W.E.B. Du Bois’ Visual Lessons About the Black Experience in Academic, Professional and Everyday Life

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W.E.B. Du Bois, Negro business men in the United States, c. 1900, ink and watercolor on board. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

Infographics are aesthetic visual representations of data, which present quantitative and qualitative information in a concise and accessible manner. Infographics have the potential to impact our social, emotional and cognitive development by artfully arranging graphic imagery in a format that enables us to come up with connections, notice patterns and make astute observations about sociocultural and environmental issues. While infographics have become increasingly popular in today’s digital age, they have been an effective way of expressing information throughout civilization (see: Thompson, 2016). You have likely heard the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” which is why infographics are a good resource for delivering ideas, knowledge and data that can be expeditiously understood by large and diverse audiences.

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Photograph of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black America installation at the Paris Exposition/World’s Fair of 1900. Courtesy of UMass Amherst Libraries’ Department of Special Collections and University Archives

At the turn of the 20th century, sociologist and civil rights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois, enlisted the help of his students at Atlanta University, to create a series of infographics representing the trials and tribulations of Black individuals during the years following the emancipation of enslaved African Americans through the present era. The project was a major contribution to the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, where it was displayed at the Palace of Social Economy and Congress. Du Bois’ information graphics were conceived thematically with extensively researched topics related to “the history of the American Negro,” “his present condition,” “his education” and “his literature.” He depicted his field research via intricately rendered ink wash and watercolor paintings combining the language of art with sociological perspectives (see: Robertson, 1987). In addition to the paintings, Du Bois exhibited ephemera and photographs that related to the aforementioned subject matter.

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W.E.B. Du Bois, [The Georgia Negro] Assessed value of household and kitchen furniture owned by Georgia Negroes, c. 1900, ink and wash on board. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print
Du Bois was ahead of his time in many regards. From an aesthetic standpoint, his semi-abstract compositions utilize a geometric and lyrical sensibility that predates modernist abstraction by several years (Hilma af Klint and Wassily Kandinsky are considered the pioneers of abstract painting in Western art. Klint’s 1906 paintings are recognized as being the first examples of the genre). Du Bois’ compositions from 1900, blend the elements of art and principles of design with a conceptual framework that visualizes the ways that society influences the attitudes, behaviors and opportunities afforded to Black individuals and communities in the United States of America. His mastery in mixing media (i.e. juxtaposing photography and painting) anticipated postmodern methodologies of utilizing archives, field research and ephemeral documentation in works of art.

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W.E.B. Du Bois, [The Georgia Negro] Assessed valuation of of all taxable property owned by Georgia Negroes, c.1900, ink and watercolor on board. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print
The integration of aesthetics and sociology helps make research and data more appealing by transforming contextual information into a visual narrative that can be observed, analyzed and valued on both emotional and cognitive levels. We are able to assign feelings and build empathy in response to the quantitative and qualitative information due to the elements of art and design at play in these compositions. The use of color, shape, line, balance and scale heightens our awareness to details by drawing our eyes and minds to poignant statistics about race and how it affects the day-to-day experiences of Black Americans.

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W.E.B. Du Bois, Religion of American Negroes, c.1900, ink and watercolor on board. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

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W.E.B. Du Bois, [African American men, women and children outside of church], c.1899-1900, gelatin silver print, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c03393
While statistical data is an efficient way for scientists, historians and policy makers to organize and keep track of content specific knowledge, it is not always the best method for developing enduring understandings about the human condition. We learn through a combination of observation, action, socialization and the connections we make between ourselves and the world around us. Using visual imagery to express our humanity in a decipherable manner enables us to see and feel things that might otherwise be foreign to our own backgrounds. This is especially important when dealing with systemic issues like racism and inequity, which are both implicitly and explicitly prevalent throughout our collective culture. W.E.B. Du Bois’ visual graphics make concise and clear statements about Black lives, which prompts us to reflect and assess how we see and discuss race in both academic, professional and everyday terms.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Bridgers, Jeff. “Du Bois’s American Negro Exhibit for the 1900 Paris Exposition.” Library of Congress Blogs: Picture This, 28 February 2014. https://blogs.loc.gov/picturethis/2014/02/du-boiss-american-negro-exhibit-for-the-1900-paris-exposition/

Du Bois, W.E.B. (2016). The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Publications, Incorporated; Unabridged edition.

Du Bois, W.E.B., et al (2019). Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition. London: Redstone Press.

Du Bois, W.E.B., et al (2018). W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Popova, Maria. “W.E.B. Du Bois’s Little-Known, Arresting Modernist Data Visualizations of Black Life for the World’s Fair of 1900.” Brainpickings, 9 October 2017. https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/10/09/w-e-b-du-bois-diagrams/

Robertson, Ian (1987). Sociology. 3rd Edition. New York: Worth Publishers.

Smiciklas, Mark (2012). The Power of Infographics: Using Pictures to Communicate and Connect with Your Audiences. Indianapolis: Que Publishing.

Thompson, Clive. “The Surprising History of the Infographic.” Smithsonian Magazine, July 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/surprising-history-infographic-180959563/

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