Abstract

Quantification has long played a vexed role in efforts to record and resist racial violence. Building from Ida B. Wells’s antilynching crusade, this essay examines the risks and power of calculating life and death at the close of the nineteenth century. For her part, Wells pushed mere counting past itself to a profound mode of ethical accounting. Two of her contemporaries, Mark Twain and W. E. B. Du Bois, sustained a similarly supraquantitative thrust; each attempted to harness the antilynching potential of numbers by enlisting data visualization. Twain falls short in a telling fashion, as his unpublished satire “The United States of Lyncherdom” (written in 1901) exacerbates the dehumanizing tendencies of quantification. Du Bois, however, pursues a more generative experiment, creating statistical graphics in 1900 that indict and outstrip the causal circuit that yoked scientific numbering to lynching and racial violence more broadly. This latter achievement resonates with scholarly efforts to access Black life from within a desolately tabulated archive of loss and erasure. Specifically, as triangulated with Wells and Twain, Du Bois’s graphics proffer a counterintuitive means to register life as a future-oriented, aggregate abstraction that is neither wholly conditioned by, nor separate from, a past whose violent legacies endure.

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