Books

How W.E.B. Du Bois Meticulously Visualized 20th-Century Black America

The Pan-African scholar’s data visualizations about Black American progress after Emancipation have been compiled, for the first time, as a book.

“Proportion of freemen and slaves among American Negroes.” (all images courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press unless otherwise noted)

W.E.B. Du Bois is best known for his sharp, sociological imagination and groundbreaking book of racial philosophy, The Souls of Black Folk. But the writer, historian, and Pan-African civil rights activist also had a remarkable visual mind. Among his many talents, Du Bois was a designer and curator of Black culture, the most explicit example being his data portraits, which vibrantly visualized the complexities of racial segregation, which Du Bois iconically dubbed “the color line.”

The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, has reverberated through academic and public discourse for over a century for its astute and abiding racial analysis. But prior to the publication of this landmark text, Du Bois visualized his notion of double consciousness in modernist data portraits at the Paris Exposition in 1900. The infographics were a part of the Exhibit of American Negroes, which Du Bois called “an honest straightforward exhibit of a small nation of people, picturing their life and development without apology or gloss, and above all made by themselves.”

“Occupations of Negroes and Whites in Georgia.”

With these infographics, Du Bois colorfully visualized Black America, which he called a “nation within a nation,” depicting the notable progress made by Black Americans in spite of centuries of global anti-Blackness, chattel slavery, and Jim Crow — oppressive, institutionalized structures strengthened by the social Darwinist paradigms that dominated mainstream science of the day and rippled throughout the Paris Exposition’s sociological showcases.

Du Bois’s infographics on Black education, employment, literacy, population, and more came to life through his collaboration with researchers from HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) including Tuskegee, Howard, and Hampton. Du Bois, along with a team of students and alumni from Atlanta University (now Clark University), executed meticulous empirical research and used statistics from the US census and US Bureau of Labor reports to create graphs and charts picturing the skyrocketing progress of Black Americans post-Emancipation.

The Exhibit of American Negroes was the antithesis to nearly everything the Paris Exposition stood for, with Du Bois’s infographics identifying statistics of Black property ownership, population growth, employment rates, mortality, education, and other metrics of social uplift. His precisely designed graphs show the rapid plummet of enslaved individuals just after 1860, when the percentage of freemen jumps from a mere 11% to 100%. A gorgeous spiral shows the drastic increase in value attributed to the home and kitchen furniture owned by Black Georgians, a clear sign of self-actualized economic gains. In another, a map of the world charts the distribution of Black people across the Atlantic from Africa, forcibly dispersed along the American coasts, mainly in the US South and Brazil.

“Assessed value of household and kitchen furniture owned by Georgia Negroes.”

“Herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, — all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, — who is good? not that men are ignorant, — what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.” ― W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

For the first time, all of the data portraits have been compiled into a book published by Princeton Architectural Press, W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America, edited by Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert, including essays by Aldon Morris, Mabel O. Wilson, and Silas Munro. The book commemorates the 150th anniversary of Du Bois’s birth and annotates his now 119-year-old, but still strikingly relevant infographics as timely sociological renderings and art objects. As Battle-Baptiste and Rusert point out, his graphs not only helped to “communicate data,” they were “also generating new patterns and knowledge through the act of visualization itself.”

“Du Bois was aware that while unmoving prose and dry presentations of charts and graphs might catch attention from specialists, this approach would not garner notice beyond narrow circles of academics,” Aldon Morris writes in the essay “American Negro at Paris, 1900.” “Such social science was useless to the liberation of oppressed peoples. Breaking from tradition, Du Bois was among the first great American public intellectuals whose reach extended beyond the academy to the masses.”

“The states of the United States according to their Negro population.”

Du Bois categorized the data portraits into two different studies: “The Georgia Negro: A Social Study,” and “A Series of Statistical Charts Illustrating the Condition of the Descendants of Former African Slaves Now in Residence in the United States of America.” The latter, Battle-Baptiste and Rusert explain, mapped employment, education, population, and literacy statistics that drew sociological parallels between the diverse pockets of Black populations spread across the United States since slavery. “The Georgia Negro” took a closer look at the southern state, where Du Bois launched a sociology program at Atlanta University. At the turn of the 20th century, Georgia had the largest Black population in the US, as well as aggressive Black Codes intended to suppress Black economic freedom.

