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Theses Doctoral

Social Document Fictions: Race, Visual Culture and Science in African American Literary Culture, 1850-1939

Womack, Autumn Marie

When in 1928 Alain Locke coined the phrase "social document fiction" to describe W.E.B. DuBois' 1911 novel Quest of the Silver Fleece, he magnified a tenuous interplay between aesthetics, politics, and social science that underpins nineteenth and early twentieth century black intellectual activity. For Locke, social document fiction describes the small body of literature that, although important as "sociological" treatises, had yet to achieve the aesthetic sophistication that writers of the Harlem Renaissance would master. Even in his dismissal, Locke's phrasing suggests that black authors had succeeded in connecting two representational forms that continue to be positioned as polar opposites: those that use objective observation to index social life (surveys, statistics, photographs, and catalogs) and the imaginative realm of fiction. Indeed, in Quest of the Silver Fleece, DuBois combines technical analyses of agriculture, Southern economy, and Post-Reconstruction education with tales of magic cottonseed in order to convey a social world that remained opaque to positivist analysis. Belonging to neither the sphere of slave narratives, domestic family romance, or Realism, social document fiction combines formal innovation with scientific discourse to produce racial knowledge that exceeds the nineteenth century's emergent regimes of truth. This understudied genre of literature invites us to consider a simple but fraught question: what does it mean to think of social document fiction as a tool for the study of black life?
This dissertation answers this question by reconstructing African Americans' responses to key moments between 1850 and the late 1920s when visual technology, like the microscope, the photograph, and film, joined with emerging fields of natural history, sociology, and anthropology to render black subjects as intelligible objects of scientific inquiry. Immersed in this "racial data revolution," blacks grappled to identify a strategy for transmitting new "facts of blackness." I consider social document fiction as an important strategy for reassembling racial epistemologies and reorienting the public's racialized gaze. I extend this genre beyond the work of DuBois to consider how literature by Martin Delany, Sutton Griggs, and Zora Neale Hurston each manifest a struggle to articulate a poetics and politics in relationship social science.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Edwards, Brent Hayes
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 12, 2014