In 1900 the world’s fair was held in Paris. Like world’s fairs before it, the 1900 Paris Exposition celebrated technological innovation within the context of a world built of nations, projecting an air of unbridled optimism through a conviction of relentless progress. The monumental date and the location—the storied cosmopolitan capital of the world—amplified this spirit immensely.
Present there was “The Exhibit of American Negroes,” which was mounted by Black bibliographer Daniel Murray, African American lawyer Thomas Calloway, and W. E. B. Du Bois, who was in charge of two studies therein that were made with the help of his graduate students at Atlanta University. Each of these studies comprised 1) studio and candid photographs of Black American subjects and life, and 2) handmade data portraits of statistics derived from publicly available surveys and reports. In his essay contribution for W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2018), Aldon Morris states, “the exhibit enabled Du Bois to attack white racist beliefs on a grand stage unavailable in the academy.” “The Exhibit of American Negroes” won numerous top awards, including a Gran Prix award for the entire exhibit and a gold medal for Du Bois.
In his only essay about the exhibit, “The American Negro at Paris,” Du Bois states what he thinks made the exhibit exemplary. “Any one who takes his sociology from theoretical treatises,” he starts, “would be rather disappointed at the [Paris Exposition]; for there is little here of the ‘science of society.’ ” “The Exhibit of American Negroes,” however, is “an exhibit which, more than most others in the building, is sociological in the larger sense of the term—that is, is an attempt to give, in as systematic and compact a form as possible, the history and present condition of a large group of human beings.”
We shouldn’t take Du Bois’s words at face value, Rebecka Rutledge Fisher proves with her persuasive article about Du Bois’s 1900 Paris Exposition exhibit. Fisher reads the exhibit with Du Bois’s contemporary essay “Sociological Hesitant,” which explores the supreme doubt he was having with the field of sociology, as it was taught to him. In short, the discipline operated at too rarified a level, driven by ideas and concepts that divorced its sense of “society” all too resolutely from history. “Du Bois’s exhibit,” Fisher puts it, “is both historical document and revisionist sociological practice,” proving, subsequently, that the historical documentation was the means by which Du Bois revised the scientific field.
The exhibit and “Sociological Hesitant” are contemporaneous with the writing of The Souls of Black Folk too. The tension that Fisher locates at the center of both “Sociological Hesitant” and the 1900 Paris Exposition exhibit also motivates the backwoods church scene that I read in this issue’s “To Our Reader,” where we see Du Bois the sociologist hesitant upon his contact (“race contact” is the phrase he uses to define the topic of his life’s work) with Black vernacular culture. One thing we can see from all this is that history as a topic and discipline for Black studies requires aesthetic imagination, especially at the turn into the twentieth century. But this is not a complete disavowal of scientific inquiry. According to Cedric Robinson, the magisterial power of Black Reconstruction in America (1935), which crystallizes Du Bois’s radical historiography at its best, is due in large part to a return to science after giving himself over to unbridled fancy in his previous major book, John Brown (1909). About Black Reconstruction, Robinson intones: “The ideology of the Black struggle, the revolutionary consciousness of the slaves, had appeared to [Du Bois’s] Westernized eyes, part legend, part whimsy, part art. Yet he realized it had been sufficient to arouse them into mass resistance and had provided them with a vision of the world they preferred. Their collective action had achieved the force of a historical antilogic to racism, slavery, and capitalism.”
Underlying this is the sense that Du Bois joined the struggle by producing work inspired by the revolutionary consciousness he encountered through research and life, understood through discursive study and imaginative daring. As the scientific genre par excellence, the data portrait provides us a thrilling means to see this work. Charts and graphs are meant to give us a demographic picture of a population in its most rarified form, as statistics. But the shapes, turns, blocks, and spikes here make the process of looking for quantifiable facts difficult, if not impossible. The irreducible, material strangeness that Fred Moten hears in Du Bois’s music, which I mention in “To Our Reader,” is here too in its lines and colors, endowing these charts with the ability to access truth greater than any number simply has.
Inspired by the participatory work that the best of Du Bois evokes, we asked folks to riff off these data portraits. Luckily we have responses from both a sociologist and poets. We have also reprinted three passages from The Souls of Black Folk that felt especially relevant.
Images appear courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Works are ink and watercolor, mounted on 28˝ × 22˝ board (image on page 355 also includes photographic prints).
GEORGIA IN LINE AND COLOR: W. E. B. DU BOIS’S DATA PORTRAITS
Introduction by Gerald Maa
Using 120-Year-Old Tools to Document Black Life in Georgia by Janeria Easley
From “Of the Sons of Master and Man” by W. E. B. Du Bois
selections from “The Exhibit of American Negroes” for the 1900 Paris Exposition by W. E. B. Du Bois
spell to trace a rainbow to its apogee by Keith S. Wilson
From “Of the Black Belt” by W. E. B. Du Bois
THE AXIS OF DISPOSSESSION, fig 2. By Vanessa Angélica Villarreal
The After-Thought by W. E. B. Du Bois