“The Georgia Negro.”

Regardless of their obstacles, post-Emancipation African Americans made strides toward social equity with little help from the American government — whose policies, including the 1896 Supreme Court ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson, were resiliently invested in the fallacy of “separate but equal.”

“The South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent. Nevertheless, men strive to know.” ― W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois’s data proved, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Black Americans had excelled at a level on par with groups of persecuted Europeans — direct combat to the principles inherent to social Darwinism’s white supremacy.

“These were bold black nationalist sentiments,” Mabel O. Wilson explains, “that black Americans could contemplate their past, present, and future connected with an emergent Pan-African solidarity.” In her essay “The Cartography of WEB Du Bois’s Color Line,” Wilson continues, “The black consciousness of a people who understood themselves in a particular time and place strongly refute the notion that the African had no history, no civilization, and hence no culture.” The exhibit fastidiously recorded “black self-determination” across the diaspora, for an international audience.

“Slaves and free Negroes.”

Aside from the infographics’ valiant intent to bring a degree of justice to Black Americans, they are also visionary examples of aesthetic communication. They recall Modernist artists working with geometric abstraction, including Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Kazimir Malevich. Du Bois was working in the vein of the most widely recognized Modernists of the day, with his radical infographics predating the geometric, educational ambitions of the Bauhaus movement, which was founded in 1919.

The infographics have inspired a wave of 21st-century artists and data analysts still grappling with the centuries-old conundrums of Black autonomy and oppression. In February 2017, data journalist Mona Chalabi recreated these charts to reflect modern statistics in The Guardian, mapping present population, literacy, and wealth relating to race.

Installation view of Theaster Gates But To Be A Poor Race at Regen Projects (photo by Brian Forrest, © Theaster Gates, courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles)
Installation view of Theaster Gates But To Be A Poor Race at Regen Projects (photo by Brian Forrest, © Theaster Gates, courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles)

“To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.” ― W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Theaster Gates, the Chicago-born artist who visualizes social theory through installation, sculpture, and urban planning, says he came across the data portraits while studying the life of Du Bois in 2011. He subsequently repurposed the images for a series of symbolic paintings reconfiguring the infographics, which first went on display in the Du Bois-inspired exhibition But To Be A Poor Race at Regen Projects in Los Angeles.

“The data work has a formal aesthetic sensibility that pre-dates our notions of a certain kind of modernism or the European Avant garde. This formalism and sense of visual language was fresh for its time and remains bold and cool in its precision of visual information,” Gates explained to me in an email.Because few people pay attention to the aesthetics of statistics in the art world and fewer and fewer know the stories of Black Sociology and Black society, the drawings seemed ripe for redeployment.” 

Theaster Gates, "Ex Slaves, Slaves" (2017), latex and acrylic on aluminum panel, 72 x 49 in
Theaster Gates, “Ex Slaves, Slaves” (2017), latex and acrylic on aluminum panel, 72 x 49 in (photo by Brian Forrest, all images © Theaster Gates, courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles)

“He was attempting to make the truth of Black progress clear to a white world,” Gates contended. “I imagine that Du Bois was actually as much an artist as he was a researcher and champion of the Black cause […] Du Bois allowed numbers and color to make the case and the case he’s made for Black Progress is of the earliest irrevocable signs that resilience is in the genes.”

“City and Rural Population. 1890.”

“The exhibition violated white thoughts about black people,” Aldon Morris asserts in his essay, “especially Americans only three decades removed from slavery.”

Du Bois pushed forward Black visibility with his extraordinary dedication to what he called “the development of Negro thought.” He knew without question the academic, professional, and emotional capacity of the African diaspora, or the Black Atlantic World, separated by oceans and resiliently prospering in spite of centuries of calculated oppression.

“Conjugal condition of American Negroes according to age periods.”

The infographics were originally digitized and made available by the Library of Congress. (Civil rights activist Daniel Murray, the former Assistant Librarian of Congress, was vital to the Exhibit of American Negroes’s development.) You can also see the 553 documentary photographs that Du Bois originally displayed alongside the data infographics on the Library of Congress website.

W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America, edited by Whitney Battle-Baptiste and Britt Rusert, is now out from Princeton Architectural Press.

“Illiteracy.”
“Pauperism among American Negroes.”
“Relative Negro population of the states of the United States.”
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