forms, from the sonnet to the sonata, demand “mastery” in order to practice them, according to its gatekeepers, creating barriers to a life of study and art to all but wealthy white men. Black writers responded by either “mastering” the form or refusing to accommodate its standards by deforming it, and it was the concept of deformation that finally gave me the permission to write in the forms I needed to write without any reverence to schools, traditions, or poets who never wrote with me in mind.
What I love about Du Bois’ graphs is the reclamation of data, and reclaiming the visualization of that data, often weaponized as a tool of dehumanization. Authoritative data and its archives (and elisions) establish the dominant narrative, so by doing this sociological fieldwork, gathering this data, and building a counterarchive of Black life, Du Bois is literally setting the record straight where none existed, establishing a practice of recording generational and institutional memory. There are multiple layers of subversion in these infographics—the spirals, shapes, and disconnected value bars deform objective visualization of data and add affect, add a sense of feeling, a sense of falling, a sense of overwhelm in some cases. The bold colors do so much affective work to add urgency and command attention to invisible and ignored issues in Black American life. There is much more to say about these visualizations, but I will leave it at this: there are many records to set straight, many forms to deform. This is just one attempt.
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