Strange Fruit: The Value of Morbid Data

I woke up this morning to a new article in the New York Times which presented a data visualization of lynchings over the last 73 years. The beautiful visualization showed the number of “social justice” executions carried out from “by at least three people from 1877 to 1950 in 12 Southern states”. The glossy and clean look of the visualization stunned me, and I found myself comparing, for quite some time, the blobs that represented murders in each state. Arkansas seemed to have the highest concentration, and I rationalized that to myself as being due to some innate backwardness of the region.

But then I snapped out of it.

Murder, especially the wanton targeting of racialized bodies, is really hard to rationalize, synthesize, or present. In fact, the truth about the map presented by the New York Times is that it inevitably cannot include the thousands of murders, motivated by racialized hatred, that were undocumented. Furthermore, it is terribly difficult to explain the reason why so many more people were murdered in Louisiana, Kentucky, and Arkansas. There are explanations, but the issue is that even in the face of these explanations, of the perpetrators’ motives, the violence remains inexplicable. Violence, especially outside the context of war, challenges our ability to simplify and even quantify.

My second thought after staring at the data for a few more minutes was that it would be really interesting to do this sort of work. In many ways, it would be the perfect combination of my interests in the processes of racialization, and my love for computer science and mathematics. In other words, it would be an attempt to calculate the incalculable horror that racialized bodies have experienced in the United States.

At this point, it occurred to me that the morbid nature of the data being visualized was somehow lost in the act of visualization. In other words, unlike in film or photography, charts and graphs do not display the horror of lynching. They do not elicit the same level of shock or disgust as a photo of a man hanging from a tree, while onlookers laugh at the strange fruit. Graphs and maps sanitize the putrid nature of the violence done to bodies. They create an easily digestable piece of media, that allow for the very sort of comparison that I was doing between states. Photos, in contrast, overwhelm the viewer with horror, and emotional outrage.

A useful question arises from this: what is the fruitfulness of data on morbidity. In many ways, this sort of data (accounting for homicides, rapes, lynching, etc) gesture toward an accounting of horror. Although an exercise in futility, because of the lack of accuracy, the exercise is a strangely useful one, precisely because it forces us to deal with the scale of violence. In addition, it allows us to begin the assess and examine the causes of violence, although we are still grasping at the air.

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