DuBois & Me in Lowndes County: Black Space and Speculation

Authors: Danielle Purifoy*, Duke University
Topics: Ethnicity and Race, Environment, Development
Keywords: Environmental Racism, U.S. South, Plantation Power
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 6:20 PM
Room: Napoleon D3, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

This paper connects two studies of Lowndes County, AL, conducted 108 years apart— W.E.B. DuBois’ collaborative, interdisciplinary research, Negro Labor in Lowndes County and my collaborative multimedia project with visual artist Torkwase Dyson, entitled In Conditions of Fresh Water, exploring the [re]production of environmental racism in White Hall, an historic Black town in Lowndes County.

 Though Negro Labor in Lowndes County was destroyed by the U.S. Department of Labor, I argue that DuBois’ novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece offers an innovative approach to social science, and an early template for In Conditions of Fresh Water, which exposes mechanisms of complex, often de-spatialized social structures operating in black spaces through narrative, art, and science.

DuBois’ decision to produce a social science study and a novel from his research in Lowndes County is an endorsement of interdisciplinary inquiry and transforms at least three aspects of research: audience, data, and praxis implications. As a work of speculative fiction, The Quest of the Silver Fleece treats the public as its co-investigator to interrogate the persistence of plantation power and to grapple with the real through the imaginary.

In Conditions of Fresh Water replicated several aspects of DuBois’ approach in Lowndes County, including engagement with speculation through abstract representations of black spatiality. I argue that, in addition to transforming intended audiences and what constitutes “data”, social spatial scholarship may benefit most from expanding from the what and why of structural racism, to the what if or what could be of Black space.

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